Move over Dawgs, WSU also has national crown

NO MATTER HOW FAR the University of Washington football program sinks, during Apple Cup week their fans are always quick to point out that the Huskies have a national championship in their past (though, to be precise, it was a co-national championship). Talk of WSU's string of ten-win seasons and two recent Rose Bowl appearances is typically met by that factoid from 1991. A closer look at history, though, shows that the Coug-Dawg score is even when it comes to national football titles.

What's that you say? The Cougars as national champions?

An exhaustive research project shows that Washington State was the rightful national champion of 1915. Cornell always has been recognized as the 1915 title holder, but the archives prove that the distinction was dubiously "awarded" and that undefeated and Rose Bowl champion Washington State has a rock-solid claim to the throne.

Like today, college football in those days faced a pressing dilemma -- no guarantee the nation's best teams would face each other. Back then, the quandary was compounded by the lack of inter-regional games, limited media and no national polls.

To wit, The New York Times commented in late November of that fateful 1915 season:
"Another football season of joys and sorrows and of realizations and disappointments has passed, and the talkative friends of more than one university are all prepared to prove to anyone who will listen that their particular eleven was the best of the season .... "As football schedules are arranged, there is no object in view to work out a series of intercollegiate contests by any system which will decide which is the best team…Some of the best teams in the country each year do not meet, and in fact, some times do not even play a common rival which will give even a vague comparative value of their strength…As championships are claimed, (multiple teams) demand that mythical honor."

Washington State notched their sixth shutout of the year against East Coast powerhouse Brown in the 1916 Rose Bowl.

One of those teams, Cornell, did indeed have a fine season that year. The "Ithaca Eleven" was 9-0 behind a record-setting All-American quarterback. They outscored opponents 287-50 and handed powerhouse Harvard its only loss. Cornell was considered the toast of the East, along with 8-0 Pittsburgh, though Pitt's standing was tarnished by recruiting irregularities. Both teams claimed to be the nation's best, but a potential post-season clash was cancelled over their inability to agree on a neutral field, so both teams' seasons ended in November.

Meanwhile, out West, two teams besides Washington State laid claim to being "the nation's best." The New York Times noted that, "As Champions are claimed, Cornell and Pittsburgh both make demands for that mythical honor. Out West, the University of Washington and the Oregon Aggies (now Oregon State) also come forth with the mild suggestion that they might be able to win some games if they had a chance with the best elevens in the East."

The Aggies? Despite having been soundly beaten by Washington State 29-0, OSU would get that chance against the East in a special December match-up with 7-1 Syracuse. The 'Cuse won 28-0.

That left Washington State and the University of Washington with claims as the West's best. Washington State had a dominating 1915 campaign. Led by legendary coach Lone Star Dietz the team went 7-0, outscoring opponents 204-10 with five shutouts. The only touchdown allowed was a blocked punt recovered in the end zone.

The UW also went 7-0, highlighted by victories over the Ballard Meteors and two defeats of California.

The two in-state schools did not play each other that year. Dour UW coach Gilmour "Gloomy" Dobbie demanded nearly every game to be played on his home field and Washington State, having made four straight trips to Seattle to play from 1911 to 1914, decided to stand firm that the UW would play east of the Cascades.

The Pasadena Tournament of Roses considered both Washington State and Washington for the 1916 Rose Bowl. The committee concluded Washington State had played the stronger schedule and was the better, more exciting team.

Richard Fry, in his wonderful anthology of Washington State Football, The Crimson and the Gray, mentions Rose Bowl historian Rube Samuelson explaining the selection as: "Noting with pleasure that the Cougars had scored a 29 to 0 win over the Oregon Aggies who had subdued the Michigan Aggies (now Michigan State) 20 to 0, who in turn had beaten Fielding Yost's Michigan eleven, 24-0, an invitation to meet Brown was dispatched forthwith."

Samuelson also noted Washington State's invitation to Pasadena was helped by the University of Montana, whose spokesman wrote to the Tournament committee and urged that WSC be selected. "'We had the honor,' the Montana spokesman wrote, ‘of being the only team this year to score against Washington State." He went on to opine that WSC "was at least three touchdowns better than Washington.'"

Selected they were, and Washington State hoped to play Cornell or Pittsburgh in the battle of Best of the West versus Best of the East. But Brown, whose only loss of the year had been to Harvard, was selected while the other two schools argued over whether to play each other. Nevertheless, Brown's selection generated national interest. The New York Times proclaimed, "The trip will be the longest ever undertaken by a college eleven for a single contest, requiring 3,000 miles of travel to cross the continent."

Playing on a rain-soaked field, Washington State held Brown's star half back Fritz Pollard (who was to become the nation's first black All-American and a member of the Hall of Fame) in check, and themselves compiled a record 313 yards rushing in a 14-0 victory.

But why then, if it was so dominate in victory in the Rose Bowl against the elite team from the East, wasn't undefeated Washington State crowned 1915 national champions? Why do most historical college rankings list Cornell as the champions of 1915?

This is where it gets interesting -- and preposterous, too.

The fact is, no one was given the title of national champion that season by any recognized third party -- that year or any other year -- until 1930. AP did not have a poll until 1934 and the old UPI poll didn't surface until 1950. It was not until a former Princeton football player, Parke Davis, published an obscure and biased list in 1933, that Cornell was first "recognized" as the champions of 1915. (Incidentally, Davis also concluded that his alma matter had earned national championship honors 23 times before 1933).

Regardless, after winning the Rose Bowl, Washington State simply knew itself to be the nation's best team. Huge crowds up and down the West Coast went wild with jubilation at train stops on the way back to Pullman. When the team finally made it back home, it was met by a huge celebration. University classes were canceled in its honor.

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

The most widely known ranking for that era comes from the Helms Athletic Foundation (founded by a NY bakery magnate in 1936). In 1941, its director, Bill Schroeder, decided that the annual award it was going to give to college football's best team would be more noteworthy if it had a history behind it, so he retroactively ranked champions from 1883 to 1940.

We don't know how Schroeder devised his list or if he based it on Davis'. He certainly -- and almost exclusively -- favored Eastern teams and may have chosen the 1915 Cornell team 25 years after the fact given that it received more publicity in the New York media. Schroeder may also have based the selection on Cornell's prominence on the Walter Camp All-America team, the only actual "football list" from that year. (Camp's list, almost exclusively players from the Northeast, was roundly criticized for unfair bias both by Harvard coach Percy Haughton and from coaches across the West).

It is ludicrous to think that this man, who almost assuredly saw neither team play, could more than 25 years later accurately choose the best team of 1915.

How then, to conclude with confidence Washington State holds the national championships for 1915?

The fact Washington State went undefeated in such a convincing fashion and won the Rose Bowl against a premier team from the East is certainly a powerful argument. Every Pac-10 school who has gone undefeated and won the Rose Bowl has laid claim to the national championship. And, by the most widely used standards of the day --- comparative scores --- Washington State (which beat Brown 14-0, who lost to Harvard 16-7, who lost to Cornell 10-0) certainly stands up to Cornell.

However, the best basis for the claim Washington State was THE college football team of 1915 comes from an expert who was actually there and who knew teams from across the nation. The Tournament of Roses had selected a famed former quarterback and the country's best known official of his day to oversee WSC's epic clash against Brown. His view? At the conclusion of its head-line coverage of the 1916 Rose Bowl, The New York Times reported, "After the game Walter Eckersall, the referee and former Chicago University quarterback said that Washington State's team was the equal of Cornell's eleven."

So, in honor of our esteemed neighbors and Apple Cup opponents who hang on so dearly to 1991, consider the 1915 Washington State football team the state's other co-national champions. But dig deeper and you'll recognize it is Washington State that has the oldest tradition of winning football on the West Coast, as both the first school to win a Rose Bowl AND the first to win a National Championship.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Michael J. Baumgartner holds degrees in Economics from both Washington State (BA, '99) and Harvard (MPAID, '02). He currently lives and works in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

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