The next eBay Watch post starts with a few items related to the 1933 Football season and to its most famous player, President Gerald Ford. A seller has packaged up a few items including an autographed and numbered ‘College Classics’ card, a letter of authenticity and program from the Iowa game held in Ann Arbor in 1933 [the eBay auction]:

Gerald Ford 1933 Michigan football

I’ll have more on Ford and his tenure in the Maize and Blue in coming weeks, but this post will focus on the season of 1933. It was the heart of the Depression but that didn’t stop colleges from playing a full football schedule. The Wolverines finished the season 7-0-1, outscored opponents 131-18 and are recognized as the national champion.

The lone tie was a scoreless game against Minnesota who was led by legendary coach Bernie Bierman. Despite finishing 4-0-4 that season and 2-0-4 in the league, the Gophers were actually given a share of the conference title. Bierman’s teams went on to claim national titles in the three seasons that followed, only dropping one game in the stretch.

See Dickinson Compute
Michigan’s national title was determined by the most widely recognized method at the time: the Dickinson System. Illinois economics professor Frank Dickinson developed a formula used to rank college teams based upon the quality of their results factoring for the strength of their opponent.

1933 – Harry Kipke, Fielding Yost and Harry Newman receive the Knute Rockne Trophy, the prize to the champion via the Dickinson system (wire photo)

The formula was pretty simple. Each game outcome (win, loss or tie) earned a score based on the quality of the opponent. The total of points for a season was then divided by the number of games to arrive at a common rating metric. Dickinson added a factor to adjust for games that involved teams from different parts of the country, which contained a heavy “Middlewest” bias:

“differential points” would be factored in for an “intersectional game”, with ratings of 0.00 for East schools, higher points for “Middlewest” (+4.77) and Southwest (+1.36), negatives for the South (-2.59), the Big Six (2.60) and the Pacific Coast (-2.71).

Strength of your opponent was a huge factor in the Dickinson system. A loss against a ‘first division’ team earned you 15 points, while a win against a ‘second division’ team earned you just 20. Michigan actually earned more points for tying Minnesota than did Princeton for pummeling Amherst 45-0. I mention the Tigers as they were the only unbeaten, untied team but only received sparse support for recognition as national champ as they finished a distant seventh according to the Dickinson. The NCAA has collected all the other groups that did or have since devised a method to determine the champion:

1933
Michigan: Billingsley, Boand, Dickinson, Helms, Houlgate, Football Research, National Championship Foundation, Parke Davis*, Poling
Ohio St.: Dunkel
Princeton: Parke Davis*
Southern California: Williamson

Without getting into too far into these ridiculous arguments over who’s better, Ohio State and USC both had losses that season (the Buckeyes were shut-out by Michigan!). Princeton has a beef at they finished 9-0-0 but played what is perceived to be a much softer schedule. Not a major surprise but the Tigers do claim ownership of the ’33 title per their terrible/shameful website covering the rich history of their football program:

Art Lane ’34 captains the Princeton eleven to an undefeated, untied season and the national championship. This is one of the best defensive teams in Princeton Football history allowing only eight points.

So yes, it was a mathematical formula or “the computers” as we call it today that gave Michigan the the 1933 national title. As the NCAA data shows there is little dispute amongst the other major bodies. The Dickinson rating was published until 1940 but was replaced as the most widely used determinant when the Associated Press started voting in 1936.

Further demonstrating the silliness of these various methods of sorting out the college football season, check this out. In 2004 the folks down at Southern Cal were digging around and noticed that they held the highest Dickinson rating in 1939. According to the NCAA no other body views the 8-0-2 Trojans as the champion and all (including the AP) but a handful give the honor to undefeated Texas A&M. So in 2004, a month before kick-off of the college football season, USC Athletic Director Mike Garrett made an announcement:

“It was brought to our attention by various individuals that we should be claiming the 1939 Trojans among our national champions in football,” said Garrett. “We took this matter seriously, did significant research and determined this to be true. That 1939 team was one of the greatest in our history.”

It’s easy to chuckle at USC’s revisionist history here. We have enough trouble comparing teams 80 years later, imagine the challenges back then, but even Trojan backers have to giggle at this move. So for what it is worth, I trolled through the NCAA records and there are four national championships that Bill Martin can consider claiming beyond the 11 that are recognized by the University. Here they are by year and source:

1910: Billingsley
1964: Dunkel
1973: National Championship Foundation, Poling
1985: Matthews, Sagarin

Memo to Director Martin: Form a committee, claim these titles and order rings for these guys (except for maybe Harbaugh).