Mythical national championship
A mythical national championship (sometimes abbreviated MNC) is national championship recognition that is not explicitly competitive. This phrase has often been invoked in reference to American college football, especially when referring to seasons predating the Bowl Championship Series because the NCAA did not sponsor a playoff-style tournament or recognize official national champions for the Football Bowl Subdivision. The relevant recognition before 1998 came from various entities, including coach polls and media ballots, which each voted to recognize their own national champions. The contrary term is undisputed national championship.
|“||If there are any Big Ten teams that shoot for a national championship, they're damn fools...You play to win the Big Ten championship, and if you win it and go to the Rose Bowl and win it, then you've had a great season. If they choose to vote you number one, then you're the national champion. But a national champion is a mythical national champion, and I think you guys ought to know that. It's mythical.||”|
|— Bo Schembechler of Michigan, July 1989|
"Mythical national champion" is a term used since at least 1920 for a championship won by a NCAA Division I football team, especially for titles won before the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) system began in 1998. Before the BCS, polls in which coaches and/or sportwriters voted, such as the AP, UPI, and USA Today polls, awarded championships. This led to seasons in which two or even more teams could claim to have won the national championship.
The BCS attempted to eliminate uncertainty by ranking college teams and inviting the top two teams at the end of the regular season to play in a championship game. These teams were determined by the BCS ranking formula, which itself used a combination of human voter polls and computer rankings. The process of selecting the two best teams for the BCS championship game had nonetheless resulted in controversy, which reached a head in 2003 when the AP poll refused to vote the BCS champions as their national champions.
Since the 2014 season, the College Football Playoff—an association of Division I FBS collegiate conferences and independent schools, along with six bowl games—has arranged for the top four teams (based on a thirteen-member committee that seeds and selects the teams similarly to the Final Four) into two semifinal bowl games and the winners go on to compete in the CFP National Championship Game. This is likely to eliminate future instances of the polls disputing the arranged championship, as the winner will always have defeated two top-5 teams in consecutive games, a feat which would normally in and of itself warrant top-ranking.
The national championship of collegiate basketball that is officially recognized by the main governing body for collegiate athletics in the United States, the NCAA, has been awarded to the champion of an annual national post-season tournament run by the NCAA since 1939. Prior to the advent of national post-season college basketball tournaments, beginning with the NAIA national men's basketball championship in 1937, the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) in 1938 and the NCAA Tournament in 1939, various third-party organizations selected basketball national champions in a manner similar to the selection of national champions for college football described above.
Notable among the pre-tournament era selections, and listed in the Official NCAA Men's Basketball Records Book, are those from the Helms Athletic Foundation. The Helms Foundation named a national champion from 1901 to 1982, with its selections from 1901 to 1941 being awarded retroactively. The Helms champion, for the years in which the NIT and NCAA post-season tournaments were played, reflected the winners of the 1938 NIT and 1939 NIT, as well as the winners for all years of the NCAA Tournament except for 1939, 1940, 1944 and 1954. Most recently, the retroactive end-of-year Premo-Porretta Power Poll has provided the first national rankings of college basketball teams for the 1895–96 through the 1947–48 seasons. (No regular, recognized national polling took place prior to the establishment of the Associated Press Poll and the Coaches Poll for college basketball prior to the 1948–49 and 1950–51 seasons, respectively.) The Premo-Porretta rankings were published in 2009 in the ESPN College Basketball Encyclopedia. As with the Helms selections, the Premo-Porretta poll recognized the 1938 and 1939 NIT Champions as national champions; in addition to 1939, the poll's national championship selections differed from the results of the NCAA Tournament in 1941, 1943, 1944, 1945, and 1947.
During World War II, from 1943 to 1945, the NCAA, NIT and Madison Square Garden cooperated to host "mythical national championship games" between winners of each year's NCAA and NIT tournaments in order to benefit the American Red Cross' War Fund. The series was described by Ray Meyer, coach of the losing 1945 DePaul team, as "the games for the national championship". The NCAA champion prevailed in all three games.
During the early years of the two tournaments, the NCAA and NIT competed against each other, giving rise to debate over their relative prowess. In 1939, the inaugural year of the NCAA tournament, the NIT was generally considered to be superior. During the 1940s, the relative status of the two tournaments was unclear, and thus some years produced disputed national championship claims. Some contemporary sources claim superiority for the NIT during this time. In 1943, in a shrewd competitive move the NCAA tournament began sharing Madison Square Garden with the NIT. In 1945, following victories by the NCAA champions over the NIT champions in the Red Cross games, The New York Times indicated that many teams who could potentially get bids to enter either tournament would probably choose the NCAA tournament "because it involves stronger competition." In 1950, City College of New York won both the NIT and the NCAA tournaments in the same season, coincidentally defeating Bradley University in the championship game of both tournaments, and thus united the titles. After the fall-out from the 1951 gambling and point-shaving scandals, the NCAA tournament pulled out of Madison Square Garden. With conference champions and the majority of the top-ranked teams participating in it, the NCAA tournament since then came to be regarded as the more important post-season tourney and the sole determiner of the national championship, although following the taint of the gambling scandals, the NIT was still considered a quality tournament for some time afterward. The NCAA built on the momentum of three consecutive Red Cross "mythical national championship" game victories over the NIT, eventually outmaneuvering the NIT by adeptly avoiding permanent damage from the 1951 gambling and point-shaving scandals and by adding more teams.
Schools that claim pre-NCAA Tournament basketball championships
Many schools claim or recognize pre-tournament era national college basketball championships by virtue of being selected by third-party selectors, such as the Helms Athletic Foundation, including the University of Kansas, Purdue University, Stanford University, the University of North Carolina, the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Wisconsin, Syracuse University, and Washington State University. In addition, in some years teams won playoff series or tournaments played on the court for a national championship. For example, LSU claims the 1935 championship by virtue of winning the American Legion Bowl game against Pittsburgh in a match-up of regional powers.
Three schools claim a national championship based on their NIT championships: DePaul (1945), Utah (1947), and San Francisco (1949). Long Island also recognizes its selection as the 1939 national champion by the Helms Athletic Foundation.
The following table is a partial list of schools that claim a national championship from the pre-NCAA Tournament era of college basketball. See also Helms Athletic Foundation Basketball National Champions. Not all schools recognize national championship honors bestowed by third-party selectors.
|1904||Hiram College||1904 Olympic Games college championship tournament|
|1908||Chicago ||National Championship Playoff|
|1912||Wisconsin||Helms Athletic Foundation|
|1914||Wisconsin||Helms Athletic Foundation|
|1915||Illinois||Helms Athletic Foundation|
Helms Athletic Foundation
|1917||Washington State||Helms Athletic Foundation|
|1918||Syracuse||Helms Athletic Foundation|
|1920||New York University 
National Championship Playoff
|First National Collegiate Championship Tournament
Helms Athletic Foundation
|1923||Kansas||Helms Athletic Foundation|
|Helms Athletic Foundation
|Helms Athletic Foundation
|1926||Syracuse||Helms Athletic Foundation|
|1927||Notre Dame||Helms Athletic Foundation|
|1928||Pittsburgh||Helms Athletic Foundation|
|Veteran Athletes of Philadelphia
Helms Athletic Foundation
|1930||Pittsburgh ||Naismith Basketball HOF Championship Game, Helms Athletic Foundation|
|1931||Northwestern||Helms Athletic Foundation|
|1932||Purdue||Helms Athletic Foundation|
|1934||Wyoming||Helms Athletic Foundation|
|1935||LSU ||American Legion Bowl Game|
|1936||Notre Dame||Helms Athletic Foundation|
|1937||Stanford||Helms Athletic Foundation|
|1938||Temple||Helms Athletic Foundation, NIT|
High school sports
Because high school sports in the United States such as football and basketball are state-centered sports involving thousands of schools, it would be almost impossible to have a national championship playoff. A single-game playoff for football, however, was attempted in 1938 and 1939, particularly difficult at that time due to many states' prohibition of postseason games. Nearly all states crown several champions in different classifications, which are not uniform from state to state, based upon school enrollments.
Some publications and internet sites release nationwide rankings for high school sports based on polls or mathematical formulas which take into account various factors like average margin of victory and strength of schedule. Schools that finish atop these rankings, particularly the USA Today poll, often claim to be national champions, and the press calls them "mythical national champions".
National Football League
In the earliest days of the National Football League, the NFL championship was determined by a formula and by the votes of the NFL owners. In three instances, 1920, 1921 and 1925, this led to disputed titles. In 1932, two teams tied atop the standings led to a one-game playoff for the championship, which was made permanent the next year. There has been some sort of NFL playoff ever since, and as the league grew, so too did the tournament, which eventually took form as the single-elimination tournament it is today.
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Not even a mythical national champion can be established or claimed.
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In the 1940's, when the N.C.A.A. tournament was less than 10 years old, the National Invitation Tournament, a saturnalia held in New York at Madison Square Garden by The Metropolitan Intercollegiate Basketball Association, was the most glamorous of the post-season tournaments and generally had the better teams. The winner of the National Invitation Tournament was regarded as more of a national champion than the actual, titular, national champion, or winner of the N.C.A.A. tournament.
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