A Look At The 1939 National Champions

Oct. 15, 2004

by Loel Schrader

Whether you were a butcher, a baker or a candlestick maker, events transpiring on the football field at Memorial Stadium in Champaign-Urbana, Ill., on Oct. 18, 1924 would certainly have overwhelmed you.Arrayed on one end of the field was the University of Michigan, which had gone undefeated over a three-year period, permitting only 17 points in 20 games.

Poised at the other end were the Fighting Illini from the University of Illinois, with the exception of a running back known as the ``Wheaton Iceman, a rather nondescript collection of athletes.

Red Grange, the Iceman, collected the opening kickoff and ran it 95 yards for a touchdown.

Within minutes, the Illini had the ball back and gave it to Grange, who navigated through the Wolverines again, going 67 yards for a second TD.

In his next two carries, he went 56 and 44 yards for touchdowns.Twelve minutes of game action, four touches, 262 yards and four touchdowns. It may have been the greatest individual performance in college football history, and poets in the nation's pressboxes soon were rhapsodizing about Grange, who grew a new nickname, ``The Galloping Ghost.

A byproduct of that afternoon was the effect Grange's performance had on one of the fans, Frank G. Dickinson, an economics professor at the University of Illinois.

As Dickinson related later, he was so struck by the unexpected nature of the afternoon's events that he wondered whether there might be a rational, mathematical explanation for Illinois sudden superiority over the vaunted Wolverines.

Dissatisfied with the various and sundry national rankings system then being employed by a dozen or more so-called experts around the nation, Dickinson had been tinkering with his own formula for several months.Newly energized by Grange's performance, Dickinson called upon the university's librarian and a friend at the Chicago Tribune to supply him with season records of the country's leading collegiate football teams over the previous five seasons.

Finally, he came up with a system that rewarded teams points for victories, but varied the amount, based upon whether the opponent had a winning or losing record, and how it had done against non-conference opposition. In other words, a strength-of-schedule component.Dickinson unveiled the system to members of his class one day, and soon the professor was receiving help from some of his students.

A year and a half later, Notre Dame s fabled coach, Knute Rockne, heard about Dickinson's work and asked to meet with him. Rockne was impressed and urged the professor to market his system to newspapers and radio stations around the nation for the 1926 football season.

Rockne, never one to miss an opportunity, requested one teeny little favor. Would the professor please post-date his rankings to 1924 and declare Notre Dame as the national champion for that year?

Dickinson said he would be happy to oblige, since he had already done his rankings for 1924 and 25, and had the Fighting Irish winning the national championship in `24.

It didn't take long for Dickinson's national rankings to win national acclaim, and they were carried by many of the leading newspapers in the country.

Lending prestige to his system, Dickinson branched out into high school rankings, and his system decided state championships in several states.Dickinson's system was around until 1940, when he went to work for the federal government in defense-related matters. World War II was only a year away when the Illinois professor terminated his rankings.

His penultimate national champion before going off to war was the 1939 University of Southern California team, and he presented the Trojans with the Knute Rockne Memorial Championship Trophy, signifying a national title, in December of that year. USC's claim to a national championship was carried in Los Angeles newspapers at the time, and, in the spring, USC's yearbook also declared that the Trojans were ``National Champions'.With good reason, it should be added. Although the Associated Press (sportswriters) poll had been inaugurated three years earlier, it did not begin voting until the fourth week of each season in the early years, and concluded balloting at the end of the regular season.

Texas A&M was chosen No. 1 by the AP in 1939, but Dickinson, citing the strength of USC's schedule, selected the unbeaten Trojans, who had two ties.

Dickinson s decision looked much better after the Trojans completely outclassed unbeaten, untied and unscored upon Tennessee in the 1940 Rose Bowl, 14-0.

For members of the 1939 team, there never was a question of whether they had won a national championship. Not until USC began displaying national championship banners at the Coliseum, and none was being shown for 1939.The process of getting this championship restored has required the resolve of 1939 team members and the courage of athletic director Mike Garrett and his supporting staff.

Those of us who lived in those times and were active in sports don't have a shred of doubt about the legitimacy of the national championship claim.

In fairness to the few remaining members of the 1939 national championship team, the remainder of the Trojan family should join in today's celebration.

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