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The Dickinson System

The brainchild of Illinois economics professor Frank Dickinson, the Dickinson System was a primitive mathematical formula created to select a "national champion," which it did for each season from 1926 through 1940. At Knute Rockne's request, Dickinson also retroactively rated teams for the 1924 and 1925 seasons so as to crown Rockne's '24 Notre Dame team the system's first "national champion." The system thus gained Rockne's endorsement.

In addition to that crucial endorsement, it got nationwide publicity thanks to its sponsor, Chicago clothing manufacturer Jack Rissman, the namesake of its annual "Rissman Trophy." This became the "Knute Rockne Intercollegiate Memorial Trophy" after the revered Notre Dame coach's death.

I address math-based systems in general (now known as computer ratings) and their "national champions" in a separate review. To sum it up, I do not consider the winning of any math formula's top spot for a given season to constitute a national championship. This is not a controversial position, because for the most part no one else does either.

But I am reviewing Dickinson separately here only because, unfortunately, some people actually do view this system as an authoritative selector for national champions, and the authoritative selector for the years it was active before the AP poll, 1924-1935. Naturally, people counting up historical national championships would like to count ones that took place before the AP poll started. Especially schools looking for more banners to put up.

Dickinson may seem like a good source for pre-AP poll champions at first glance, because the system was contemporary, well-known and well-publicized at the time (being basically a marketing campaign for Rissman), and it handed out an actual trophy at the end. However, contrary to what you might read about Dickinson today, if you read football magazines and articles from the time, you will find that winning the Rissman (or Rockne) Trophy was not considered by most writers to be equivalent to winning a "national championship."

And that is because some of the system's "winners" were flat-out ridiculous, and considered so at the time.

Southern Cal 1928

Speaking of which, in 1928, 9-0-1 Southern Cal won the Rissman Trophy over 11-0 Georgia Tech. Nevertheless, outside of California sources or the Rissman Trophy press releases, everything I have read from contemporary writers assumes 11-0 Georgia Tech, rather than Southern Cal, to be either a national champion or the nation's best team. In fact, had there been an AP Poll in 1928, Georgia Tech would have certainly won it by a landslide, possibly unanimously.

Georgia Tech won the Rose Bowl that year over California, and California is the team that tied USC. Georgia Tech is a nearly unanimous selection as national champion by organizations listed in the NCAA Records Book. Only Dickinson selects Southern Cal.

Quickly Extinct

The AP poll started in 1936, and hit the Dickinson System like that theoretical giant asteroid hit the dinosaurs. The system died four years later, only 14 years after it had begun. This happened partly because the Dickinson System became an afterthought publicity-wise in comparison. But it was also because the AP poll further reinforced how ridiculous some of Dickinson's so-called champions were.

In 1938, the national championship debate centered on 11-0 Texas Christian (AP #1) and 11-0 Tennessee (AP #2). The Dickinson System alone begged to differ, selecting 8-1 Notre Dame (AP #5). In 1939, 11-0 Texas A&M was and is a near-unanimous selection as national champion, but the Dickinson System alone preferred 8-0-2 Southern Cal.

The fact is, if the Dickinson System was so great, it would still be used today. And we would have a lot more so-called "national champions" from the last 70-odd years since its extinction.

A National Championship 65 Years in the Making

On July 26, 2004, 65 years after the fact, the Southern Cal athletic department announced its then-tenth (as they count them) "national championship" in college football: that 1939 Dickinson System title when they were 8-0-2 and Texas A&M won the AP poll at 11-0. Oh, the fanfare and parades that must have followed the announcement that summer!

The press release, still on the school's website, states that "for some undetermined reason, USC never acknowledged 1939 among its national titleists... until now." But I would think that the reason is easily determined. Surely the school didn't acknowledge it because they had at least an ounce of dignity and shame.

But people don't cling to such old-fashioned notions as dignity and shame anymore, and anyway, the fans always like to see another banner go up in the ol' stadium.

Comparing the Dickinson System to Other MNC Selectors

At the end of each of my national championship articles, which I am writing for each season 1901-present, I give a grade for each national championship selection made by the MNC selectors listed in the NCAA Records Book. The grades run on a scale from 0 to 5. Using their grade point averages, I can compare Dickinson to all the other selectors of the same time period. For this purpose, I am only using the seasons the Dickinson system selected in common with each selector it is compared to. The Dickinson system selected champions for the seasons 1924-1940.

Dickinson vs. Human Selectors

College Football Researchers Association: 4.67     Dickinson: 3.35     1924-1940
Helms Athletic Foundation:                             4.26     Dickinson: 3.35     1924-1940

National Championship Foundation:             4.48     Dickinson: 3.35     1924-1940
Parke Davis:                                                     2.60     Dickinson: 3.68   1924-1933
AP Poll:                                                             4.84     Dickinson: 3.00     1936-1940

As you can see, Dickinson beat out one human selector, Parke Davis, who is easily the worst human MNC selector of all time (listed in the NCAA Records Book, at least).

Dickinson vs. Other Math Formulas

Sagarin:                       3.21     Dickinson: 3.35   1924-1940
Sagarin ELO-Chess: 4.09     
Dickinson: 3.35     1924-1940
Boand:                         4.69    
Dickinson: 3.35     1924-1940
Billingsley:                   4.38    
Dickinson: 3.35     1924-1940
Houlgate:                     4.02    
Dickinson: 3.35     1924-1940
Poling:                          4.37     Dickinson: 3.35     1924-1940
Dunkel:                         3.49     Dickinson: 3.69   1929-1940
Williamson:                  2.84     Dickinson: 3.43   1931-1940
Litkenhous:                  4.50     Dickinson: 2.87     1934-1940
DeVold:                        5.00     Dickinson: 2.50     1939-1940
Berryman:                    5.00     Dickinson: 5.00          1940

Dickinson's system beat out 3 other systems, Sagarin's original recipe, Dunkel, and Williamson. Williamson is probably the worst MNC selector of all time.

Conclusion

In the end, the Dickinson System is only a math formula, just like many others that existed both then (such as Houlgate and Williamson) and now (such as Sagarin and Massey). None of the others is considered to constitute a "national champion," and neither should Dickinson. Indeed, Dickinson is, if anything, weaker than most of the others. Not only was its formula more primitive, but Dickinson also did not count bowl games, and that combination renders it worthless.

The College Football Data Warehouse does not recognize Dickinson as a legitimate national championship selector, and I congratulate them on that.

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