If you think the Bowl Championship Series fails to crown a true national champion, wait until… If you think the Bowl Championship Series fails to crown a true national champion, wait until you hear about the old days. Wait until you hear about Parke H. Davis.
Pitt claims nine national championships: 1915, 1916, 1918, 1929, 1931, 1934, 1936, 1937 and 1976, which places the Panthers sixth all-time. Maybe you’ve looked at the banner at Heinz Field and wondered what systems decided those championships and how official the trophies are. Well, Pitt’s claims are legitimate, or as legitimate as you can be when discussing pre-war football.
Before the Bowl Championship Series, there was the Dunkel Index, the Dickinson System and countless other formulas. According to the NCAA’s record book, there are 37 recognized past and current “major selectors” that determine national champions. Some are mathematical indexes, some are polls and one, Parke H. Davis, was a researcher.
In 1933, Davis studied every college football season from 1869 to 1932 and crowned a retroactive national champion for each one. Perhaps indecisive or perhaps non-confrontational, he named co-champions 28 times and awarded no championship four times.
Davis named Pitt national champion for 1929 and co-champion for 1915 (with Cornell), 1916 (with Colgate and Army) and 1931 (with Purdue).
Additionally, Davis awarded Pitt a share of the national championship in 1934, the year in which he died.
Nearly 40 years later, Sports Illustrated, as Pitt’s media guide puts it, “researched the first and only complete and wholly accurate list ever compiled of college football’s mythical national champions.” The study logged champions named by recognized polls, indexes and doodads. One of those recognized sources was Davis’ opus.
Pitt uses the article as the basis of its nine championship claims. In agreement with Sports Illustrated, the study counts Davis’ 1915, 1916, 1929, 1931 and 1934 championships.
Of course, Davis didn’t have the last word in college football in the days before jet planes. Take a look at the 1915 championship, for instance. Davis had Pitt as a co-champion with Cornell. But the Helms First Interstate Bank Athletic Foundation (defunct since 1982), the Houlgate System (defunct since 1949) and the National Championship Foundation (defunct since 2000) all had the Big Red as the outright champion.
The Helms First Interstate Bank Athletic Foundation used a panel of experts to vote on a national champion, while the Houlgate System based its rankings on a team’s win-loss record, the team’s schedule and the win-loss record of all the team’s opponents. The National Championship Foundation relied on a member vote.
Cornell and Pitt both call themselves the national champion of 1915, which would have made Davis, champion of the co-championship, happy.
Then again, the Billingsley Report, which uses point accumulation for wins and loses, is now a part of the Bowl Championship Series formula and had Nebraska as the national champion that year. That school, like the Big Red and the Panthers, went undefeated in 1915.
The 1916 season is another demonstration in retroactive convolution. That year, the Panthers were nothing short of dominant, as evidenced by every recognized system naming them the outright national champion — except Davis, who split the title between Pitt and Army.
Today, Army doesn’t claim the 1916 season as a championship, and Pitt is considered the unanimous choice.
The Black Knights are far from the only program to disregard possible national championships. Notre Dame claims 11, but it could justify at least two more. In 1938, the Dickinson System (defunct since 1940) gave the Fighting Irish the national championship, but the Associated Press bestowed it upon Texas Christian. A similar incongruity occurred in 1953 when three polls, including the Associated Press, made Maryland their national champion but 10 polls selected Notre Dame and two others chose Oklahoma. Notre Dame ignores non-Associated Press or Coaches Poll championships post-1936.
Pitt, too, received national championship recognition not currently acknowledged by the school. In one instance, the National Championship Foundation gave the 9-0 Panthers, which outscored opponents 282-0, a share of the 1910 crown, but they choose not to wear it today (8-0-1 Harvard gladly wears it instead).
The National Championship Foundation, like Davis, formed to retroactively award championships. Unlike Davis, it did so in 1980 — 10 years after the Sports Illustrated article came out. Therefore, Pitt doesn’t link to its conclusions in its media guide.
But Pitt football can and does trace non-Davis championships to 1918, 1936 and 1937 through Sports Illustrated. In 1918, Davis, possibly disappointed in the level of talent in college football that year, didn’t crown a champion. But the Helms and the Houlgate did, and they crowned the Panthers, which went 4-1 but defeated defending national champion Georgia Tech, 32-0.
Meanwhile, the Billingsley Report gave that year’s title to Michigan, and the Wolverines claim the 1918 championship too. The Panthers media guide calls its 1918 championship selection unanimous, but that would be news to Michigan. Michigan’s media guide recognizes Pitt and Michigan as national champions in 1918, with the Billingsley selecting Pitt, the Houlgate selecting Michigan and the National Championship Foundation naming co-champions.
Pitt’s championships in 1936 and 1937 came in the infancy of the Associated Press’ now-prestigious poll, which eventually shifted importance away from indexes like the Williamson System (defunct since 1963) and the Litkenhous Ratings (defunct since 1984).
In 1936, Illustrated Football Annual’s Boand System awarded the Panthers the national championship, while the Associated Press gave it to Minnesota. Pitt claims this non-AP championship, as it is duly noted in the Sports Illustrated article.
For 1937, the shoe is on the other foot. Pitt earned the Associated Press’ honors, while the Helms chose California. The Golden Bears claim this championship.
Even the 1976 championship features minor dissension. The Matthews Grid Ratings (defunct since 2006), the Berryman-QPRS Ratings (alive and well) and four other recognized selectors named Southern California champion, but the Associated Press Poll and Coaches Poll that awarded Pitt the championship are considered much more authoritative.
Almost as authoritative as Parke H. Davis.