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Conference Realignment and College Football's Good Old Days
Oklahoma and Texas moving to the SEC and UCLA and USC leaving for the Big Ten causes consternation for college football fans. Fans of the Big 12 and Pac-12 teams left behind feel stilted, while fans of other schools are uncertain about how their favorite teams might be affected down the road. The changes can be upsetting for fans of the affected schools and college football fans in general. Still, the changes seem less consequential when we recognize that realignments and relegation have a long history in college football. Change has occurred at every step and fans longing for the good old days largely miss a period that never existed.
Fans pining for the old days need to ask themselves when those good old days occurred. For example, which decade of college football best represents the good old days? Was it before 1920? Was it the 1960s? The 1980s? What made the good old days good? Was it the nature of the football on the field? The accessibility of games via radio, broadcast television, cable, or streaming? Was it the stability of the conferences? The stability of your preferred conference? Did the good old days arrive after Black players could participate fully?
I can't answer those questions, but to provide some sense of the shifts and stability in college football's balance of power, I will look at college football in 1940 compared to today, a year when the world was at war and America was not. The war was a turning point in world history, directly contributing to the subsequent growth of the American university system and leading some schools to drop football in its aftermath. I'm also using that year because I own a giveaway booklet distributed by Hires Root Beer that lists the 1940 football schedules of 270 schools. I'll use elements of the brochure to show how football has changed since then. (Fun fact: Hires Root Beer is the longest continually made soft drink in the United States. Charles Hires introduced it in 1876, the same year the IFA published football's first rules.)
Page 4 of the booklet lists an All Time All-America Team which, depending on the depth of your college football fandom, may include a few names you do not recognize.
Page 4 also shows the results of the five bowl games played following the 1939 season, which included Catholic U in the Sun Bowl. It shows the final Top Ten teams for 1938 and 1939 had many of the usual suspects, plus Carnegie Tech, Holy Cross, Cornell, Tulane, and Duquesne. The team leading the country in attendance in 1939 was Pennsylvania, not Penn State, Pennsylvania of the Ivy League. Tulane topped attendance in the South, and Rice did so in the Southwest. None of those teams has been a significant player at the national level for decades, yet all continue to thrive as universities, particularly on the academic side.
Look at page 5, which is the first of many listing the football schedules for some of the 270 schools. It is unclear how Hires chose the 270 schools deserving a spot in their booklet. Perhaps they included every NCAA school when the organization had a single division. (Every NCAA school competed against the others in national meets or tournaments, including basketball, which the NCAA first held in 1939.)
Ninety-six of the 270 schools currently play FBS football, so many of the top teams in 1940 are still among the big boys; a handful of prominent teams are not. Colgate, Cornell, and Princeton were named national champions by one rating system or another during the 1930s. Army earned three national championships in the 1940s, and Princeton did so in 1950.
Of the 270 schools on the Hires schedule, 45 play FCS football today, 5 play DII, 79 play DIII, 2 play NAIA, and 43 no longer play football, including one school, Detroit Tech, which no longer exists. In addition, no historically black college or university is on the schedule for the year after upstart UCLA shocked the football world by starting four black players.
Among the schools that dropped football, a few like St. Mary's and Santa Clara were nationally prominent in the 1930s, struggled to restart football after WWII, and dropped the game soon after. Marquette played in the first Cotton Bowl in 1937 and hung on until 1960 before giving up hopes for a Galloping Ghost.
In addition to the schools that have left big-time football behind since 1940, others picked it up. Florida State and Arizona State are missing from the 1940 list, while others, like Air Force and South Florida, did not exist in 1940.
While few who read this article will recall 1940 as part of their good old days of college football, the comparison shows both the turnover and stability in the mix of teams playing at the top level. Some rise. Some fall. Few fans today are upset that Santa Clara is no longer a football power. Yet, almost three-quarters of the teams currently playing FBS football were sufficiently prominent to be listed on the 1940 Hires schedule. That level of stability is far better than most industries. In the auto industry, for example, DeSoto, Hudson, International, Packard, and Willys still sold cars to Americans in 1940, while Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Volkswagen, Toyota, and others did not. And don't get me started on the computer, mobile phone, and software industries in 1940.
Things change. They always have and always will. New technologies and other forces affect how colleges and universities view their athletic programs and how the public perceives them. Once prominent teams fade and others take their place.
Of course, it sucks when your school is negatively affected by realignment, but if big-time or relatively big-time football is your thing, be glad you weren’t a fan of Marquette, St. Mary's, or Wichita State. Conversely, there are at least eight teams in FBS today that did not field a football team in 2000, so the same dynamism that reduces one team’s prominence opens opportunities for others.
Below are the 270 schools in the Hires schedule listed by the level at which their football program plays today.
Akron, Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Army, Auburn, Ball State, Baylor, Boston College, BYU, Buffalo, California, Cincinnati, Clemson, Colorado, Colorado State, UConn, Duke, Eastern Michigan, Florida, Georgia Tech, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Kent State, Kentucky, Louisiana Tech, LSU, Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisville, Marshall, UMass, Maryland, Miami (OH), Miami (FL), Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Mississippi, Mississippi State, Missouri, Navy, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, NC State, Northwestern, Notre Dame, Ohio, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Oregon, Oregon State, Penn State, Pitt, Purdue, Rice, Rutgers, San Diego State, San Jose State, South Carolina, SMU, Stanford, Memphis, Stanford, Syracuse, Temple, Tennessee, Texas, Texas A&M, TCU, Texas Tech, Toledo, Tulane, Tulsa, UCLA, USC, Utah, Utah State, Vanderbilt, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest, Washington, Washington State, West Virginia, Western Kentucky, Western Michigan, Wisconsin, Wyoming
Abilene Christian, Brown, Bucknell, Butler, Cal-Davis, Chattanooga, Citadel, Colgate, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Davidson, Dayton, Delaware, Drake, Duquesne, Elon, Fordham, Furman, Georgetown, Harvard, Holy Cross, Illinois State, Indiana State, Lafayette, Lehigh, Maine, Mercer, Montana, Montana State, New Hampshire, North Dakota, North Dakota State, Penn, Princeton, Rhode Island, Richmond, Samford, Stetson, St. Thomas, South Dakota State, Valparaiso, Villanova, VMI, William & Mary, Wofford, Yale
Missouri Mines, Northern Michigan, Texas-Kingsville, Wayne State (MI), West Chester
Alfred, Albright, Allegheny, Alma, Amherst, Augustana (IL), Baker, Bates, Baldwin-Wallace, Bethany, Bowdoin, Capital, Carnegie Tech, Carson-Newman, Case Western (merged), Catholic, Centenary, Centre, Colby, Cornell (IA), Denison, Dickinson, Emory & Henry, Franklin, Franklin & Marshall, Geneva, Gettysburg, Hamilton, Hampden-Sydney, Hardin-Simmons, Haverford, Heidelberg, Hiram, Hobart, John Carroll, Juanita, Johns Hopkins, Kenyon, Knox, Lebanon Valley, Marietta, McDaniel, Moravian, Mt. Union, Muhlenberg, Nebraska Wesleyan, Oberlin, Ohio Northern, Ohio Wesleyan, Otterbein, Pacific, Randolph-Macon, RPI, Rhodes, Rochester, Sewanee, Simpson, St. Lawrence, Susquehanna, Thiel, Transylvania, Trinity, Tufts, Union, Ursinus, Wabash, Washington U, Washington & Jefferson, Washington & Lee, Waynesburg, Wesleyan, Westminster (PA), West Virginia Wesleyan, Widener, Williams, Wooster, Worchester Poly
Cumberland, Southwestern (KS)
Dropped Football (42)
Boston U, Bradley, Brooklyn, Cal Tech, Canisius, CCNY, Clarkston, College of Idaho, Creighton, Denver, Detroit, Drexel, Farmingdale State, George Washington, Gonzaga, La Salle, Loyola (CA), Manhattan, Marquette, Milwaukee, Nebraska-Omaha, Niagara, Northeastern, NYU, Occidental, Oglethorpe, Oklahoma City, Providence, Rollins, San Francisco, Santa Clara, Scranton, St. Bonaventure, St. Louis, St. Mary's, Swarthmore, Tampa, Upsala, Vermont, Washington (MD), Wichita State, Xavier
School No Longer Exists (1)
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