Babb Bits: What Parity?
Jim Tressel
Jim Tressel

Posted Jul 2, 2006


Some would say there is more parity than ever in college football. But how much of a chance to compete to the smaller programs really have? Charles Babb crunches the numbers and gives his answer in the latest version of Babb Bits.

With all the talk in recent years about parity in college football, perhaps it is time to examine this commonly accepted belief.

Back in the days of Bear Bryant, Woody Hayes, and Darryl Royal, the lower tier programs had about as much chance to win a national title as a bearded lady winning Miss America.  The largest schools stockpiled athletes; even their scout team could handily defeat most of their opponents.  This led to nicknames like the ‘Big Two and Little Eight’ or ‘Big Two and Little Six” in the Big Ten and Big Eight conferences respectively.  It also led to such ridiculous (but true) stories such as the time Bryant promised Paul Hornung he would give a full scholarship to every senior on his high school football team if he would commit to Alabama over Notre Dame. 

Enter television.  What network wanted to televise a blowout? 

Enter college presidents and administrators.  Those at elite schools noted the number of talented young men sitting on their benches without a chance to play.  Presidents of lesser schools recognized they had little chance at success and worked to level the playing field.

Enter Title IX and the NCAA.  In order to balance the male and female scholarship ratios, men’s football numbers and sometimes entire men’s sports needed to be cut.

The net result of these factors has been drastic scholarship reductions and the so called ‘Age of Parity’ in major college football.

However, I find myself asking, ‘Is there really parity in college football?  Has the landscape of the sport changed all that much since the reduction in scholarships forced the playground bullies like Texas, USC, and Ohio State to level the playing field?  Is this truth or just an urban myth created by talking heads?’

I went back and charted every national title, top five finish, top ten finish, and top twenty finish in the history of the AP Poll, and what I found might surprise you.  I compared the unlimited scholarship era which lasted 36 years (1936-1972) to the era of scholarship reductions which has been in effect for 33 years (1973-2006).  The former is in black and the latter in blue.

Team National Titles Top 5 Top 10 Top 20
Notre Dame

 

46, 47, 49, 66

73, 77, 88

16

6

24

7

30

18

Alabama

 

61, 64, 65

78, 79, 92

9

9

17

15

22

22

Nebraska 70, 71

94, 95

4

9

8

21

13

29

Oklahoma

 

50, 55, 56

74, 75, 85, 00

14

14

17

17

23

23

Ohio State

 

42, 54, 68

02

9

9

14

13

22

24

Penn State  

82, 86

4

10

7

15

16

23

Texas 63, 69

05

12

6

14

9

20

18

Minnesota 36, 40, 41, 60

 

4

 

7

 

11

2

Michigan 48

97

7

9

18

19

25

29

Michigan State 52

 

6

 

10

2

13

6

Tennessee 51

98

8

5

14

9

23

22

Auburn 57

 

4

3

6

9

13

18

Louisiana State University (LSU) 58

 

4

2

13

5

17

12

Georgia  

81

4

5

7

10

11

19

University of Southern California (USC) 62, 67, 72

03, 04

7

8

12

12

21

20

Army 44, 45

 

6

 

8

 

13

 

Pittsburgh 37

76

3

3

4

6

7

9

Miami, Fla.  

83, 87, 89, 91, 01

 

12

2

15

5

24

Florida  

96

 

8

 

13

8

17

FSU  

93, 99

 

11

 

16

2

23

Clemson  

81

 

1

1

5

7

12               

Texas Christian (TCU) 38

 

1

 

4

 

8

1

Texas A&M 39 2 5

6

6

16

Maryland 53

 

3

 

4

1

6

11

Syracuse 59

 

1

1

3

2

11

6

Colorado  

90

1

4

2

6

3

12

Brigham Young (BYU)  

84

 

1

 

2

 

9

University of California Los Angeles (UCLA)  

 

6

3

8

8

14

17

Navy  

 

7

 

8

 

11

 

Arkansas  

 

2

1

9

4

15

11

Illinois  

 

3

 

4

2

8

3

California  

 

4

 

4

2

8

3

Washington  

 

1

4

4

6

8

14

Stanford  

 

1

 

4

1

8

4

Duke  

 

2

 

5

 

16

 

Rice  

 

1

 

4

 

8

 

Missouri  

 

1

 

6

 

11

3

Iowa  

 

3

 

6

5

6

12

Tulane  

 

1

 

1

1

5

2

Tulsa  

 

1

 

1

 

8

 

Boston College  

 

1

1

2

1

3

5

Georgia Tech  

 

4

1

8

2

15

5

University of Mississippi (Ole Miss)  

 

4

 

10

 

19

2

Southern Methodist University (SMU)  

 

1

2

3

3

6

5

Oregon State  

 

 

1

3

1

6

1

Oregon  

 

 

1

1

2

1

6

Wisconsin  

 

2

2

6

3

9

5

Purdue  

 

1

 

4

1

10

6

Indiana  

 

2

 

2

 

3

2

North Carolina  

 

1

 

3

4

7

9

Oklahoma State  

 

1

 

1

1

2

4

Utah  

 

 

1

 

1

1

1

Houston  

 

 

2

 

5

6

8

West Virginia  

 

 

2

1

3

4

7

Virginia Tech  

 

 

1

 

5

2

9

Arizona State  

 

 

3

1

5

6

10

Arizona  

 

 

1

 

2

1

5

Miami, Ohio  

 

 

 

 

2

1

4

Air Force  

 

 

 

1

1

2

3

Kansas  

 

 

 

1

1

3

2

Washington State  

 

 

 

 

4

4

6

Kentucky  

 

 

 

1

1

6

3

Wyoming  

 

 

 

1

 

4

 

Louisville  

 

 

 

 

1

1

4

Mississippi State  

 

 

 

1

 

5

4

Marshall  

 

 

 

 

1

 

1

Baylor  

 

 

 

1

 

6

5

East Carolina  

 

 

 

 

1

 

2

Northwestern  

 

 

 

 

1

 

2

Utah State  

 

 

 

1

 

1

 

Colorado State  

 

 

 

 

 

 

3

Southern Miss  

 

 

 

 

 

 

2

Texas Tech  

 

 

 

 

 

2

5

South Carolina  

 

 

 

 

 

1

4

Ohio University  

 

 

 

 

 

1

 

Toledo  

 

 

 

 

 

2

 

Boise State  

 

 

 

 

 

 

3

Wake Forest  

 

 

 

 

 

2

 

Iowa State  

 

 

 

 

 

 

1

San Diego State  

 

 

 

 

 

 

1

Virginia  

 

 

 

 

 

1

5

NC State  

 

 

 

 

 

5

6

Rutgers  

 

 

 

 

 

2

1

Memphis  

 

 

 

 

 

1

 

New Mexico  

 

 

 

 

 

1

 

New Mexico State  

 

 

 

 

 

1

 

Vanderbilt  

 

 

 

 

 

1

 

Quick Hitters

Duke, Georgia Tech, Rice, and Baylor have all apparently moved away from excellence in football.  This is probably due to the compromises made in academia by most universities with so called ‘jock majors.’  Simply put, these schools don’t funnel student-athletes into a Kinesiology department in order to keep them eligible.

Clemson and SMU both fell precipitously after ugly NCAA scandals.  Their traditions were (by and large) simply a flash in the pan.

The one hit wonders with programs made by one coach/system are legion.  BYU (Lavell Edwards), Boise State (system), Ole Miss (Johnny Vaught), Oregon (Mike Bellotti), FSU (Bobby Bowden), Florida (Steve Spurrier), Penn State (Joe Paterno), Utah (Urban Meyer), Oregon State (Tommy Protho), Colorado State (Sonny Lubick), Virginia Tech (Frank Beamer), Virginia (George Welsh), Kansas State (Bill Snyder), Arizona (Dick Tomey), etc.

The WWII to Vietnam era was a golden one for service academies, but, other than Air Force, they have not made much noise since.  One could make the argument NCAA scandals killed the drive for success at the United States military academies.  Also, with the others mentioned above, they cannot and will not compromise entrance or eligibility requirements.  They don’t even offer Kinesiology or Basket Weaving 101 for the future leaders of the United States Armed Services.

For those not historically aware, there should be a few surprises.  Minnesota and Duke were once numbered among the college football elite but have each departed from that status for differing reasons.  Wisconsin has had success outside of Alvarez and Iowa had it outside of Hayden Fry/Kirk Ferentz.  Once upon a time Michigan State actually gave the Wolverines a run for their money. 

Ohio State has been completely dominant within its state borders and among major powers has enjoyed a monopoly of sorts that perhaps only Texas can appreciate.  Cincinnati has never been ranked in the polls and the University of Miami has only been ranked 5 times to end the season.  Toledo and Ohio University have only been ranked 3 times combined while Bowling Green has never finished above 23.  Given the hotbed of talent in the state of Ohio, this should come as a shock.  Surely one of these schools could have put together a decent football program in the last century… 

The great ‘What If’s’ of the sport…  What if Iowa State had managed to hang onto Earle Bruce in 1978?  What if Arkansas had managed to hire Bryant or Kentucky or Texas A&M had kept him instead of allowing him to escape?  What if Dick Vermeil had remained at UCLA?  What if Missouri had retained Dan Devine?  What if Duke had made an attempt to hire Joe Paterno in 1966 instead of Tom Harp?  What if Alabama native son Bobby Bowden had been hired by the Crimson Tide when he applied for the job in 1986 instead of foolishly interviewing other candidates?  What if Arkansas had snagged alumni and former player Jimmie Johnson instead of Ken Hatfield in 1984?  What if Northwestern had kept Ara Parseghian? 

At first blush, note the similarities for schools like Ohio State, Michigan, Alabama, USC, etc.  Scholarship limits don’t appear to have slowed these juggernauts down in the least.  Notre Dame, LSU, and Tennessee have had more coaching turnover leading to a slight dip in their numbers, but that will eventually even out.  If parity were all it is cracked up to be, this data should look radically different…

The Florida Schools

The mountainous aberration on the map of college football is the sudden rise of three powerhouses within the state of Florida.  Florida State, Miami, and Florida entered the 1980’s without a single championship between them but proceeded to win eight from 1983 to 2001.  With only 19 national titles available during that span, they took home a whopping 42 percent of all trophies handed out in division I-A football.  The question is why?  What happened all of a sudden that so dramatically shifted the power base of the sport to one state? 

Four factors combined to make this possible.  The first item is the breaking down of prejudicial barriers hampering the state and the entire south throughout the bulk of its history.  “Separate but equal” educational policies were abolished in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.  It took federal mandates and even federal troops in many areas, but for the first time, the Southern States utilized their entire population instead of watching while talented young men headed outside of the region to play in other conferences.  Second is coaching.  When you can list off such luminaries as Dennis Erickson, Howard Schnellenberger, Jimmy Johnson, Bobby Bowden, and Steve Spurrier as recent coaches – you can bet there will be national championships involved.  Those names are impressive, but when you factor in former assistant coaches the list lengthens.  Tommy Tuberville, Bob Stoops, Mark Richt, Ed Orgeron, Chuck Amato, and Greg Schiano all coached at one of these three powers before moving on to experience success elsewhere.  Third is a population shift.  In 1960, the entire state had just 4.9 million residents (while Ohio had double that number with 9.8 million). 

By 1980 Florida had grown to 9.7 million and by 2000 that number jumped to 15.9 million (while Ohio rose to only 11.5).  In short, Florida hit a population boom the likes of which is rarely seen by an entire region, let alone a single state.  With new residents came money, jobs, and children (read future players).  With money and jobs come better infrastructures which raise the educational institutions, and improved educational institutions suddenly have the necessary funds to hire top flight coaches and improve facilities.  Better coaches and better facilities allow universities to suddenly become a player on the national scene because they can take advantage of the growing hotbed of talent in their back yard.  

Fourth, none of these schools with the exception of Florida had to play in a difficult conference.  This meant they could craft their own schedule in a way that was extremely beneficial.  Sure they offered to play anyone and everyone, but they did not have to play the same teams year after year creating rivals who slowly but surely lost their sense of awe.  There were no titanic clashes late in the season to eliminate them from title contention like a UCLA/USC or OSU/UM or Auburn/Alabama.  Expect the improved ACC and a more competitive SEC West to take a toll (as it already has) on future titles for Florida programs.

Good Coaching

The most important factor in the rise of any program has been and continues to be coaching.  Miami of Ohio’s first appearance in the top 20 was with some unknown named Ara Parseghian in 1955 (who followed Woody Hayes).  Ohio State’s first national title came with a young coach named Paul Brown and has since landed titles under Woody Hayes and Jim Tressel (who already has 4 national titles at the D-IAA level).  Penn State was rarely a player in the top 10 and lacked even a single national championship until an assistant named Joe Paterno took over for Charles ‘Rip’ Engle in 1966.  Shug Jordan’s hire signaled the rise of Auburn while five of Alabama’s six titles in the past seventy years came under the tenure of Paul “Bear” Bryant. 

Pundits claim programs can win now because of parity, but the stark reality is schools on the way up have great coaches.  Kansas State had played in just one bowl game in nearly a century until the arrival of Bill Snyder.  He transformed arguably the most woeful program in the history of college football with a tremendous work ethic and eye for coaching talent.  Nebraska hadn’t claimed a Big Eight Conference Championship in 23 years when Bob Devaney took over the reins; within a decade he led them to their first two AP national titles.  His trusted assistant, Tom Osborne, was promoted after Devaney’s departure, and he won nine games or better for his entire 25 year career as a head coach.  Virginia Tech was a second rate football school without a single bowl victory before Frank Beamer arrived in 1987.  In 1999 the Hokies played for the national title and flirted with another appearance in the championship 2005.  Urban Meyer took the Bowling Green Falcons to within a hair’s breadth of crashing the party for the BCS in 2002 while bursting open the doors with Utah in 2004.

By way of contrast, it isn’t parity that crippled Minnesota, Michigan State, Mississippi, and Texas Christian.  These universities have fallen from the football elite because their administrators have been unwise with their coaching hires and have failed to support their football programs.  Minnesota had four national titles in a span of 15 years to start the AP poll, but their lack of an on campus stadium and a string of poor coaches devastated their once proud legacy.  Only in recent years have they started to regain their status as a bowl worthy team under Glen Mason.  Yes, Mason may not be viewed as an elite coach, but he did turn Kansas into a winner (no small feat).  Michigan State went 163-78-7 from 1947 to 1972 but decades of questionable head coaches have taken their toll, and just when it appeared former Ohio State assistant, Nick Saban, was about to take them back to the promised land, Spartan administrators foolishly allowed him to be hired away by LSU.  Saban proceeded to win a national championship and 48 games in five seasons with the Tigers. 

A similar story has played out at the Ole Miss.  Johnny Vaught had the Rebels atop the SEC and the polls in the 1950’s and 60’s, but his retirement left them in disarray.  Five mediocre coaches followed until they stumbled upon Tommy Tuberville in the wake of devastating NCAA sanctions.  Tuberville proceeded to breath life into a dying program, but the powers that be fiddled while Rome burned when Auburn decided to lure him away.  TCU was on the way up the ladder with a young coach named Francis Schmidt, but they allowed Ohio State to snatch him from under their noses and then kept Leo “Dutch” Meyer long after he had ceased to produce victories.  This led to a fifty year decline until Dennis Franchione and Gary Patterson arrived on the scene.

Conclusion:

Aside from the emergence of the Florida schools, very little has changed.  Sure one or two teams here and there can have a nice season, and they might even play for all the marbles once in a blue moon (such as BYU in 1984), but the odds of them winning a national championship appear about the same. 

You want proof?  Look at the chart.  Penn State, Clemson, Georgia, Colorado, Nebraska, and BYU are the only new members added to the club of national title winners since the early 1960’s.  That’s right.  In nearly five decades of football, the champions have ultimately come from a pool of less than twenty schools. 

Of the six, there are fairly simple explanations as to why they three were able to climb so high so quickly.  Georgia and Clemson were both hammered by the NCAA shortly after winning their titles.  This begs the question of how Clemson and Georgia won them in the first place, and it doesn’t take a person in MENSA to connect the dots.  BYU’s championship came over a sub-par Michigan squad (6-6 that year) in the Holiday Bowl by a score of 24-17.  The Cougars faced only three teams that finished with better than a .500 record that season and only one team with more than seven wins (Air Force had 8).  The fact of the matter is had BYU been forced to face any team in the top five at the end of the season, they would have been butchered like the Thanksgiving Turkey.  A modern day BCS championship berth would produce a laugher much like the Notre Dame – Oregon State and Miami – Nebraska tilts. 

The other three schools hired great coaches who stuck around long enough to build a championship level program.  The Cornhuskers were actually returning to their championship roots when they brought on Devaney.  The Cornhuskers ruled the plains from 1894 until 1937 with 23 conference titles.  Penn State struck it rich with Paterno who opted to stay and make a career of it in State College, Pennsylvania.  This leaves only Colorado, where Bill McCartney reigned, and in his absence they have struggled to stay ahead of the curve in wins and conduct.

In reality, parity is a lie.  It is no better than an urban myth.

Oh, sure – the lower tier teams can occasionally jump up and bite the big dogs.  Oh, sure – it is easier to build a program than it once was.  Oh, sure – there are more opportunities to grab elite players since places like Ohio State, USC, Michigan, Notre Dame, and Texas can’t hoard them all like a greedy pack rat. Oh, sure – teams have a better shot at competing with the big boys these days, but as for winning it all – their chances are little better than they were in 1960.

There isn’t such thing as a level playing field, and I doubt there ever will be.  

The reason is the same as the reason why nothing has substantively changed.  The powerful alumni of programs like Oklahoma, Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, etc. demand winners.  In fact, if the team begins losing to such second tier programs as Wisconsin or Iowa State or even Texas A&M – they will fire their coach, build a new multimillion dollar facility, and work to re-establish their dominance.  They will spend whatever money is necessary to mobilize the necessary resources to maintain their status as part of the elite.

Proof of such statements is fairly easy to obtain, especially when it comes to coaches.  Texas and Ohio State fired Fred Akers and Earle Bruce – who combined to win almost 75 percent of their games…but no national championships.  Alabama and Notre Dame are the new ‘graveyards of coaches” with 13 head coaches between them since the departure of Bryant and Dan Devine in the early 1980’s.  In fact, these two schools even have the dubious distinction of hiring and firing a new coach before their programs ever played a game.  Michigan, for all of its stability, may soon fire Lloyd Carr if he cannot figure out how to defeat Notre Dame or Ohio State and win his bowl game.  Carr has a .750 winning percentage, five Big Ten Championships, and the school’s only national title since 1948.  Nebraska booted Frank Solich to the curb in 2003 despite a .753 winning ratio, a conference championship, and a berth in the national title game in 2001. 

These schools win because they simply will not accept a losing program or even a program that wins games.  They don’t ask or hope for titles; they demand championships, and this attracts coaches like moths to a flame because they know 12-0 or 11-1 at Utah, Tulane, or TCU will maybe earn you a top ten finish.  The same record at Ohio State, Michigan, or Notre Dame will earn you a spot in the national championship.

Remember, the next time you hear someone spouting off about parity consider the old adage, “As much as things change, they stay the same.”



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