above is the biggest game of the 1901 season, Harvard-Yale,
as published that year in Harper's Weekly. The caption tells you all you
need to know about who was considered national champion at the time:
WINS THE INTERCOLLEGIATE CHAMPIONSSHIP." Indeed, had there been an AP
poll in 1901, Harvard would have been #1 by a landslide.
However, organizations choosing national champions decades later beg to
differ. Here is how the "major selectors" listed in the NCAA
Records Book, all selecting long after the fact, see the 1901 college football national
championship (omitting math/computer ratings, which neither I nor
anyone else recognize as constituting titles):
You can click on the selector to read my review of that person or
I will not be seriously addressing Parke Davis' alleged selection
of Yale, except to say this: 12-0 Harvard defeated 11-1-1 Yale 22-0.
Until about ten years ago, when Billingsley's math formula tabbed
Harvard #1, the NCAA Records Book did not even list Harvard as being
selected as a champion by anyone at all for 1901. And the College Football
Data Warehouse does not list them as a national champion for 1901. Which is all pretty strange when you think about it.
if, 100 years from now, virtually everyone considered Utah to be the
national champion of 2004, rather than Southern Cal. Not to mention Utah 2008, Boise State 2006 & 2009, etc.
The question is, who is right? The Eastern-biased "experts" of 1901, who
had no doubt that 12-0 Harvard was the best? Or the "experts" of many decades
after the fact, who prefer 11-0 Michigan so much that they do not even see
Harvard as sharing the title? Or are they both only half-right, and
Michigan and Harvard should be considered co-champions?
seasons, there are no certain answers to such questions.
For this 1901 season, however, there is an easy and unequivocal answer. Peruse the
details of the 1901 season below with me, and you too shall have no
doubt as to who the rightful national champions of 1901 are.
All rankings in the following article, except as noted, come from my 1901 top 25, which is based on a hypothetical AP poll (within logical reason of course).
new young coach, Bill Reid, had just graduated the previous Spring. When
Harvard defeated Yale at the end of the season to cap a perfect 12-0
campaign, he became the first person to have beaten Yale as both a
player and coach. He would return in 1905 as Harvard's first salaried
coach, going 18-3-1 over two seasons, but he saw them as complete
failures because of a pair of losses to Yale. Reid is best remembered
now as being instrumental in saving college football when it was in
danger of being banned following the 1905 season due to a rash
of player deaths.
Harvard had a
seriously silly eight consensus
All Americans in 1901, all but 3 of their starters (Michigan, by
contrast, had only one All American, but the selectors were
Easterners). The best of them were fullback Thomas Graydon, tackle
Oliver Cutts, and end Dave Campbell. I once saw Graydon listed by Sports Illustrated
as one of the three best players of the decade 1900-'09 (Michigan's
Willie Heston, introduced in the Michigan section below, was another),
but I don't know what they were basing that on.
Oliver Cutts was a 28 year-old law school student, having previously
played for 3 years as an undergraduate at Bates. This sort of thing was
common back then:
Michigan star Willie Heston, for example, played 3 years for San Jose
State, then 4 years for Michigan.
Cutts was Harvard's best lineman, and in fact a New York Times article
from a decade later refers to him as one of the greatest linemen to
have ever played the game.
But the only Hall of Famer on the team was Dave Campbell. A three-time consensus All American, Campbell was
Harvard's captain and best defensive player. Harvard went 32-1-1 in his
three years as starter, with the loss and tie coming to Yale in the two
previous seasons. In what proved to be the play of 1901 for
Harvard, Campbell improvised a lateral play to beat 5-1-2 Army (#5) 6-0 late
in the game.
That was the only game in which Harvard was threatened. Their other big
wins came in their last two games, 27-12 over 10-1 Dartmouth (#9) and
22-0 over 11-1-1 Yale (#4). Yale, of course, was the biggest win of all. It was
only the 10th time Yale had lost since the scoring system was
introduced in 1883. They were 208-10-8 between then and the end of the
1901 season. Harvard outscored their opponents in 1901 by a total of 254-24.
But if you think those numbers are impressive, wait until you see
was legendary Fielding "Hurry Up" Yost's first year as coach at
Michigan. He was 165-29-10 in 25 seasons at Michigan, is credited with
as many as 6 national championships, and won 10 conference titles (it
would have been more had Michigan not withdrawn from the league for
about a decade). Overall he was 198-35-12 at 5 schools, good for 7th
place in all-time FBS coaching win percentage. It should be noted,
however, that the NCAA has him at 196-36-12, putting him "officially"
in 9th place in their record book, but I and most researchers believe
the NCAA to be wrong here-- for the details on the 2 games in question,
see the "AfterAfterword" section at the end of this article.
In any case, the heart of Yost's career was his first 5 years at Michigan, 1901-1905. These
were known as the "point-a-minute" teams, outscoring opponents by an
eye-popping 550-0 in 1901, and 2821-42 from 1901 to 1905.
Latter-day organizations give Michigan a national championship for each
of his first four years here, 1901-1904, and the school claims all
four. Michigan went 55-0-1 during this time before they lost the last
game of the 1905 season, and that is the second-longest unbeaten streak
in major college football history.
Yost came to Michigan from
Stanford, where he was let go because of a new rule that the coach had
to be a Stanford graduate. But he had also been an assistant coach at
San Jose State while he was coaching at Stanford, which was important
because he took San Jose State's star halfback, Willie Heston, with him
to Michigan. Heston thus played 3 years at San Jose State, then another
4 years at Michigan 1901-1904. But again, that sort of thing was common
in those days.
Jim Thorpe and Red Grange are generally considered the best players of
college football before World War II, Willie Heston has some impressive
supporters. In 1925, when Grange was being proclaimed by nearly the
entire football world as the best ever, Fielding Yost begged to differ,
saying that Heston was the best player to that point. Yost being his
former coach, his testimonial may not mean much, but Pop Warner (who
coached Thorpe) and Knute Rockne reportedly agreed with him.
Wikipedia article on Heston claims that Walter Camp and Grantland Rice
proclaimed Heston to be the best player they ever saw, but I do not
recall having seen evidence of this myself. While it is possible that
Rice saw Heston play, it seems unlikely (being a young postgraduate
living in the South at the time). It seems even less likely that Camp saw him play. However, I have no doubt that both
touted his greatness at one time or another, whether they actually saw him play or not.
Like Red Grange,
Willie Heston ran a 10 second 100 yard dash. He scored 20 touchdowns
in 1901, and amassed 72 touchdowns 1901-'04,
still the school record. He would later be named a consensus All
American in 1903 and 1904, the first player outside the East to be
named more than once. He is one of two Hall of Famers on this team.
The Rest of the Team
other Hall of Famer on the team, and Michigan's only consensus All
American in 1901, was fullback Neil Snow. He scored 5 touchdowns in the
inaugural Rose Bowl following the 1901 season, good for 25 points
(touchdowns being worth 5 points at that time), both still Rose Bowl
records. He was considered the star of the team that year.
Boss Weeks called the plays (coaches never did at that time), halfback
Everett Sweeley was a good kicker, and tackle Hugh White was the team
captain. The other tackle, Bruce Shorts, was Michigan's best
lineman, even though he was allegedly playing through the 1901 season with appendicitis.
Did I say there were
two Hall of Famers on this team? Technically, there was actually a
third. Nine Michigan players from the point-a-minute teams 1901-'05
would go on to coach football teams, most for just a year or two. One
of them, however, went on to become a Hall of Fame coach:
guard Dan McGugin. He went to Vanderbilt in 1904 and immediately turned
them into the best team in the South, finishing with a record of
197-55-19 over 30 years.
route to outscoring their opponents 550-0, Michigan scored a high of 128
on Buffalo, and in their significant wins they defeated 8-2-1
Northwestern (#14) 29-0, 6-3 Indiana (#26-27) 33-0, and 6-3 Iowa (#20) 50-0.The
closest anyone got to them was 5-3-1 Ohio State, who fell 21-0, but
8-6-2 Chicago and 5-7-1 Carlisle were close to that, each losing 22-0.
the regular season, 8000 to 8500 spectators watched Michigan best 3-2-2
Stanford in the first ever Rose Bowl 49-0, and it would have been worse
had the game not been mercifully ended 8 minutes early. Neil Snow was
the game MVP with his 5 touchdowns on 107 yards. Willie Heston added
170 yards on 18 carries, but no touchdowns. Albert Herrnstein, usually
an end but playing halfback in the Rose Bowl, contributed 97 yards and
a touchdown. Stanford lost 9 fumbles, and Michigan outgained them 527
to 67 yards. The game was such a mismatch that the next Tournament of
Roses football game was not held for 14 years. Pictured at left is the
team in the Tournament of Roses parade. The game is pictured below.
merciless. He ran a hurry-up offense, and in fact got his nickname,
Hurry Up Yost, due to the way he continually shouted "Hurry Up!"
between plays during both practice and games. Quarterback Boss Weeks
often called out the next play while still in the pile after a tackle,
and the team hustled to the line to snap the ball as soon as possible
after each play.
Yost expected maximum effort and maximum speed
regardless of score. Once, while Michigan was on the way to pummeling
his alma mater West Virginia 130-0 in 1904, Yost ran onto the field
after a West Virginia first down to scold his players for allowing
it to happen, and exhort them to play harder.
Harvard vs. Michigan in 1901
at the profiles of the teams above, it is easy to see why latter-day
organizations consider Michigan to be the national champion of 1901.
They had an all-time great coach (Yost) and player (Heston), outscored
opponents 550-0 compared to Harvard's 254-24, played in the first Rose
Bowl, and Michigan went on to become one of the greatest football
programs of all time, whereas Harvard was done as a power by the
mid-1920s. So Michigan has by far the greater name value for people
today looking back at 1901.
But why did people in 1901 consider
Harvard the best? As I implied earlier, for the same reason that people
in 2004 believed that Southern Cal was the national champion of 2004
and not Utah. The same reason people in 2009 universally agree that
Alabama is the national champion of 2009 and not Boise State. The
Western Conference, as the Big Ten was called, was seen in 1901 the way
the Western Athletic Conference is seen today.
significant wins for each team in 1901. The
rankings come from my 1901 top 25, which is based on a hypothetical AP poll (within logical reason of course). Click on the links in the table headers to see Harvard or
Michigan's full schedule at the College Football Data Warehouse.
defeated the rest of their opponents by an average of 22-0, Michigan by
an average of 55-0. Both teams did actually play a common opponent,
5-7-1 Carlisle. Harvard beat them 29-0 and Michigan beat them 22-0.
One of the most prominent football writers of the time, Caspar Whitney, ranks the relevant teams like this:
Harvard #1, Yale #2, Michigan #3, Army #5, Columbia #11, Penn #12,
Dartmouth #14, Williams #15, Northwestern #16, and Iowa #19. He has
another Michigan opponent, Chicago, at #18, but at 8-6-2 and with a
loss to a high school and ties with 5-3-3 Beloit and 4-4-1 Purdue, it
is unlikely that anyone else would have ranked them.
actually think Whitney was adept at rating teams, and don't endorse his
top 20. I merely bring it up to demonstrate the prevailing feeling of
The main point, as
you can clearly see above, is that there is no comparison between the schedule Harvard
faced and the schedule Michigan faced. Harvard dealt three schools
their only loss: 5-1-2 Army, 10-1 Dartmouth, and 11-1-1 Yale. Army's two ties came against 9-1-1 Princeton and Yale. Yale defeated Princeton.
Harvard met Yale at season's end, it was considered to be for the
national championship, and if there had been an AP poll in 1901, Yale
might well have finished #2. That is because they were considered to
be the top program in college football. They were the national champion
of the previous season, and as stated before, they were 208-10-8 from
1883 to 1901
with at least 9 national championships.
would be interesting
to see where, exactly, modern day organizations that single out
Michigan for 1901, without even mentioning Harvard, would rank Army, Dartmouth, Yale, and Northwestern
(who was tied by 5-3-3 Beloit) in a top 25 for 1901. I don't believe
they stopped to think about it at all, because any way you slice it,
Harvard played 3 top 10 teams, Michigan none.
But with so few intersectional games in 1901, perhaps the real issue here is
the presumed superiority of the East. Was the East really so much better than the West?
Michigan vs. the East
short answer is yes, the East really was so much better than the West.
In the ten years prior to 1901, Michigan was 1-7 against Eastern teams,
the lone win coming against a 6-4-1 Cornell team. Overall, Michigan was
1-16 against the East before 1901. The rest of the Big Ten actually
fared a bit better, going 2-7-1 against the East.
had good reason to assume that the East was better in 1901. "But," you
say, "Fielding Yost arrived at Michigan in 1901. They were not the same
team that lost to all those Eastern teams in the 1890s." Good point.
Yost, hungry to prove his team's might to Eastern writers and teams,
began to schedule major Eastern teams in 1906. Over the next three seasons,
Michigan went 0-4 against Eastern teams, and those were the only losses
Michigan suffered those years. Michigan played 30 Eastern teams
1906-1918, and went 12-15-3 against them.
"But," you say, "That was after Michigan's
1901-1905 point-a-minute teams, which went 55-1-1 and were nearly
unbeatable. Michigan was not as good after 1905." Perhaps so. But
here's the problem with that idea: while
Michigan was going 12-15-3 against Eastern teams 1906-1918, they went
57-4-4 against everyone else on their schedule (omitting one tie
in a game against Michigan alumni). Now, 57-4-4 is worse than 55-1-1,
but it isn't much worse. In fact, I would say that it is intriguingly close.
Would their 12-15-3 record against major Eastern teams also be only a bit better had they played them 1901-1905?
Here is more food for thought:
there were seven seasons 1906-1918 when Michigan's only losses came to
Eastern opponents. So if Michigan had not played major Eastern teams
during that time, and had just stuck to their regional schedule with
maybe a couple of minor Eastern teams thrown in, like they did
1901-1905, they might be claiming seven more "national" championships 1906-'18!
In any case, this much is clear: Michigan's schedule was far weaker
than Harvard's in 1901. The only argument Michigan has left is those
big numbers they ran up on opponents. 550-0 is awful convincing looking back from today.
Running Up the Score
course, how seriously are we supposed to take the fact that Michigan
chose to run up the score on opponents long after games were decided,
and Harvard did not? This was not an issue of ability, it was an issue
of sportsmanship. None of the following Eastern powers ever scored 100 points in a game after 1900: Harvard,
Yale, Princeton, Penn, Pittsburgh, Army, and Dartmouth. But they
are all named as national champions at least once 1901-1927, and the
group totaled 27 national championship selections in that time.
dozens of teams outside the East scored 100 points in a game, teams
from every level and region of football, from Montana to Arizona to
Baylor to Southern Miss to Wabash.
was not the first team to score as high as 550 points, nor the first
to score or win by an average of at least 50 points per game, nor the
first to go unbeaten,
untied, and unscored upon. All of those things had been done before,
and would be done again many times in the next few decades.
example, Minnesota scored 656 one year and 725 another during
Michigan's point-a-minute years. Tulsa averaged more than 1901 Michigan's 50
per game at least three times just before and after WWI. Yet none of those Minnesota and
Tulsa teams, all unbeaten, are considered national champions.
Big Scoring Teams That Flopped
History has shown again and again that you cannot look at something
like Michigan's 50-0 average score over lesser teams in a lesser
conference/region and say, "Wow, Harvard and Yale wouldn't have had a
chance against them."
Georgia Tech under John Heisman is a
perfect example. They scored the record of 222 on a team in 1916. In
1917, they went 9-0 and won by an average score of 54.6 to 1.9.
Pittsburgh was 10-0 that year, but did not win their games by
nearly as much, and there was a lot of debate about which team was the
best. Both had played 9-2 Penn, with Georgia Tech beating them 41-0 and
Pitt only winning 14-6, so most people presumed Georgia Tech to be the
best. Today they are the unanimous choice as national champion for 1917.
in 1918, Georgia Tech appeared to be even better, winning six games by
an average score of 77-0 (which blows away Michigan 1901). This time,
however, they met Pitt to settle the debate. And Pitt,
though they again paled scoring-wise compared to Georgia Tech, won the
am not saying that this proves that Harvard would have beaten Michigan
in 1901, or even that Pitt would have beaten Georgia Tech in 1917.What it proves is that a team could run up the score on their own region and still lose (badly) to the best team in the East. In other words, it proves that Michigan's 550-0 is practically irrelevant as an argument for a national championship.
Georgia Tech 1918 is just one example. If you've seen enough on this
issue, skip the following bulleted list and move on to the conclusion.
But if you want more examples, here comes a random assortment for you:
1920 Georgia Tech dominated their own region 8-0 (average score 38.6 to
0.8), but again lost to Pitt. The next year they were again 8-0 against
their own region plus 4-5 Rutgers (average 44.1 to 3.5), but lost to
Penn State. The next year they were 7-0 against their region, but lost
to Navy and Notre Dame. That makes a total of four more national
championships Georgia Tech could be claiming 1918-'22 had they not
played Eastern powers or Notre Dame!
Colorado 1905 was 8-0 against Rocky Mountain teams (44.9 to 1.3), but lost to Nebraska 18-0.
Rice 1916 beat SMU 146-3, but still lost to Texas 16-2 and finished third in the SWC.
1906 dominated their own region 9-0, but lost to Vanderbilt 45-0. In
1913 they were 7-0 in their region, but lost to Notre Dame 30-7. The
next season, they only played teams in their region, went 8-0, and one
computer system has them #1 for that season. But the season after that
they played Notre Dame again and lost again, 36-7.
scored 107 and 140 in two games in 1916, then played real teams and
finished 6-5. They scored 179 and 99 in two games in 1917, yet finished
6-4-1-- and were shut out 3 times and held to 14 or less 7 times! They
scored 157 in 1919, then went 4-2-3 in the rest of their games.
coached by 1901 Michigan guard Dan McGugin, had many years when they
dominated the South, but were tripped up by Michigan or a power team
from the East. In 1904 they only played their region, going 9-0 by a
total score of 474-4. The next year was more of the same, except that
they also played Michigan and lost 18-0. Three times Michigan gave
Vanderbilt their only loss, and another year Vandy finished 8-0-1 when
Michigan tied them. In 1910 they were 8-0-1, and did not play Michigan,
but were tied by 6-2-2 Yale. In 1912 they again did not play Michigan,
but took their only loss against Harvard.
Harvard vs. Michigan Conclusion
So let's recap.
Harvard played in a much stronger region. And even if you go ahead and
wrongly assume that the West was as good as the East, Harvard played 3
top ten teams, and Michigan played none. Because Michigan's best
opponent, Northwestern, would still not make a top ten. Michigan had a
losing record against Eastern teams both before and after this
time. And Michigan's 550-0 proves little to nothing, as history has demonstrated.
What argument does Michigan have left?
arguments, such as their name value today, the greater fame of their
coach and players that results from that, and the fact that they
stomped a bad Stanford team in the Rose Bowl, a game that was
irrelevant (outside California and perhaps Michigan) at that time. It
all gives new meaning to the phrase "History is written by the
It is true that we can never know whether or not
Michigan would have beaten Harvard had the two teams played, but you
could say the same thing about North Dakota State, who was 7-0 in 1901.
More pertinently, you could say the same thing about Utah and Southern
Cal in 2004.
Maybe you think, "Yeah, but Utah did not outscore
their opponents 550-0 in 2004." True, but no one does that anymore.
From 1901 to 1930, many teams averaged a higher score differential than
that. But in 2004 Utah actually did accomplish something that almost no
one does anymore. They are one of only two teams in the last 30 years
that defeated every opponent by more than a touchdown (Nebraska '95
being the other). So relative to their time, they were perhaps even
more impressive than Michigan 1901.
At this point there can be
no doubt that Harvard can claim a national championship for 1901. The
only question is whether or not Michigan should be considered a
co-champion. And I would say this:
If you consider Utah 2004 and Boise State 2009 to be national
champions, then yes, you could consider Michigan to be one in 1901
also. If not, then you don't have any reason to consider Michigan to be
co-champion in 1901.
In the end, the main thing is that Harvard
defeated the other top teams in their own region (Yale, Army,
Dartmouth), which also happened to be the best region. If Michigan had
at least played and beaten the other top teams in their own region,
then I would give them the benefit of the doubt and consider them
co-champion for 1901. But Michigan did not even play the other two top
teams in their own conference: 9-1-1 Minnesota and 9-0 Wisconsin.
And 9-0 Wisconsin, the 1901 Big Ten co-champion, brings up another issue...
The forgotten team. No national championship mention. No consensus All Americans. No Hall of Famers. Well, maybe one, kind of...
coach, Phil King, is in the Hall of Fame as a player, as he had been an
All American quarterback at Princeton in the 1890s, once scoring 11
touchdowns in a single game. When he arrived at Wisconsin in 1896, he
turned them into the dominant team in the Big Ten. In his first six
years, King's teams won 3 Big Ten titles, and had a winning record
against every Big Ten team they played, including Michigan. They were
52-6-1 in that time, with two of those losses coming to Eastern powers
and a third coming to Wisconsin alumni.
1901 was by far his best team, and possibly Wisconsin's best ever. They
were never threatened in 9 games and outscored their opponents 316-5.
It may not be 550-0, but then, Phil King did not strive to run up
scores against already-beaten opponents. What matters is that, like
Michigan, no one came close to them.
Also like Michigan, a
number of Wisconsin players went on to coach other teams. Two of them
became notable coaches. One was halfback/end Eddie Cochems, who scored 3
touchdowns in a 35-0 win over Chicago this season, including a 100 yard kickoff
return (although I have also seen a source credit this touchdown to end Bill Juneau).
Cochems is best remembered now as the coach of the first team
to throw a forward pass: St. Louis, on September 5, 1906. He was
also the first coach to base his offense on the forward pass, and it
was very successful. St. Louis went 11-0 in 1906 and outscored
opponents 407-11, leading the nation in scoring.
end Bill Juneau also found success as a coach, going 80-36-11
at five schools, including 7-0 at Wisconsin in 1912 and 9-0 at Texas in
1918. He may or may not have scored the 100 yard kickoff return
touchdown against Chicago in 1901 that is generally credited to
Cochems, but he did kick a field goal and five extra points in that
game. And 5 for 5 on extra points was a rare success in those days.
Wisconsin-Minnesota game was expected to be the game
of the year in the Big Ten, as both had been powerful the year before,
when 10-0-2 Minnesota won the conference title with a 6-5 victory over
Wisconsin, and both teams were returning most of their starters. Coming
into their 1901 game, 7-0-1 Minnesota had shut out all 8 of their
opponents, and 7-0 Wisconsin had shut out all but one of theirs. But
despite the build-up, that 1901 game turned out to be a dud, with
Wisconsin winning handily 18-0, all points scored in the first half.
Team captain and tackle Arthur Curtis, who would later become a
department head at Northwestern's medical school, scored 2 touchdowns.
Minnesota finished 9-1-1, and I have them ranked #8 for 1901.
Still, as expected, the winner of that game won the Big Ten. But no one expected what Yost did at Michigan to share the title.
Michigan vs. Wisconsin in 1901
So this was the debate amongst Midwestern writers at the time:Michigan vs. Wisconsin. Michigan scored more, albeit to an irrelevant
degree, since Wisconsin was never threatened either. Michigan played
more winning teams and decent-to-good teams. But the best team Michigan
played was 8-2-1 Northwestern (#14), whereas Wisconsin actually played a team
that could have been ranked in the top ten that year: 9-1-1 Minnesota (#8).
defeated Northwestern 16-0, beat another three potentially rated
opponents (7-2 Nebraska, 6-3 Iowa, and 8-2 Illinois) by a similar
score, and shut out every opponent they faced except Wisconsin, who,
again, beat Minnesota 18-0.Wisconsin's schedule was thin, with only two potential top 25 opponents (#19 Nebraska being the other one; Wisconsin also beat them 18-0), but that one win against Minnesota is something Michigan's resume cannot match: a victory over a top-notch opponent.
and Wisconsin played two common opponents. Michigan beat Beloit 89-0,
and Wisconsin beat them 40-0. Michigan beat Chicago 22-0, and Wisconsin
beat them 35-0. You'll notice that Michigan scored more against one and
Wisconsin scored more against the other. Not that it matters, as none
of those games were competitive.
one can know what would have happened had the teams played, but here
are some facts that cast doubt on anyone merely assuming that Michigan
would have won. Although Michigan went 55-1-1 1901-1905, rolling up all
those huge scores, they only went 1-1-1 against the other best team in
their conference: a win over
14-1 Chicago in 1902, a tie with 14-0-1 Minnesota in 1903, and a loss
to 11-0 Chicago in 1905. In addition to Wisconsin in 1901, they did not
play 13-0 Minnesota in 1904. That 1-1-1 record indicates a 50% chance
of beating Wisconsin in 1901.
the two teams did
play the next year. And even though Michigan returned almost their
entire team, and performed even better than they did in 1901
(outscoring a tougher schedule 644-12), and Wisconsin graduated much of
their team, and declined to being a good 6-3 team, Michigan only won
game 6-0. That does not bode well for their chances in 1901.
The Contemporary View
Ralph Hoagland, perhaps the leading writer on Midwestern football at the time, had this to say about Wisconsin:
"...the 1901 eleven may be recorded as the best to have represented
Wisconsin; it ranks with the foremost teams the West has seen."
Hoagland, like Wisconsin coach Phil King, played his football at
Princeton, so there may have been some bias there. But he had much
praise to heap on Michigan that season too. And his all-conference team
had an equal 4 players from both Wisconsin and Michigan.
sounds like these two teams' accomplishments end up being about equal,
that is because they were. Which makes it strange to me-- very
strange-- that 100 years later, Michigan is considered the national
champion for 1901, and no one seems to know a single thing about
Wisconsin. The people who actually watched these teams play in 1901
would be baffled by it.
Because of that win against Minnesota, I
think Wisconsin has more of an argument for sharing a title with
Harvard than Michigan does. But the main point is, if you consider
Michigan to be a co-champion with Harvard in 1901 (and thus also
believe that Utah 2004 and Boise State 2009 are national co-champions),
then I just don't see how you can fail to also include Wisconsin as a
third national champion in 1901.
Anyway, it's time to hand out the trophies...
1901 #1: 12-0 Harvard Contenders: 11-0 Michigan and 9-0 Wisconsin
are the awards I will be handing out for each season, except seasons
when there are no contenders. For this purpose, what I mean by a
contender is a team that I think is very close to being worthy of
sharing the national championship. A team that you could make an
argument for, even if that argument is weak. But they are
teams that I myself do not see as national champions.
case, as I have said already, I think that to recognize Michigan in
1901, you must also recognize Wisconsin in the same year, Utah in 2004,
and Boise State in 2009. It all depends on how stringent your
definition of a "national champion" is. I think it is good to have ties
for the national championship in the many seasons where it is merited,
but if you have too many ties, the term "national championship" becomes
even more hollow than it already it is. It disappears.
A third category is also possible:
a "national co-champion" who is not #1, but who has done just enough to be
considered a co-champion with the #1 team. For example, if Wisconsin
had beaten a couple more top 25 caliber teams, and especially if one of
them was at least a mid-level Eastern opponent, such as 9-3 Lafayette
or 7-2 Syracuse, I would then consider Wisconsin to be a national
champion, but not #1. As for Michigan, they needed to play at least one
top 10 caliber opponent.
And if Wisconsin and Michigan had
played each other (I once read that they considered a game after the
season, but could not agree on a time and place), the winner would
definitely be national co-champion, and in fact almost certainly share
the #1 spot with Harvard. A win against the other is the crucial
missing ingredient for both Wisconsin and Michigan.
Grading the Selectors
will also be grading the NCAA Records Book's selectors for each season,
and keeping a grade point average, so we can see who is relatively good
at selecting national champions and who is not. And although I do not
consider computer ratings to be legitimate national championship
selectors, I will go ahead and include them in this section as well,
just for comparison's sake. I will be grading on a scale of 0 to 5, with 5 being the best.
Billingsley's system is the only selector that listed Harvard at all. Grade: 5
Helms, Houlgate (another math system), and the National Championship Foundation all selected Michigan. Grade: 1.1
Parke Davis selected Yale, or at least is listed as having done so. Grade: 0
a side note, I have seen another four computer ratings for 1901 not
listed in the NCAA Records Book, and two of them had Harvard at #1, one
had Wisconsin, and one had Michigan.
As for Helms and the NCF
picking Michigan (alone), it really makes me wonder what kind of
research these organizations put into their selections. Did they even
look at Harvard? It really is a lot like some organization 100 years
from now ignoring 2009 Alabama in favor of Boise State. And did they look
I get the feeling they didn't. My hunch is that they saw
the name MICHIGAN at 11-0, the name YOST, the opponent STANFORD in the
ROSE BOWL, the total score 550-0, and never bothered to look at the
details or at any other team.
Afterword: History As Written by the Victors
From Wikipedia about Michigan in 1901: "Michigan finished the season 11-0 and was considered the national champion."
have never read a single source from 1901 who considered Michigan to be
the national champion, whereas I have seen many 1901 sources refer to
Harvard as such. The above quote should be edited as follows: "Michigan finished the season 11-0, and forty years later the Helms Foundation selected them as 1901 national champion."
From Encyclopedia.com: "Michigan in 1901 and 1902 managed to take the national championship away from the Ivy League."
Michigan did not manage to do so until 40 years after the fact. And
this quote makes it sound like they actually beat Harvard in 1901 and
Yale in 1902. But actually, Michigan "managed to take the national
championship away from the Ivy League" not on the field of play, but
via erasure and revision.
Perhaps 100 years hence, an
encyclopedia will state that Boise State finally captured the national
championship away from the SEC in 2009. And none of us will be around
AfterAfterword: History as Written by the NCAA
I stated in the article, the NCAA has Michigan coach Fielding Yost at
196-36-12 for his career, while most researchers have him at 198-35-12.
The difference comes down to 2 games. The first is a game he coached at
San Jose State at the end of the 1900 season. The NCAA does not
consider him to have been the official coach for that game, but he was the head coach
in every sense of the word, and San Jose State lists him as such in
their media guide/record book (he was the last of 3 head coaches there
that season). SJ State won that game, leaving Yost 1-0 as coach at San
Jose State, and that gives him 1 more win than the NCAA recognizes.
second game in contention is a match between Nebraska and William Jewel
while Yost was coach at Nebraska in 1898. The NCAA has Nebraska at 7-4
that season, with a loss to William Jewel, while everyone else has
Nebraska at 8-3, with a win over William Jewel. And by everyone else, I
mean the Nebraska media guide/record book, wikipedia, the College
Football Data Warehouse, James Howell's all-time scores website, and
every researcher I have seen discuss the matter at all.
Me, I'm going with 198-35-12. But either way, Fielding Yost was without doubt one of the greatest football coaches of all time.