brainchild of Illinois economics professor Frank Dickinson, the
Dickinson System was a primitive mathematical formula created to select
a "national champion," which it did for each season from 1926 through
1940. At Knute Rockne's request, Dickinson also retroactively rated
teams for the 1924 and 1925 seasons so as to crown Rockne's '24 Notre
Dame team the system's first "national champion." The system thus
gained Rockne's endorsement.
In addition to that crucial endorsement, it got nationwide publicity thanks to its sponsor, Chicago
clothing manufacturer Jack Rissman, the namesake of its annual "Rissman
Trophy." This became the "Knute Rockne Intercollegiate Memorial Trophy"
after the revered Notre Dame coach's death.
I address math-based systems in general (now known as
computer ratings) and their "national champions" in a separate review.
To sum it up, I do not consider the winning of
any math formula's top spot for a given season to constitute
a national championship. This is not a controversial position,
for the most part no one else does either.
But I am reviewing Dickinson separately here only because, unfortunately,
some people actually do view this system as an authoritative
selector for national champions, and the authoritative selector for the years it was active before the AP poll, 1924-1935. Naturally, people counting up
historical national championships would like to count ones that took
place before the AP poll started. Especially schools looking for more banners to put
may seem like a good source for pre-AP poll champions at
first glance, because the system was contemporary, well-known and
well-publicized at the time (being basically a marketing campaign for
Rissman), and it handed out an actual trophy at the end. However,
contrary to what you might read about Dickinson today, if you read
football magazines and articles from the time, you will find that
winning the Rissman (or Rockne) Trophy
was not considered by most writers to be equivalent
to winning a "national championship."
And that is because some of the system's
"winners" were flat-out ridiculous, and considered so at the time.
Southern Cal 1928Speaking
of which, in 1928, 9-0-1 Southern
Cal won the Rissman Trophy over 11-0 Georgia Tech. Nevertheless,
outside of California sources or the Rissman Trophy press releases,
everything I have read from contemporary writers assumes 11-0 Georgia
Tech, rather than Southern Cal, to be either a national champion
or the nation's best team. In fact, had there been an AP Poll in 1928,
Georgia Tech would have certainly won it by a landslide, possibly
Georgia Tech won the Rose Bowl that year over
California, and California is the team that tied USC. Georgia Tech is a
nearly unanimous selection as national champion by organizations listed
in the NCAA Records Book. Only Dickinson selects Southern Cal.
AP poll started in 1936, and hit the Dickinson System like that
theoretical giant asteroid hit the dinosaurs. The system died four
years later, only 14 years after it had begun. This happened partly
because the Dickinson System became an afterthought
publicity-wise in comparison. But it was also because the AP poll
further reinforced how ridiculous some of Dickinson's so-called
the national championship debate centered on 11-0 Texas Christian (AP
#1) and 11-0 Tennessee (AP #2). The Dickinson System alone begged to
differ, selecting 8-1 Notre Dame (AP #5). In 1939, 11-0 Texas
A&M was and is a near-unanimous selection as national champion,
but the Dickinson System alone preferred 8-0-2 Southern Cal.
fact is, if the Dickinson System was so great, it would still be used
today. And we would have a lot more so-called "national champions" from
the last 70-odd years since its extinction.
A National Championship 65 Years in the Making
On July 26, 2004, 65 years after the fact, the Southern Cal
athletic department announced its then-tenth (as they count them)
"national championship" in college football:
that 1939 Dickinson System title when they were 8-0-2 and Texas A&M
won the AP poll at 11-0. Oh, the fanfare and parades that must have
announcement that summer!
The press release, still on the school's website,
states that "for some undetermined reason, USC never
acknowledged 1939 among its national titleists... until now." But I
would think that the reason is easily determined. Surely the school
didn't acknowledge it because they had at least an ounce of dignity and
people don't cling to such old-fashioned notions as dignity and shame
anymore, and anyway, the fans always like to see another banner go up
in the ol' stadium.
Comparing the Dickinson System to Other MNC Selectors
At the end of each of my national championship
articles, which I am writing for each season 1901-present, I give a
grade for each national championship selection made by the MNC
selectors listed in the NCAA Records Book. The grades run on a scale
from 0 to 5. Using their grade point averages, I can compare Dickinson
to all the other selectors of the same time period. For this purpose, I
am only using the seasons the Dickinson system
selected in common with each selector it is compared to. The Dickinson
system selected champions for the seasons 1924-1940.
Dickinson vs. Human SelectorsCollege Football Researchers Association: 4.67 Dickinson: 3.35 1924-1940
Helms Athletic Foundation: 4.26 Dickinson: 3.35 1924-1940
National Championship Foundation: 4.48 Dickinson: 3.35 1924-1940
2.60 Dickinson: 3.68 1924-1933
4.84 Dickinson: 3.00 1936-1940
As you can see, Dickinson beat out one human selector, Parke Davis, who is easily the worst human MNC selector of all time (listed in the NCAA Records Book, at least).
Dickinson vs. Other Math FormulasSagarin: 3.21 Dickinson: 3.35 1924-1940
Sagarin ELO-Chess: 4.09 Dickinson: 3.35 1924-1940
Boand: 4.69 Dickinson: 3.35 1924-1940
Billingsley: 4.38 Dickinson: 3.35 1924-1940
Houlgate: 4.02 Dickinson: 3.35 1924-1940
Poling: 4.37 Dickinson: 3.35 1924-1940
Dunkel: 3.49 Dickinson: 3.69 1929-1940
Williamson: 2.84 Dickinson: 3.43 1931-1940
Litkenhous: 4.50 Dickinson: 2.87 1934-1940
DeVold: 5.00 Dickinson: 2.50 1939-1940
Berryman: 5.00 Dickinson: 5.00 1940
Dickinson's system beat out 3 other systems, Sagarin's original recipe, Dunkel, and Williamson. Williamson is probably the worst MNC selector of all time.
In the end, the Dickinson System is only a math formula, just like many
others that existed both then (such as Houlgate and Williamson) and now
(such as Sagarin and Massey). None of the others is considered to
constitute a "national champion," and neither should Dickinson. Indeed,
Dickinson is, if anything, weaker than most of the others. Not
only was its formula more primitive, but Dickinson also did not count
bowl games, and that combination renders it worthless.