Gophers tack on 108-year-old national title

MINNEAPOLIS — When the University of Minnesota football team took the field last season, it did so as six-time national champions. When the Gophers open the 2012 season, they’ll do so as seven-time national champions.

But wait. Minnesota won just three games last season and certainly didn’t come close to winning the national championship. So what’s going on?

As it turns out, a previous Gophers team was in fact deemed a national champion retroactively but until recently wasn’t recognized for it by the university. The team in question is the 1904 Minnesota squad that went 13-0 and outscored its opponents, 725-12.

So how is it that, 108 years later, the 1904 Gophers are finally college football national champions?

It happened last winter when Jeff Keiser, the creative director for the University of Minnesota athletics department, was helping renovate some trophy cases and displays at the Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex. As Keiser searched for information regarding the Gophers’ 18 Big Ten titles, he stumbled upon something in the NCAA record books: Minnesota had actually won seven national titles, not six as previously thought.

“It listed 1904, and I was kind of curious. I’m like, ‘It seems like that’s a mistake,'” Keiser said. “I knew 1903 and 1904 were undefeated seasons and they were really good and we were dominating games. But I didn’t know we won the national championship.”

Nobody at the school did until a few months ago, as it turns out. Previously, the first national championship recognized by the university was won by the 8-0 1934 team. But according to Richard Billingsley, a college football rankings guru from Oklahoma who has been ranking teams since 1970, Minnesota was a champion 30 years before that — in 1904.

Billingsley is one of a handful of selectors who determine national champions, and his system is one of seven computer rankings used in the current BCS poll. In the 14 years Billingsley has been with the BCS, his No. 1 and No. 2-ranked teams have been the two teams playing for the national championship 12 times.

Billingley’s system places a heavy emphasis on a team’s head-to-head matchups, perhaps more so than any other rankings system. He also believes strength of schedule plays a big part in ranking teams.

Although he started ranking teams in 1970, Billingsley has since researched and retroactively ranked teams dating all the way back to 1869, and his work was eventually recorded in the NCAA records books in 1996. (It’s important to note that the NCAA itself does not officially recognize national champions in football but rather offers a list of systems that have retroactively crowned national champions.)

Only three other groups’ research and data — the National Championship Foundation, the College Football Researchers Association and historian Parke Davis — date back to 1869, according to the NCAA football records book.

It was in that same record book that Keiser discovered Billingsley had declared the University of Minnesota the 1904 national champions even though other retroactive rankings systems had either Michigan or Pennsylvania as national champs.

“I do know that 1904 was really a four-team race between Minnesota and Pennsylvania and Michigan and Chicago,” Billingsley said.

All four teams were in contention entering the final week of the 1904 season, according to Billingsley, but Michigan beat Chicago to make it a three-team race. Still, Michigan’s strength of schedule was not as impressive as that of Minnesota or Penn.

“Actually, Pennsylvania played a slightly harder schedule overall, but Minnesota had more key games and they came into the season with a little bit more strength at the core of their team because they had the previous few years proven themselves to be a quality team,” Billingsley said. “In the end, Minnesota just kind of edged out Pennsylvania in my system for the national championship.”

A glance at the Gophers’ schedule and results from 1904 are enough to show Minnesota was a dominant team that season — even if a few games came against local high schools (oh, how times have changed). The Gophers beat Grinnell, 146-0, and trampled South Dakota, 77-0. The only points Minnesota allowed all season were in a 16-12 win over Nebraska.

While rolling over cupcakes, the Gophers also held their own against the bigger schools on the schedule, beating the likes of Wisconsin, Northwestern and Iowa in consecutive weeks to close out the season.

“When you play teams like South Dakota and Carleton and North Dakota, you can pretty much name your score when you’re playing a team like that,” Billingsley said. “But it was the games against Nebraska and Wisconsin and Northwestern, even Iowa at the end of the season that were just impressive wins. Because when you start playing top 20 teams and winning, then you’ve really accomplished something. The 17-0 win over No. 9 Northwestern is much more impressive in my program than the 146-0 win over Grinnell.”

There was no hype surrounding a national championship race back in 1904. There were no bowl games, no playoff systems, no fancy trophies. The season ended, and that was it.  It wasn’t until rankings systems like Billingsley’s and others came around when these schools retroactively became national champions.

“(Billingsley’s) is probably the most respectable formula, to be honest with you,” Keiser said. “I would almost side a little bit more with him than with a bunch of historians.”

But 108 years after the fact is a long time. Sure, Billingsley’s rankings already crowned the Gophers in 1996, but Minnesota hadn’t yet acknowledged its own accomplishments.

Until now, that is. Though the title is not yet recognized at TCF Bank Stadium, the 1904 season has been included on banners and displays at the Gibson-Nagurski complex.

Even if it took more than a century, the Gophers are happy to call themselves seven-time national champions. It has a better ring to it than six-time champs.

“I’ve heard some people say, ‘Well, retroactive championships don’t mean anything because no one was physically there at the time.’ I don’t believe that at all,” Billingsley said. “… It doesn’t matter to a computer program whether you were physically present in the stands watching the game or if you were living in 1904. The reason is because the computer doesn’t have anything to do with emotion anyway. …

“A retroactive computer ranking is just as accurate in 1904 as it is in 2012.”

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