Time for WSU to fly national title banner

NEWS THIS WEEK of legendary Washington State head coach Lone Star Dietz' forthcoming induction into the College Football Hall of Fame rekindles thoughts of another honor that is long overdue: Formally recognizing Dietz' undefeated WSU squad of 1915 as that year's national champions.

Officials at Washington State shouldn't be bashful about hoisting a title banner because the historic record is almost indisputable. Washington State was the best team in the land in 1915. Not only was the team undefeated, capping their perfect season with a Rose Bowl win, but utterly dominating.

They outscored opponents 204-10.

Moreover, that Washington State team is the only undefeated (and Rose Bowl-winning) club in the history of the Pac-12 not to win at least a share of the national crown.

In those days, however, no one was given the title of national champion by any recognized third party.

Michael Baumgartner, a WSU graduate who later earned a master's degree at Harvard, also has done considerable research on this topic and wrote a fine piece in 2005 (linked below) for Cougfan.com.

He noted that AP did not have a poll until 1934, the Helms Athletic Foundation didn't start awarding titles until 1941, and the old UPI poll didn't surface until 1950.

Which begs the question: Then how come there are records for "official" national champions dating all the way back to 1883, with the 1915 crown being awarded to Cornell?

Crowds up and down the West Coast went wild for Washington State and Coach Dietz after the Rose Bowl victory over Brown.

The answer is simple: Through one man's ham-handed decision that eventually found its way into the mainstream.

In 1933, you see, a former Princeton football player named Parke Davis published an obscure and biased list of what he deemed were the national champions for every season going back to 1883. Now get this: he penned in his alma mater for nearly two-dozen titles in that time frame.

For 1915, he picked Cornell.

Despite the fact Davis was picking a 1915 champion 28 years after the fact, and despite the fact his list of all-time champions was biased toward the Ivy League, the New York-based Helms Athletic Foundation still opted to consult Davis' list when they decided in 1941 to start awarding a national championship trophy. The Helms folks wanted to put some history behind their new award so retroactively ranked champions from 1883 on. They, too, chose Cornell in 1915.

They should have done some research first.

Not that Cornell wasn't a powerhouse. They too finished the year undefeated, but didn't play in the post-season because they couldn't reach agreement on the details with their intended foe, Pitt.

Not so with Washington State. Deemed the finest team in the West, they were eager to take on the East's finest in what would become the first of the continuous Rose Bowl games.

Lone Star Dietz and his Washington State team take a time out from preparations for the 1916 Rose Bowl.

Evidence I found that gives Washington State claim to the national title comes from information and opinion produced that same season, not 18 or 25 years later by random East Coast interests.

That real-time case for Washington State includes the following:

  • A few weeks before WSU defeated Brown 14-0 in the Rose Bowl, Portland Oregonian sports editor Roscoe Fawcett deduced in early December 1915 that Washington State should be named national champions by the use of comparative scores -- a method widely used and considered more credible in those days than now.

  • Also in December, The Philadelphia Bulletin opined, "The long list of aspirants to the football championship of the United States for 1915 has now been cut to Cornell, Pittsburgh and Washington State College."

  • A few days later, The Providence Journal in Rhode Island, focusing on the comparative record that was popular in those days, noted that WSC had beaten Oregon State, which had beaten a great Michigan State team, which in turn had beaten the fearsome Michigan eleven coached by legendary Fielding Yost. And then concluded: "…if the Washington Staters pile up a 20 or 30 score on Brown, the Philadelphia Bulletin's trio of championship aspirants will be narrowed down to about one – the Washington State College of Pullman town in the heart of the far and distant wheat-growing West. Of course, the East could never admit the possibility of such a thing. But 20 or 30 to 0 on Brown would read that way, and figures are not always liars…. Suppose that Brown fails to upset the dope in the Pasadena game – what will the East say? Not very much in all probability."

    How prophetic.

    Washington State, on the strength of a rushing performance that would stay in the record book for decades, beat Brown 14-0 on a muddy field and earned headlines across the land. Brown had been selected for the game based on its victories that season over Yale and Dietz' alma mater, Carlisle.

    The Washington State victory in Pasadena is viewed in historic terms because, as CF.C noted the other day, it elevated the stature of West Coast football to an equal footing with the East and lit the torch that would make the Rose Bowl THE game of the year.

    But what about winning the mythical national title?

    This was perhaps the most definitive statement at the time:

    Walter Eckersall, a one-time star at Chicago, was the game's referee and the country's best known official of that era, and proclaimed afterward that "Washington State's team was the equal of Cornell's eleven."

    Two decades later, when Ivy Leaguer Parke Davis compiled his dubious list, the crimson half of that equation was somehow forgotten.

    Now, 97 years later, it's time to right the wrong. Washington State has a valid claim to the 1915 national championship -- at the very, very least, a co-championship -- and the Cougar athletic department needs to proclaim it for the world to see in the form of a large banner inside Martin Stadium.

    ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Tom Benjey lives in Carlisle, Pa., and is the author of several books, including the biography of Lone Star Dietz, titled Keep A-Goin'. To order a copy, click to www.LoneStarDietz.com.

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  • Lone Star Dietz: Man, Myth, Legend
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