When Southern California takes the field tomorrow night against Virginia Tech in the Black Coaches Association Football Classic at FedEx Field, it will begin defense of its co-national championship.
The Trojans defeated Michigan in the Rose Bowl and finished atop the Associated Press poll to claim their ninth national title. And now USC boasts 10, at least by its own rationale.
Without playing a down, the Trojans won another championship. Athletic director Mike Garrett said last month the Trojans were claiming the 1939 title, even though Texas A&M was ranked No.1 by the Associated Press.
“It was brought to our attention by various individuals that we should be claiming the 1939 Trojans among our national champions in football,” Garrett said. “We took this matter seriously, did significant research and determined this to be true. That 1939 team was one of the greatest in our history.”
This claim to a national championship illustrates that determining a No.1 team was just as difficult 65 years ago as it is today. The much-maligned Bowl Championship Series results in controversies, but selecting a champion was a far murkier proposition in 1939.
That year there were 13 polls, and USC wasn’t on top of most of them. Texas A&M was No.1 in 10 and, until USC’s unilateral declaration, the team generally was acknowledged as champions.
Texas A&M went 11-0 that year and barely beat No.5 Tulane 14-13 in the Sugar Bowl, while USC was 8-0-2. The Trojans shut out six teams and allowed only 33 points but tied Oregon and No.9 UCLA. Cornell (8-0) was atop a few polls.
“From our standpoint, we feel very comfortable with the 1939 national championship,” said Alan Cannon, associate athletic director at Texas A&M. “There were a number of polls that named us national champions, and when you have an accredited organization like Associated Press [which began its championship ratings in 1936] call you the national champion, it is something you can hang your hat on.”
USC, however, is basing its claim on one of the most respected of college football’s early ranking systems: the Dickinson Poll, created by University of Illinois economics professor Frank Dickinson, that ranked teams from 1926 to 1940.
“Dickinson was recognized as a legitimate national championship selector,” said Tim Tessalone, USC sports communication director. “Our 1928 team, which we had always recognized as the national champions, was the recipient of the Dickinson No.1 selection. We talked to people and did our research and came to the conclusion that, for whatever reason, the 1939 championship team had fallen through the cracks here. We wanted to rectify a wrong.”
One of the leaders in the movement to recognize the 1939 USC squad as national champions was 87-year-old Ambrose Schindler, a quarterback on that team, which will be honored by the school during an Oct.16 home game against Arizona State. Schindler said the 1939 team was listed among USC’s national football champions for many years, but when the school posted banners of national champions in the early 1960s, 1939 was not among those flying at the Los Angeles Coliseum.
“We were not asking for a new championship,” Schindler said. “This is just a re-instituted championship that was taken away. The school acknowledged we were national champions back then. In our yearbook we were referred to as national champions across the top of the photo. Somewhere along the line, in the next 20 years or so, we were eliminated by the school as national champions.
“We didn’t realize it until they started putting up banners denoting championship teams, and our team was not there. We complained about it, but no one would listen, so we started collecting materials, and presented the case to Mike Garrett, who saw the value of our claim.”
The 1939 championship claim by USC is far from clear-cut among current pollsters. Richard Billingsley, who directs one of the computer ranking systems used in the BCS calculations, has run the 1939 season through his system. Based on his formula, Texas A&M finished just ahead of USC 298-296. But Billingsley said he doesn’t have a problem with USC laying claim for a piece of the title that season.
“They were very close,” he said. “USC beat Tennessee in the Rose Bowl pretty convincingly [14-0, breaking the Volunteers’ 23-game win streak], and Tennessee was ranked No.1 going into the game.”
But Kenneth Massey, who runs the Massey Ratings, questioned the validity of USC’s claim.
“I’m quite surprised,” he said. “Dickinson is an archaic system by today’s standards, and none of the retro ratings I’ve consulted had USC No.1. Besides, they had two blemishes, the two ties, on their record, whereas Texas A&M was perfect. Today’s BCS system probably would have matched USC and Texas A&M in the championship game, but with Texas A&M the clear No.1.”
There is nothing to stop USC from claiming the 1939 national championship, though, because back then — as now — there was no declared NCAA champion in football, nor was there a playoff system.
“This has nothing to do with other teams,” Tessalone said. “There is no one determining body to pick a champion, so it is really up to the individual schools. This whole thing is what makes college football so much fun.”