How can some sportswriters still insist on rating Army over Notre Dame — in view of the November 9th skirmish?" —Notre Dame student magazine, December 1946.
"Incidentally, we were not awarded the national championship in 1946 … It was voted to Notre Dame. This always seemed rather strange to me, particularly in view of the fact that we were still undefeated." —Army coach Earl "Red" Blaik.
"Neurosis is the inability to tolerate ambiguity." —Sigmund Freud
In the newsreel footage, there are grainy images of men in shiny helmets scrambling up and down a football field to a stirring horn accompaniment. There are cheerleaders in sweaters bowed down on one knee, bellowing sis-boom-bah chants through elephantine megaphones, and there are fans in overcoats and fedoras crowded up to the edge of the playing field like extras in a George Cukor film. There is Mr. Inside, and there is Mr. Outside, and there are two others in Notre Dame uniforms1 who would also win John Heisman's namesake trophy, along with several more who would eventually land a place in college football's hall of fame. There is everything in those nine minutes of grainy footage you might imagine would accompany the first great postwar college football game in America, except for one thing:
There are no points.
No field goals, despite both teams being in clear field goal range, despite Notre Dame facing a fourth-and-short inside the Army 5-yard line: They chose to go for it, and failed. No touchdowns, even after Army's Doc Blanchard broke into the open field and had what seemed like a clear path to the end zone: He was taken down on a textbook tackle by Notre Dame's Johnny Lujack. There are no safeties. There are no dropkicks. Saturday afternoon at Yankee Stadium, 74,000 people on hand for what was already being called "The Game of the Century," five-dollar tickets being scalped for 200 dollars and up, the bookies raking it in, a space reserved for the result on the front page of the New York Times, and how does it end?
Notre Dame 0, Army 0.
There is no better example of the power of college football to stake everything and resolve nothing than the dreary and pointless exercise in conservative play2 that took place on November 9, 1946. And there is no better example of college football's capricious sense of valuation that, a month later, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, with a record of eight wins, no losses, and one tie, were chosen by the voters of the Associated Press as the no. 1-ranked team in the country.
And the Army Black Knights, the two-time defending national champions, with a record of nine wins, no losses, and one tie, were ranked second.
There have been other "Games of the Century" since Army and Notre Dame so emphatically defied the hype: at least seven more in the latter half of the 20th century, and two more in the 21st, not to mention the dozens more that morphed into Games of the Century after the fact rather than through the Barnumesque pregame hoopla fueled by newspapers and wire services and television networks and college marketing departments. In fact, no sport has repeatedly co-opted the term "Game of the Century" like college football.3 It's not even close. The reason for this is obvious: In other major American sports, there is a championship game (or series, or playoff bracket), and that championship game (or series, or playoff bracket) is already considered, by default, the potential Game of the Century. There is a Super Bowl. There is a World Series. There is an NCAA tournament and an NBA Finals — a word that signifies a clear-cut ending. The hype is built into the postseason system.
But this is not true in college football.
This is not true in college football because for nearly all of its existence, it has sought to separate itself from virtually every other major American sport. This is not true in college football because the sport has clung to the incongruous notion of marrying amateurism with big business, and in order to preserve this conception, and satisfy their business interests, the powers that be have shied away from any sort of definitive postseason format. It makes sense: To admit that there should be an unambiguous no. 1 would be to admit that the concept of who's no. 1 matters in the first place, which would defy the rickety foundation upon which the sport was built.
And so there is no weirder and more contentious historical annex than that of college football. There are all sorts of schools who profess to have won all sorts of national championships to which they have only specious claims;4 on top of that, virtually all of the "Games of the Century" have taken place during the regular season rather than the bowl season. Two of them ended in ties, at least one of them because a coach deliberately eyed the polling landscape and made a choice to let things rest (we'll visit that next time). For all that hype, for all those tickets sold above resale value, for all those television eyes … at the end of the season, when it came to determining who the national champion might be, the majority of college football's "greatest games" have actually served to resolve nothing at all.
I've been thinking about this a lot lately, now that we're approaching the end of what might someday be termed the "pre-playoff era." This upcoming season will be the last to embrace the system known as the Bowl Championship Series — an invention so flawed and corruptible that even Ari Fleischer could not rescue it from oblivion — and while I realize a leap to a four-team playoff could still generate controversy with its selection process, it should be definitive enough that college football's perpetual argument will come to mean less than it ever has before.
I am, of course, completely happy about this. I am so happy about it that I still cannot believe it is actually going to occur: I still keep thinking the playoff will somehow be vetoed into obsolescence on a Jim Delany procedural-driven Hail Mary in the final minute.
And yet, as thrilled as I am, I keep thinking about the past. And I keep wondering what might be lost. I've thought of myself, at age 9, devising my own mathematical ranking system for the sole purpose of finding a way to rank a two-loss Penn State team ahead of undefeated Clemson in 1981. I've thought about myself, at age 22, writing petulant columns for my college newspaper about the hypothetical outcomes of a Penn State–Nebraska national championship that would never be played in 1994. I've thought about all the time I've spent arguing and complaining about who should be no. 1, and how it should be determined, and I've thought about how much I've actually enjoyed the arguing and complaining.
Set aside the absurdities and there is something fascinating about a game so unremittingly cruel, presided over by hard and unforgiving men determined to win at all costs, ceding its central championship question to the public.5 Before the Internet permitted us to have a public opinion on everything, there was college football to satiate our need for circular argument: All we had to guide us were polls of arbitrary methodology, devised by men who were supposed to provide resolution but instead wound up perpetuating The Argument.
And that, I suppose, is what this series is about: It is about The Argument. It will trace the history of The Argument, and celebrate the growth of The Argument, and dissect the varied contours of The Argument from one season (and one big game) to the next, and speculate on the fate of The Argument in a modern world that demands resolution. Because while I have always believed a playoff is necessary, and while I believe a playoff only strengthens the case for radical reform of the NCAA, every so often I have a pang of nostalgia. And I wonder if, by tracing The Argument from its origins, we might lament its demise, even as we celebrate it.
So we should start in the 1920s, because before then there wasn't really much of anything. And maybe, in retrospect, this was the happiest time for college football, since it trafficked mostly in blissful ignorance. (In 1923, nine teams went undefeated and untied, and at least four could have made a legitimate claim toward a national title, if only they had the means back then.) "Nobody argued about it, preoccupied as most people were with striking for an eight-hour workday," Dan Jenkins wrote in his book Saturday's America. "Nobody even cared. You told a friend that your school was no. 1 in those days and all he said was, 'Listen, that's great. But excuse me, I've got to go invent the airplane.'"
The question wasn't even a question until we made it one: Up until then, this was a regional pastime, invented on a muddy New Jersey pitch, imported southward and westward, delineated into conferences whose members clawed over trophies shaped like water jugs and cutting implements and bronzed swine. And, with the exception of a few rogue magazine writers declaring "mythical national champions," this was enough.
This was enough because no one conceived of anything more, because professional sports and television had not shaped us into creatures in need of concrete resolution. This was enough because America seemingly had more important concerns, like jazz and women's suffrage and large-scale bribery. Which brings us to a classroom at the University of Illinois, and to an economics instructor named Frank G. Dickinson, who had, as a hobby, developed a mathematical system to rate all of the college football teams in America.
Dickinson's system was crude and unrefined: It afforded a team more points for a win over a "first-division" squad — which, if I may get technical for a second, referred to a team that won more games than it lost — and it split points for ties, and it sometimes produced results that seem retrospectively stupid. But Dickinson spoke about his system on campus one day, and the Daily Illini reported on this speech, and this caught the eye of a Chicago clothier named Jack Rissman, who wished to sponsor a trophy delivered to the champion of what was then the Big Nine conference, in those bygone days when the Big Ten actually lacked a surfeit of member institutions.
And hereupon we stumble across the first deliberate corruption of The Argument: Hearing about Dickinson's system, Knute Rockne invites the professor and the clothier to South Bend and asks if perhaps they might consider making their trophy a national trophy, so that Notre Dame could be eligible to win it. And while you're at it, Rockne says, how about you predate the system by four years or so, and make the 1924 Irish with the "Four Horsemen" the first official national champions?
Frank Dickinson obliged.6 The Four Horsemen were retroactively elevated into myth. His ratings — which, like most, did not consider postseason games — became the first of the gospels, and he was joined by a host of imitators and pretenders to the throne. There was Deke Houlgate — whose system, Jenkins wrote, "so far as anyone could tell, was his personal opinion"7 — and there was a man named William F. Boand, who sought to combine the best aspects of the Dickinson system with those of a couple other university professors into something called the Azzi Ratem system. There was Dick Dunkel and his power index, and Paul Williamson and his power ratings, and Frank Litkenhous and his "difference-by-score" system. There was Parke H. Davis, the football historian, who, in the mid-1930s, chose the national champion for every season to date based largely on his own whims. And then, finally, along came the Associated Press, led by sports editor Alan Gould.
In 1936, the first year of the Associated Press poll, there were at least 16 different national championship surveys: Seven (including the AP) chose Minnesota (even though the Gophers lost to Northwestern), five chose Pittsburgh (even though the Panthers lost to Duquesne and tied Fordham), one chose Duke (which lost to Tennessee), one picked LSU (which tied Texas and lost to Santa Clara), and one picked Alabama (which tied Tennessee). (The 16th pollster, Grantland Rice, chose Yale, which lost to Dartmouth but had a coach named Ducky Pond, and we all know we all know the eponym of this website couldn't resist a good nickname.)
"It was a case of thinking up ideas to develop interest and controversy," Gould said years later, explaining the origin of the AP poll. "Papers wanted material to fill space between games. That's all I had in mind, something to keep the pot boiling. Sports then was living off controversy, opinion, whatever. This was just another exercise in hoopla."
Dickinson ceased his polling in 1940. Soon enough, the Associated Press poll, born out of hype and based on nothing more than intuition and whimsy, became the standings of record.
This was the case in 1946, when Army and Notre Dame slogged to that 0-0 tie. The Black Knights had been ranked at the top of the AP poll nearly the entire season; the Black Knights had defeated Notre Dame by a combined score of 107-0 the previous two years, when many of Notre Dame's best players were at war overseas and Army's best players were in officer training school at West Point. The Black Knights were the two-time defending national champions; the Black Knights had perhaps the best backfield tandem of all time, but a single stumble, in a single game, in the final week of the season, against an archrival, would cost them everything.
This, of course, is the problem with public opinion polls: They tend to be swayed by the sentiment of the moment rather than take in the whole picture. And so Army goes and plays a 1-7 Navy team, and it squeaks out a 21-18 victory with Navy stopped at the 5-yard line at the end of the game;8 and Notre Dame beats a three-loss USC team, 26-6, and this is enough to give it the national championship.
"I mean, you're trying to perceive what was in the mind of a voter 70 years ago," says college football pollster and historian Richard Billingsley. "Notre Dame was the underdog [against Army], so I guess that's why the AP voters ranked them no. 1."
Billingsley, using his own calculations, has given Army a slight edge, based on strength of schedule: The week between the Notre Dame game and the Navy game, Army thrashed no. 5 Penn, 34-7. It also beat no. 4 Michigan, and no. 11 Columbia, and no. 13 Duke, while Notre Dame's two best wins were over no. 17 Iowa and no. 16 Southern Cal. Should Army's two previous national championships have counted for anything? Should Notre Dame be credited merely for stalemating a team that had won the last 26 games it played? How do you weigh all of this data fairly and effectively?
There is no answer here. There is only The Argument. It is hard to think of a great game that solved nothing quite like Army and Notre Dame in 1946: "Anyone looking for a fight can rank Army ahead of Notre Dame this morning," wrote Allison Danzig of the New York Times, two days after the game, "or vice versa." The only way to settle it would have been a rematch, but if there even had been a rematch, the AP wouldn't have counted it, because the AP didn't take postseason games into account until the mid-'60s.
"The greater the ambiguity," wrote author Milan Kundera, "the greater the pleasure." I don't think Kundera is a college football fan — though he'd probably appreciate Bobby Petrino — but I hear that quote and I wonder if the reason I was so drawn to college football in the first place was because of these conundrums: because it has, for so long, trafficked in an almost literary sense of ambiguity. It will be virtually impossible for the fifth-ranked team left out of a four-team playoff to somehow lay claim to no. 1, but in the pre-playoff era, anything was possible, if you willed it to be so: According to a note in Army's own football media guide, they did win the national championship in 1946.
Next: Notre Dame, Michigan State, Alabama, and the great controversy of 1966.