Last week without much fanfare the University of Kentucky won a national championship in football.
Despite the improbability of a Wildcat team, which has gone 4-36 in the SEC in its past five years, suddenly notching a title, most didn’t notice when the university unveiled a shiny new national title trophy as the centerpiece of their new football facility.
It was a huge deal for a basketball school to at long last notch a national championship in football too.
The catch? The “national title” happened back in 1950 when the Wildcats finished 7th in the country, behind, among other teams, a University of Tennessee team that beat them head-to-head.
So how did Kentucky end up with a national title despite the fact that no one considered them national champions in 1950?
Kentucky’s “national title” claim comes from a 1990 decision by Jeff Sagarin that the Wildcats, who beat the #1 team in the country, Oklahoma, in a bowl game, deserved the title based on his research into the season. Back then, you see, national titles were awarded prior to bowl games — which were largely seen as post-season exhibition games.
So forty years after the season ended Sagarin, a math geek, decided Kentucky was the champs, despite the fact that they lost to Tennessee, who finished the season ranked above them.
And last week, the Wildcats officially unveiled their brand new national title.
Now the national title picture can be a total mess if you go back and look at all the different entitities awarding national titles in the early years of college football. We think of the split titles between Nebraska and Michigan in 1997 or USC and LSU in 2003 as big messes, but college football was such a state of perpetual shambles in olden days that from 1919 to 1923, at least four teams claimed national titles, and in 1921 there were six national title teams.
Many of these titles were of dubious distinction.
If we applied modern day standards of selecting champions to 1950, then it’s undoubted that Tennessee, which beat Kentucky head-to-head and was the only top five team to win its bowl game, defeating number two Texas, would have been the unanimous national champion.
But instead half the polls gave the title to Oklahoma and half gave the title to Tennessee.
Until, that is, the Wildcats decided to build themselves a shiny new national title trophy 66 years after the season ended and make it their football centerpiece. Again, based on a decision in 1990, forty years after the season was played.
It’s pretty ludicrous.
But not as ludicrous as what Alabama has done.
The Crimson Tide brag that they have 16 national titles — for the record the SEC gives them credit for just 11 in its most recent media guide — and emblazon the number 16 on everything, their helmets, their tshirts, their banners, their programs, basically if you can make a product with a number on it, Alabama has put a 16 on it.
But how many of these titles are actually legit? And how many made up national titles do SEC schools claim?
The answer, it turns out, is a bunch. Here are all the national titles awarded to SEC schools in football. Many of these titles are noncontroversial. But some of them are downright absurd. In fact, if everyone is claiming crazy titles then LSU, Vanderbilt, Florida, Georgia, Auburn and Tennessee are getting left behind because they have unclaimed “national titles.”
So after Kentucky’s recent “national title” — which is the second most illegitimate claimed by any team in the conference — I decided to go hunting in the SEC annals to answer this question, which claimed “national championship” is the most illegitimate in the SEC?
And the answer, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is Alabama’s 1941 title, which was added to the Crimson Tide media guide, along with five other titles, in the mid 1980’s.
“In the mid-1980s during the Ray Perkins era, then-Alabama sports information director Wayne Atcheson added five pre-Bear Bryant national titles to the Crimson Tide’s media guide: 1925, 1926, 1930, 1934 and 1941. Alabama’s 1982 media guide, the last season for Bryant, listed 1934 as the only pre-Bryant national championship, thanks to a footnote of Alabama’s SEC history. In the year-by-year results in the 1982 media guide, only Bryant’s six national titles were listed. Once Atcheson made the changes, Alabama claimed 11 national titles.
“I want to say the right thing here,” Atcheson explained to (Jon Solomon) in 2010 for an article in The Birmingham News. “I made the change because Coach Bryant had these 25 years and six national championships and they were emphasized so much. It was on all the stationery. And when I got there, it was a matter of seeing there were five others (before Bryant) and we should put them all together. It was as simple as that.
“I tried to make Alabama football look the best it could look and just make it as great as it could possibly be. I was a competitor myself with the other schools, and what they bragged about and boasted about, I wanted people to know the best about my school.”
You can read about all of the claimed titles and assess them for yourself at the above link, but the most absurd of all these national championships, without question, is the 1941 “title”, when Alabama finished ranked 20th in the nation, behind FOUR OTHER SEC SCHOOLS in the final AP poll. (Georgia finshed that season ranked 14, Mississippi State was 16, Ole Miss was 17, Tennessee was 18 and Alabama was 20th.)
So how did Bama end up with the “title?”
Wayne Atcheson, their sports information director, just gave it to them nearly fifty years after the season ended because a random LA stat guy said Bama was the best team that year.
And no one even blinked.
If you make something up and stick to the lie, eventually people even accept it as the truth and start bragging about it.
In 1941 Alabama lost 14-0 at home to Mississippi State and was held scoreless by Vanderbilt in a 7-0 defeat.
So how did Bama’s superfan, who with five national titles claimed for Bama, has one more Crimson Tide title than Nick Saban, defend the 1941 inclusion.
He argued that the Mississippi State loss came in the rain and the Vandy loss was close.
Roll Tide, y’all.
And congrats to Kentucky on its title.