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Royalty - it's a romantic concept, right? The gritty realities of what it took to gain and keep "noble blood" is an elusive concept to us 21st century people who don't have it as an integral part of our society...unless you're talking about college football. This post seeks to tease out all of the factors that make a school football royalty, create a tool for determining nobility, and then apply that method to Pitt Football.
First things first, gut reactions and disclaimers. My gut is already telling me that the answer is going to be more complicated than "Yes" or "No". Look at Princeton. They're the equivalent of that sausage vendor on the streets of NYC who really and truly is the direct heir of Emperor Augustus...but that was so long ago and their line of succession has done so little since their claim to royalty that no one really cares. I can foresee a criteria system that includes Rutgers, Princeton, Army, Yale, etc. as Blue-Bloods, but more ceremoniously than anything else. This means that there's probably going to be some hierarchy of nobility. I'm going to try and keep the Game of Thrones references to a minimum here, but a school like Princeton would be something like a minor fiefdom descended from a great king.
As a disclaimer, I'm not seriously suggesting this be used as a new criteria to replace the colloquial definition of Blue-Blood we use in college football. This is more of an exercise to break past the common assumptions and preconceptions, and delve deeper into the true history of our sport, and our team. I'm also very bored during this quarantine.
1. The Origins of Nobility
All humans are created equal, but not all schools were founded at the same time. On November 6, 1869, Rutgers University faced Princeton University (then known as the College of New Jersey) in the first-ever game of intercollegiate football that resembled more the game of soccer than "football" as it is played today, so says Wikipedia. Shortly after, Yale and Columbia joined in, with Harvard and McGill later on. During this time, football looked much more like rugby, the traditionally British sport played by Oxford, Cambridge, and other schools in England. It's suggested that football was adopted by the American colleges in an attempt to emulate their British counter-parts which were themselves Blue-Bloods of academia.
This history teaches one important lesson for our criteria right off the bat: nobility is won, then inherited. No school has divine right, and no school is incapable of nobility. Empires can be raised in a single generation from nothing, and lost in a single generation as well. And so, like the early Assyrians of ancient times, the Ivy League dominated the football scene in the late 1800's and early 1900's. Although, other teams did play notable games during this time. For instance, Georgia Tech boasts of their lineage from King John Heisman, First of His Name, King of College Football and Ruler of the Eastern Teams. Legendary heroes of old like Pop Warner and Jim Thorpe carved out their legacies during this time as well. Also, Pitt beat WVU 21-13 in the first game ever broadcasted live on a radio network, kicking off a long and bitter rivalry, and sowing the seeds for Pitt to destroy WVU's only chance at a National Title in 2007 by beating then #2 WVU 13-9. Hail to Pitt (hail, being a salute to a royal figurehead of state. Dear Old Pittsburgh, God preserve thee evermore. Sounds very similar to "God save the Queen").
In the mid 1900's a larger number of the common names associated with college football nobility came to the scene. Notre Dame, Michigan, Texas, Ohio State, Penn State (sucks dick), and others. Along with these were other schools that were carving out great names for themselves as well, being powerhouses in their own time and a force to be feared by those formerly listed. They were the likes of Syracuse, Georgia Tech, Army, Navy, West Virginia, and, yes, Pittsburgh. During this era, these teams established themselves in the highest class of college football patricians. Pittsburgh, already having a handful of national titles to its name, from the Pop Warner and Jock Sutherland Dynasties was an old and established empire compared to some of these other teams. Syracuse produced the best college football player of all time, Jim Brown. To the south, Georgia and Auburn were well into their 100 years war of attrition. On the west coast, the upstart Principality of USC made many successful bids for national power. Most bizarre of all, from the Great Plains came a steppe people calling themselves "Sooners" who won three national titles in quick succession, under their great warlord Bud Wilkinson Khan. If there ever was a war of succession in America, it was during the mid 1900's with at least 40 different powers vying for the throne.
This brief and shallow review of college football pre-history through to the pre-modern era leaves me less sure of my ability to achieve my goal than I was at the outset. If there is such thing as college football "Blue Blood" it can't possibly be contained within one family, that much I can tell for sure. The brief synapsis above doesn't even mention teams like Alabama, LSU, UCLA, SMU, TCU, Oregon State, Michigan State, and so many others who have claims to greatness. Blue Blood must be something more than mere greatness, as if the oxymoron "mere greatness" does justice to the way each fanbase surely reminisces about and mythologizes their past. I've mentioned this "throne" in passing, but maybe it would be enlightening to understand what that "throne" is.
2. The Throne
"You come at the king, you best not miss." This saying, most recently popularized by one of the best crime-dramas ever, The Wire, refers to the risk associated with regicide. If you try to kill the king but fail, the saying goes, the king has so much power and authority that he will destroy you in such a horrific way so that others with regicide on their minds will think twice. In college football, the opposite is at play. In the real world, royal dynasties were created to bring about periods of stability in an empire. In college football, that stability is deliberately undermined each and every year, and teams constantly, and often successfully, win over control of the "throne". In fact, eras of successive championships within a relatively few amount of years are so rare, that they are considered to be that of legend. No doubt that 100 years from now Alabama and Clemson will invoke the ancient memory of Nick Saban and Dabo Sweeny, coaches akin to the titans that preceded the ancient greek gods. After all, pre-history was at one time contemporary history. These dynastic demi-gods are truly special, but not the only to sit upon the throne. As such, they do not hold a corner market on the title of "Blue Blood".
It seems that a successful rule is marked by whether the team sat on the throne at all, not for how long they sat on it. As such, this draws attention to the schools who have been thriving peoples since the pre-history of college football, but never sat upon it's throne. It is one thing to be a present power in one's own time, always competing with the best of teams and always considered a contender for the throne. However, I think we've found the first true litmus test for nobility in our definition of what the throne is, and how to establish a kingdom. You see, the blood, kingsblood or blue-blood as we've been calling it, can only be achieved by having a king in your lineage. To be a king, you must have won the throne. Princeton won the throne, once upon a time. In fact, they could be credited with building that throne. Despite their fading from history, like a ruined city in ancient Mesopotamia, we still remember them, since they were kings. West Virginia, BC, Utah, Miss St, Oklahoma State, VT, Wisconsin, Vandy, and other have all seen eras where they were absolute national powerhouses. However, going with our already-over-used theme here, I'd equate them more to that peasant in the 1600's who opened up a textile factory and got far richer than their local lord, but never actually won the throne for themselves. Because of this, they can't be college football nobility. They can be rich, powerful, respected, and feared. However, nobility is derived from monarchy, and with no monarch in their distant family tree, they fall short of blue-blood. The throne offers a nice solid line to cut off the majority of college football teams and give a nice, unambiguous starting point. However, it's just that - a starting point.
3. 44/130 = ?
Forty four teams have claimed a national title for themselves. Forty five if you are a supporter of the Black Knight Rebellion in 2017 and recognize their claim to the throne. There have been various, more obscure, claims made as well. But for now, we'll stick to the official forty four. This means that about one third of college teams are noble. Are you comfortable leaving the definition of blue-blood at that? Me neither, for a couple reasons. One, it lacks the fourth dimension, time. Could Princeton really argue a better claim to nobility over Clemson? To me that conjures up an image of some long-deposed ruler, exiled to a far away land, cursing the usurper of his long lost title and threatening to come take it back. It's a far cry from the type of definition I'm trying to find here. Second, while a national title is certainly the first hurdle, the ability to remain on the throne, or at least close to it, should be a factor as well. What good is a one-off season? Certainly a one and done team should experience all the pedigree of any other team who wins the title, but how do you compare two programs - one of which won a national title then disappeared from all relevance, and one of whom is in contention year after year?
4. The Dilution Principle
At the risk of sounding like a Nazi scientist, elitist, or Slytherin pure-blood sympathizer, I'm willing to take the stance that in the world of college football, blue blood can turn purple then almost red, over time. When the throne is conquered, your team's blood is noble, a deep royal blue. However, each year you go without another national title, drops of red get mixed in as well. I think this metaphor is a good way to outline the impact of memory and relevance over time. It's a little bit like why nobles would sometimes turn to incest rather than marry outside the family, to keep the bloodline the same (trying very hard not to crack a WVU joke here. Oops. Just did. Its not like they have the blue blood in the first place...anyhow). Why is it that we find ourselves saying "who cares?" about Princeton's titles and the hay-day of the Ivy League? It's because so much has happened since then without them there at the forefront. This "Dilution Principle" could be a useful tool for acknowledging the successes of past kingdoms and dynasties, but offering a reward for continued success, or like in the case of a team like Clemson, an epic origin story of empire altogether. In a sense this "dilution principle" takes into the account that all teams seek continued success, not success just for the sake of a trophy in the cabinet, and rewards those who have emerged again and again, even if dethroned for a time. So how does this work? Can I engineer this principle into a formulaic process?
Football as it is recognized today has been around since the 1950's. It's hard to compare the helmet-less, forward pass-less kingdoms of old to the high octane dynamic teams of the modern era. It's like comparing armies from the stone age to the bronze age, and again to the renaissance to the beginning of WW1. I don't know how a team from 1940 would've stacked up against a team in 1890. But I'm fairly certain a team from 1960 would go undefeated against all early 1900's teams and maybe not give up a touchdown while doing so. It's tempting to write off the early days of college football altogether, and omit anything from that time as completely irrelevant. However, it IS still part of college football history, the national championships ARE national championships, and the wins ARE wins. More importantly, the teams all played on the same level playing field, albeit a playing field with leather hats and flying wedges. We do, after all, name the second most prestigious title after King John Heisman himself, second only to the National Title.
I believe that a good way to balance this all out is to use a rating system. For every year since 1950 that a team has gone without a national title, they follow the following equation: Y=((.01)X^(2))/2 I'm not a math wiz, and I'm sure theres a better equation than my somewhat arbitrary selection of this one in particular, but I'm always open to better suggestions. This equation basically states that the lower X is, Y will go down by even more. I'm sure a lot of us already knew that, but I just want to make sure I'm clear. Where X is near 5, Y is about .1. Where X is near 10, Y is about .5. Where X is near 15, Y is about 1. And where X is near 20, Y is about 2. If we say that the X value is years since National Championship (going back until 1950), we'll get a rating system where the lower the number is the better. From this, we can categorize our nobility. A team that won a national title in the last 5 years can be said to have a Dilution Rating of Near Perfect, meaning there is no question about their inclusion amongst college football's blue bloods. A team that hasn't won for 20 years would get a rating of 2, 20 times worse than a recent national champion, which could be defined as Present, But Fading. With this, we create a rating system that favors teams like Clemson, rightly so, and greatly penalizes teams like Syracuse. However, this system alone doesn't quite capture the glory that should be awarded to a team that has won national titles throughout its long history, but just happens to be in a bit of a rough patch over the last decade. Furthermore, should Syracuse win the national title next year, shouldn't they still have their long drought reflected in their overall rating? Similarly, shouldn't a team like Clemson be penalized for being irrelevant for almost 100 years before now (roll with me here and pretend for the sake of explanation that the early 80's never happened).
What I propose is a continually adjusted and relativity-based rating system. Every time a team wins a national title, they record their rating, as described above. This number is set aside. Then, the next time they win a national championship, they add their new number to their former number. I.e. If team A won a national title in 1960, 1970, 1980, 1990, 2000, and again in 2010, their rating would be 3.5. If team B never won a national title until 2020, then their rating would be about 25, even though they would be the more recent national title holder. Since in this scenario, the lower number the better, Team A would have a much better rating. This rating would then be graded on a curve against all the other teams, for a continually self-adjusting measure of football relevance.
"What about the victories of old?" you might ask. Well, since the victories of old are important, but not as important to have as the more recent wins, I suggest something like a -0.1 per national title prior to 1950. That way, teams that continue to be relevant in the modern era can use their ancient history to bolster their claim of "blue blood" but teams that have performed well in the modern era but were either not around, or not serious contenders in the old era aren't too viciously penalized for something so far in the past. With this, we have our gauge for how a team's championships stack up in this discussion.
5. The False Promise of the Heisman
Championships aren't the only thing people care about in college football, even if it might be the main thing. The Heisman is often either the consolation prize for a team that didn't quite make it as far as they had hoped, but had a standout player worthy of the history books anyway, or as the cherry on top of a national title. Either way, to me it seems to be of dubious analytical value when assessing football nobility, for one reason: It's completely anecdotal. In some cases, so much depends on the player themselves, not the organization, that it's not at all a reflection of the program's actual status. On the other side of the coin, there have been cases where its easily arguable that the system the player was brought up in and functioned as a part of amplified his stats far beyond his own personal achievement. If I had George Aston blocking for me in a game of football with my friends, I'd probably rush for 1000 yards in a single day (assuming I'm in shape and could run that outright on a track, which I'm not and I can't). Lastly, the committee. How many Heisman snubs have there been? More importantly, how many Heisman decisions have there been when the choice is between fairly equal players? The subjectivity of the process is something that us Pitt fans are all too aware of. For these reasons, the Heisman should not play a role in this determination.
6. Money Talks, but Results Are King.
In various versions of this argument, I've heard references to the amount of money a team puts into facilities, coaches, branding, etc. However, to me, allowing that to be a factor is a bit like shooting an arrow and then painting a bull's eye around it. A team can't buy empire simply by buying it, it needs to be earned. You can upgrade your facilities all you want, hire the best coaches, and pour millions into your program, but that only matters if you win. Because of this, to me, recruiting, coaches, facilities, and all the other money pits of college football are all summed into one factor that actually matters - overall record.
It's an exercise in higher math to create an algorithm to weigh the wins and the losses appropriately, and so difficult that i'm not even going to attempt it. Here's why - a win over an easier opponent should be worth less than a win over a harder opponent. How do you determine those ratings? That alone might be manageable, but then you would have to figure out a way to factor in how a team like Alabama mostly only faces teams worse than they are because they are so good. So how do you create a function which incentives wins against tougher opponents, which simultaneously rewards teams for being so good that they don't have many teams better than they are? I struggled with the basic math used earlier, and this would be a nightmare to take on. I fear that I'm relegated to using my gut instinct in this regard. overall record as a clear line in the sand is tempting, but it's no secret that some schools benefit greatly by being in a conference without much competition.
7. The Formula
Did the school win a national championship? Yes or no. If so, what is their Dilution Rating (DR)? Have they had successful record considering the challenges they've faced over the years?
8. Hail to Pitt, Dear Old Pittsburgh, Alma Mater, GOD PRESERVE THEE EVERMORE
Pitt has won national championships in the old era as well as the modern era. We have nobility in our blood!
Pitt gets a DR of roughly 12.2. Not great.
We've got an overall record of 732-539 (I couldnt find a post 1950 number, and I'm not willing to grind out the math, so lets just assume the 90's evened out the days of Pop Warner and Jock Sutherland).
I'd guess that this put's Pitt in the upper echelon of the bottom half of all the Blue-blooded schools. We're head and shoulders above Princeton and Yale, but have a long time to go before we're close to Ohio State.
I'm going to put us into the category of "Yes we are blue blooded, but much longer without a national championship and that'll change"
What do you think?