On the History of the National Championship: Why Kansas, Gonzaga, and Florida St are 2020 College Basketball Champs

Kansas, Gonzaga, and Florida State have all been selected as the 2020 National Champions, though it remains to be seen whether the Jayhawks or Bulldogs will actually claim their titles, or if Florida State will claim their more interesting national title selection.  But we’ll get to that later on.

First, let’s start by addressing a couple of myths about the national championship and a common (but irrelevant) statement that’s been floating around.

Myth 1: The college basketball national title can only be awarded by winning the NCAA Tournament.

It sure would have been great to have an NCAA Tournament this year, but this myth’s false.  The national title has been awarded for seasons dating all the way back to 1893, with the retroactive Premo and Porretta Poll selecting the Iowa Hawkeyes as national champions back before the first 5-on-5 inter-collegiate game was even played.  A more prominent national title selector, the Helms Athletic Foundation, selected national champions for seasons beginning in 1901.  Yale claims the 1901 national title and dozens of other colleges and universities claim Helms titles, as well.  Helms national title selections range from blue bloods like Kansas, Kentucky, and North Carolina to current non-D1 teams like Chicago and NYU.  Pre-1949 Helms titles are the only non-NCAA Tournament national championship selections that have been added to the NCAA Men’s Basketball Record Book (pg.216), but national championship selectors include such organizations as the American Legion (LSU in 1935) and the Veteran Athletes of Philadelphia (Butler in 1929).  Nothing can compare to the thrill of winning the biggest event in college sports, as the NCAA Tournament is the ultimate prize.  But a national champion has been selected every year in college basketball history, regardless of whether or not an NCAA Tournament was played.  In fact, many schools recognize titles (to varying degrees) in years where there was an NCAA Tournament, but the school was awarded the championship by another selector.  Examples include Long Island in 1939 (pg. 38), DePaul in 1945, and Kentucky in 1954.  So while most national championships have been awarded by winning the NCAA Tournament, every season in college basketball history has had at least one national champion selected, regardless of whether or not an NCAA Tournament was played that year.

Myth 2: You can’t have a national champion in a season with a pandemic.

“Oh yeah, you can definitely be national champions during a pandemic.” -Michigan Athletic Department

This one’s false, too, and history proves it.  The Minnesota Golden Gophers basketball team that claims the 1919 national championship went 13-0 on the season, the least amount of games played by a Helms basketball champion from 1914 until Helms stopped awarding national championships in 1982.  The shortened basketball season occurred during the worldwide 1918-19 H1N1 pandemic, which contributed to a shortened college football season, as well.  In fact, Michigan claims the 1918 college football national championship for a 5-0 season where they shared the National Championship Foundation (NCF) selection with Pittsburgh, who at 4-1 on the season, claims the title for that NCF share and the Helms selection.  History has shown that a pandemic-shortened season has still resulted not only in national championship selections, but in those selections all being claimed by the schools themselves.

Irrelevant Statement: The number one team could have lost in the NCAA Tournament.

This trash can could have won the 2019 World Series if it had just gotten a little more use.

This statement has been thrown around a lot since it was announced the 2020 NCAA Tournament was canceled.  But this statement has no value.  Joe Burrow and the #1 LSU football team could have lost in the College Football Playoff if it was a 68-team tournament instead of a 4-team playoff.  The Kansas City Chiefs could have lost the Super Bowl if Patrick Mahomes threw an interception instead of this 44-yard completion.  The Washington Nationals could have lost the World Series if the Astros had banged on more trash cans.  And the Gonzaga Bulldogs could have finished number one in the AP and Coaches Polls if Baylor’s Jared Butler hit a three at the buzzer against Kansas.  But all of that is irrelevant because none of those scenarios actually happened.  LSU won the national championship, Kansas City won the Super Bowl, Washington won the World Series, and Kansas finished ranked number one in the AP and Coaches polls.  What could have happened is irrelevant (Boise State and San Diego State to the Big East anyone?).  What did happen is what matters, and the national championship selectors are awarding this season’s title on that basis.

What constitutes a National Championship?

Well, that depends.  Let’s start with Merriam-Webster’s “champion” definition: “a winner of first prize or first place in competition.”  So, a national champion could be a team that took “first prize” in the NCAA basketball tournament.  It could also be a team that took first prize in another competition. Wabash claims the 1922 basketball national championship for winning a national intercollegiate tournament.  And some schools claim national championships through winning the national AAU Basketball Tournament, such as Washburn University in Kansas (1925) and Utah in 1916 (pg. 106).  Hiram College in Ohio also claims the 1904 basketball national championship based on winning the 1904 Inter-collegiate Olympic Qualifying Tournament, and some schools like San Francisco and Utah (pg. 106) claim national championships based on winning the NIT when the tournament was more prominent. So, winning a national tournament qualifies a team to meet the definition of a national champion.

“The Billingsley Report is the greatest poll system of all-time! But only the version that uses margin of victory. The other one is awful.” -Auburn Athletic Department

So what about being first place in a competition? To be first place, the team would have to have a higher standing than another team.  This is how we get regular season conference champions.  Whichever team finishes first place in the standings is the conference champion.  Likewise, many national championships have been awarded through being first place in poll rankings.  The most famous poll rankings are the Associated Press and the Coaches polls, and the college football teams that have finished ranked first in those two polls have always claimed the national championship.  But there are many other noteworthy poll rankings, too, and being a poll #1 in some of these rankings has led to many well-known national championship claims.  For example, in college football, Auburn claims the 1913 national championship due to being ranked number one in the Billingsley Report’s Margin of Victory computer rankings, USC claims the 1939 national championship (pg. 117) due to being ranked number one in the Dickinson System’s formula, and Illinois claims the 1951 national title for tying Georgia Tech in the math-based Boand System.  In college basketball, Penn recognizes a 1920 national championship (pg. 105) after finishing first in the Premo-Porretta poll rankings.  Frankly, it doesn’t even matter if the poll ranking’s creator wants to call you the national champion. You think UCF reached out to Wes Colley about his opinion before declaring their Colley Matrix #1-ranked football team the 2017 national champions?

But a team can also be recognized as first place through a declarative statement.  For example, the Helms Athletic Foundation didn’t publish a full rankings list, but did proclaim a single national champion.  And the Veteran Athletes of Philadelphia handed a national championship trophy to Butler basketball in 1929, while President Nixon awarded the 1969 college football championship to Texas for beating Arkansas 15-14 in their Southwest Conference regular season finale.  And you don’t have to be President to declare a national champion and have a school recognize it, either.  Pittsburgh recognizes three football national championships that were awarded by no other major selector than the historical research of a single person, Parke Davis.  Davis declared Pitt co-champions on three separate occasions: with Cornell in 1915, with Colgate and Army in 1916, and with Purdue in 1931.  One of the most fascinating national championship claims of all-time is the 1940 Boston College football team that was not selected by a single NCAA-recognized major selector (and there were 16 of them that season (pg. 114)).  However, the sports editor of the New York Herald wrote that the Eagles were entitled “to be the undefeated champions of the United States,” and that declaration and an unbeaten record were enough for the BC Athletic Department to claim the national championship.  

So the national championship can be claimed not only by winning a tournament, but also by finishing first place in a poll ranking or being declared the champions by a person or organization.  

The 2020 College Basketball National Championship

So now that it’s established that every season in college basketball history has had at least one national champion selected, who is the big winner this year and why?  The answer to that one is pretty obvious.  

“Once the bars open back up, let’s go to The Wheel to get some pounders and talk poll rankings.” -Kansas Athletic Department

Any way you draw it up, the Kansas Jayhawks are the consensus national poll champions.  If you’ve never heard of it, check out the Massey Composite.  There are 56 different polls tracked in that composite.  Some of the polls are based on human voters, like the Associated Press and the Coaches.  Some are math-based systems that attempt to rank teams based on who is the best team, regardless of what they actually accomplished.  Others are math-based systems that attempt to rank teams based on their level of accomplishment, regardless of how good the team actually is.  And even others use some combination of prediction and merit.  But of those 56 rankings, an overwhelming 49 of them ranked Kansas number one.  So Kansas is the consensus number one in the polls.

Those 49 number one rankings include all five of the non-NET ratings on the selection committee team sheet (the predictive-based Ken Pomeroy, ESPN BPI, and Sagarin, as well as the results-based ESPN Strength of Record and Kevin Pauga Index (KPI)).  And it also includes rankings that the NCAA Football Record Book has designated as major national championship selectors, due to being “national in scope.”  Certainly, the rankings on the team sheet are national in scope, and Kansas has the consensus selection there.  

At this point, you may be wondering if you can just declare a team national champions yourself. And the answer is a resounding YES!  But as mentioned, what separates a major national championship selector from everyone else is that they are “national in scope.”  For example, Graham Doeren Bracketology proclaims Kansas the 2020 National Champions!  Okay… so, what? But what if Jay Bilas, Seth Greenberg, Rece Davis, and Laphonso Ellis get together and hand Bill Self the 2020 ESPN College Gameday National Championship with the trophy being an original piece of the Aggro Crag?  Now THAT would be a national in scope selector people would care about. 

And the NCAA has also already shown us what other “national in scope” rankings are through being recognized by the NCAA as college football major national championship selectors.  Besides the Associated Press and Coaches polls (Kansas was a near unanimous number one in both), the following math-based polls are also major national championship selectors:

  • Colley Matrix – #1 Kansas
  • Dunkel Index – #1 Gonzaga
  • Massey Ratings – #1 Kansas
  • Rothman (FACT) – #1 Kansas
  • Sagarin Ratings – #1 Kansas
  • Wolfe Ratings – #1 Kansas
“You know what football team was really awesome? The 1957 Michigan State Spartans. They were so good. They’re our football spirit animal.” -Gonzaga Athletic Department

So again, Kansas gets the consensus nod by ranking 1st in five of the six polls.  But the Gonzaga Bulldogs also get a selection for number one by the Dunkel Index.  While Kansas is, by definition, the 2020 consensus national poll champion, Gonzaga is also, by definition, a national poll champion.  And a number one ranking in the Dunkel Index, by itself, was enough to get Michigan State’s 1957 football team (pg. 155) recognized by the Spartan Athletic Department  as national champions.  As with Kansas, it remains to be seen whether or not Gonzaga will claim a national championship (the Bulldogs also finished 1st in NET).  It’s very unlikely Gonzaga will claim the title due to Kansas holding such a definitive grip on the consensus number one spot, but there are much worse national championship claims out there.  To name just a few:

“Oh, come on. Like you’ve never created your own national championship trophy to try to make people think you were awarded the Coaches Poll National Championship when it was really the retroactive Sagarin Ratings.” -Kentucky Athletic Department

But returning to this season’s poll rankings… By themselves, Kansas (49) and Gonzaga (7) received every single national poll number one ranking (as tracked by the Massey Composite).  

But as mentioned earlier, a national championship can be awarded not only by winning a tournament or finishing number one in a poll, but also through the declaration of a person or organization.  Kansas got one of those by tweet, the modern day version of BC being proclaimed national champions in the New York Herald.  But this season’s third national championship recipient comes in through this category.  The Florida State Seminoles were proclaimed national champions by the Florida Senate, despite the resolution itself stating that Florida State was ranked fourth in the country.  But to each their own, and a national championship selection by an organization like the Florida Senate is certainly newsworthy, even if the Noles failed to finish ranked number one in any polls.  

To claim or not to claim?

At the end of the day, being selected for the national championship doesn’t matter a whole lot if a school doesn’t recognize it.  Back in the late 50s, finishing number one in the AP poll meant you were a champion, regardless of whether you went on to win the NCAA Tournament or not.  But no school claims an AP poll basketball title by itself, probably due to the poll debuting a decade after the NCAA Tournament and the NIT did.  And there was also the whole issue of claiming you’re the national champion when another school went on to win the tournament after the last poll was taken.  If Kansas is going to recognize a national championship without winning a season-ending national tournament, they’ll be the first school to do so since undefeated Kentucky in 1954 (who finished first in the AP poll and was selected by Helms).  

Historically, the situation that most closely matches the present is 1941 in college football.  This year’s Kansas basketball team and that year’s Minnesota football team (pg. 114) both finished first in the most well-known polls, including the AP.  But a second contender grabbed a couple of well-known math polls (Gonzaga in basketball and Texas in football).  And the third team with a selection (Florida State in basketball and Alabama in football) can’t say with a straight face that they really deserved their selection.  But hey, that didn’t keep Alabama from claiming the 1941 football title.

“If losing your bowl game and a regular season game is wrong, I don’t want to be right.” -Tennessee Athletic Department

When the dust settles, these three schools will all have to ask themselves whether they truly believe they had the best season in the country.  That belief is why schools like Boston College fight for their 1940 football team to be recognized.  They may not have gotten an NCAA-recognized major selector to choose them, but they truly believe they had the best season in the country.  Frankly, it’s admirable that BC is willing to defend their claim.  Though it’s less admirable that Tennessee claims that same national championship (pg. 141), despite not being selected AP champions and losing the Sugar Bowl to that very BC team. Speaking of the Vols football team, they also claim the 1967 national title despite finishing 9-2 with an Orange Bowl loss to Oklahoma (pg. 142).  But I guess that’s the power that comes with finishing ranked number one in the Litkenhous computer poll.

Anyways, Kansas can absolutely hold their heads high if they hang a national championship banner this year.  With a straight face, they can confidently say they had the best season in the country, and they’re just following the historical precedent.  But there’s no reason to hide that this season was a little different than most.  Kansas should be proud and not hide that fact, so they might want to make it known on the banner itself that this was a “poll” title.

“No one knows what it means! But it’s provocative. It gets the people glowing.” -Chazz Michael Michaels on Gonzaga’s banner

As for Gonzaga, there are way worse claims out there.  The Bulldogs would certainly have some doubt that they had the best season in the country, but at 31-2 and first in the NET and Dunkel, they can make the argument with a straight face.  It’s probably best to hang a banner with a big #1 on it that says, “NCAA NET” and “DUNKEL INDEX.”  A very accurate statement that leaves a little to the imagination about what exactly it is they’re claiming.  National Champions, #1 in the country, or just a recognition of a couple really good computer poll rankings?  I don’t know, and that’s the beauty of it.

As for Florida State, they’ll probably just want to hang an ACC Championship banner and call it a successful season.  But hey, you can always be 1968 Georgia football and recognize yourselves as National Champions in a year where you finished with 8 wins in an 11-game season.

But regardless of what these schools choose to do, they have been awarded national championships. Whether they feel confident enough to claim them is a different matter entirely.  But just do me one favor, don’t go saying these teams could have lost in the NCAA Tournament.  It’s literally impossible to lose a game in a tournament that doesn’t exist.  We’ll all just have to judge these teams based on reality, even if it’s reality without March Madness.