A Brief History of the Post-Season in America

December 18, 2007

I am going to be doing a haphazardly-published series on playoffs and college football. I would prefer to see a playoff decide a champion rather than polls,  for the record. This is the first in the series.

The longest-running post-season event in major American professional sports is baseball’s World Series. The first one was in 1903, when the National League and American League, then two completely separate entities, organized under the mantle of Major League Baseball. Each league’s champion played a best-of-9 series to determine the overall champion. The necessity for this playoff was the fact that AL and NL teams didn’t play each other during the regular season. After a dispute canceled the series in 1904, it returned in 1905 and would be played every year since except the strike-shortened 1994 season.

The next-oldest professional post-season event is the NHL Playoffs, as the league has had some sort of playoff determining a champion every year since its inception in 1917. The lone except is 1920, when the Ottawa Senators won both halves of the regular season and the league decided a playoff would be unnecessary. The league’s regular season system was strange up until that point; read the Wikipedia page linked to above for details.

After that, you have the NFL playoffs. The NFL was founded in 1920, but from its founding until 1932, no playoffs were held. From 1920 to 1923, the champion was selected by the owners voting at the annual owners meeting. From 1924 to 1932, the team with the highest winning percentage won the championship as the teams all played different numbers of games. In 1932, the Chicago Bears and Portsmouth Spartans tied for the lead in winning percentage, so a one game playoff was thrown together hastily to determine a champion.

Responding to fan interest in the game, the NFL split itself into two divisions (East and West) in 1933. From then on, playoff games were held if necessary as tiebreakers and then the east and west division winners played in a championship game. A consistent tournament to determine who got to play in the NFL title game was not held until 1967 when the league expanded to 16 teams. The first Super Bowl was played in 1967 as a championship game between the NFL and AFL winners, and it became the NFL championship game after the AFL/NFL merger in 1970.

The NBA playoffs have occurred every year since the precursor BAA league was founded in 1947. The league had east and west divisions from the start, and at least the top three teams from each division have appeared in the playoffs every year. Perhaps the relatively late founding of the NBA allowed it to observe the other leagues and set up a proper playoff tournament from the start.

The NCAA

The precursor to what we know as the NCAA was the Intercollegiate Athletic Association of the United States (IAAUS). It was founded by Teddy Roosevelt after his son broke his collarbone playing football at Harvard while running the offense known as the flying wedge. The idea was to have a governing body setting rules for collegiate sports to cut back on the injuries and yes, deaths, being experienced by college athletes. The organization took the name NCAA in 1910.

The NCAA at first was a a discussion group and rule-setting club until 1921, when the first NCAA championship was officially recognized: the National Collegiate Track and Field Championships won by Illinios. In the years since, it has come to sponsor 44 women’s, 41 men’s, and 3 coed championships.

The only sanctioned sport without a recognized champion is Division I-A football, a.k.a. the Football Bowl Subdivision. Only in the sport of football is a relevant distinction made between multiple parts of Division I.

Bowl Games

As we all know, I-A football uses a system of bowl games as its post-season fare. They were originally a method of attracting tourists for the areas in which they were played, and they were scheduled around the new year to give fans time to plan trips and travel to the site.

The first bowl game was the “Rose Bowl” of 1902. I put it in quotes because while it was put on by the  Tournament of Roses, it was called the “Tournament East-West Football Game.” It featured a dominant Michigan team versus a decent Stanford team, and it ended in the third quarter when Stanford quit while trailing 49-0. The Tournament of Roses was so scarred by the blowout, it wouldn’t sponsor a football game again until 1916. The game wouldn’t take on the name “Rose Bowl” until 1923 when the stadium known as the Rose Bowl was completed and hosted the game. Fun fact: it wasn’t actually a bowl stadium at the time, but a horseshoe stadium.

The Rose Bowl pitted a team from the Pacific Coast Conference (the predecessor to the Pac 10) and an eastern US team up until 1947, when the champions of what are now the Pac 10 and Big Ten became the annual contestants. It was the only major bowl until 1930, and the oldest surviving bowl games besides the Rose are the Sugar, Orange, and Sun Bowls, all founded in 1935. Besides those, the Cotton (1937), Gator (1946), and Florida Citrus (1947) are the only bowls that have been held consistently for more than 50 years. The first major bowl with a title sponsor was the (in)famous Poulan Weed-Eater Independence Bowl, operating under that name from 1990-1996.

Football Playoffs

Up until 1973, the NCAA had two divisions – the University Division, roughly football’s Division I, and the College Division, roughly football’s Divisions II and III. In 1973, the I-II-III system was set up, and Divisions II and III immediately began holding playoff tournaments for football. Division I did not, however, set up a playoff tournament thanks to the tradition of the bowls and polls.

In 1978, the NCAA partitioned Division I into three divisions: I-A for the principal football schools, I-AA for the lesser football schools, and I-AAA for the Division I schools that did not play football. Division I-AA from its inception has had some sort of playoff tournament, probably because none of its participating schools would be bowl material. This fact confirms that the real reason I-A has no playoffs is due to the bowls; every other excuse given (demands on players, the sanctity of the regular season, etc.) is secondary to the bowl games. The NCAA must have realized in the late ’70s that teams with no hope of making a bowl were playing meaningless seasons, so a separate division with playoffs included was created. No other reason for the existence of Division I subdivisions makes sense.

The Polls

The absence of an officially recognized champion of major college football naturally created a power vacuum of sorts that many organizations have been eager to fill in. The NCAA on its website keeps a record of every major poll service’s pick for national champion dating back to 1869. No polls existed at that time, but poll services such as Richard Billingsley, the National Championship Foundation, and Parke Davis have gone back and somehow come up with champs for all those years.

The two oldest surviving polls are the AP poll and the Coaches’ Poll, the latter initially being published by UPI before being taken over by the USA Today in 1991. The AP poll began in 1936, but it didn’t release a post-bowl season poll until 1965, and it wouldn’t do so on a consistent basis until 1968. The Coaches’ poll, for its part, began in 1950 and didn’t release post-bowl season polls until 1974.

Over time, mathematicians began taking cracks at making polls since human-based opinion polls can be influenced by bias, ignorance, and misinformation. The BCS has used a variety of them over its decade of existence, but the ones used today are Jeff Sagarin’s ELO-CHESS, Richard Billingsley, Anderson and Hester, Kenneth Massey, Peter Wolfe, and the Wes Colley Matrix. This group was chosen because they all do not rely on margin of victory.

One final human poll has come to prominence, the Harris Interactive Poll, after the AP pulled out of the BCS formula in 2005. The poll is made of former players, coaches, administrators, and current and former media members selected at random from a pool of candidates. Harris Interactive is a market research firm that specializes in opinion polls.

A National Title Game

For the most part, national champions for Division I/I-A football since 1950 are recognized to be the final #1 in the AP and Coaches’ Polls. That’s fine when they agree with each other, but what if they disagreed? You’d get two teams with equally legitimate claims at a title. How could one convince both
to vote for the same #1? Why, by having a national title game, of course.

The first attempt at creating a national title game was the formation of the Bowl Coalition. It consisted of the SEC, Big 8, SWC, ACC, and Big East partnering with the Orange, Sugar, Fiesta, and Cotton Bowls. The idea was that the site of the national title game would rotate among the four bowls, and it’d take the #1 and #2-ranked teams from the AP and play them against each other. This setup might require the breaking of tie-ins of conference champions to their traditional bowls, but the Coalition agreement made that possible. It lasted from 1992-94.

You may notice the absence of the Pac 10, Big Ten, and Rose Bowl. They did not participate in the Coalition, and they kept their traditional arrangements with each other. This resulted in 1994 of  #1 Nebraska playing #3 Miami in the “national title game” while #2 Penn State played in the Rose Bowl.

Following the formation of the Big 12, the Bowl Coalition was replaced by the Bowl Alliance. It consisted of the SEC, Big 12, ACC, and Big East along with the Orange, Sugar, and Fiesta Bowls. The purpose and goal was the same as the Coalition’s, but the absence of the Pac 10, Big Ten, and Rose Bowl created the same problem. Twice a #1 vs. #3 game was forced to occur in the so-called national title game. It lasted from 1995-97.

In 1998, the three stubborn laggards finally came aboard to form the Bowl Championship Series. The goal was the same – have #1 and #2 play each other – only this time it would use the AP poll, Coaches’ Poll, and an index of computer polls to determine #1 and #2. Initially, strength of schedule and losses were their own categories, and in 2002 a quality win category was included as well.

By 2002, the BCS purged all computer models that included margin of victory to discourage teams from running up the score. However, it’s impossible to keep the human element from considering it, and margin of victory definitely plays a part in the human-generated polls. In 2004, it was streamlined to include just the human and computer polls with no other categories. In 2005, the Harris Poll replaced the AP poll. In 2006, the system was tweaked to deemphasize the computers, and the result has been that the human polls control the BCS formula almost completely. Only a huge anomaly in the computer element could override a unanimous human selection. That situation creates a Catch-22, since such an anomaly would likely cause an outrage, probably leading to further deemphasizing of the computers.

A Brief Timeline of the Post-Season in America

1902: The Tournament East-West Football Game

1903: The first World Series

1916: First annual Rose Bowl game

1917: NHL formed; first NHL playoffs

1921: First officially recognized NCAA championship

1932: First NFL Championship Game

1935: First annual Orange Bowl, Sugar Bowl, and Sun Bowl

1936: First AP Football Poll

1937: First annual Cotton Bowl

1939: First NCAA men’s basketball tournament, consisted of 8 teams

1946: First annual Gator Bowl

1947: First annual Florida Citrus Bowl

1947: Advent of NBA precursor; first annual NBA basketball playoffs

1950: First Football Coaches’ Poll

1965: First post-bowl season AP poll

1967: First Super Bowl

1968: First annual post-bowl season AP poll

1971: First annual Fiesta Bowl

1973: NCAA creates Divisions I, II, III; first annual D-II and D-III football playoffs

1974: First annual post-bowl season Coaches’ Poll

1978: NCAA creates Div. I-AA; first annual I-AA football playoffs

1984: NBA playoffs expands to current 16-team format

1985: NCAA men’s basketball tournament expands to 64 teams

1990: NFL playoffs expands to current amount of 12 teams

1992: Bowl Coalition formed

1992: SEC expands to 12 teams, plays first ever football conference championship game

1993: NHL playoffs expand to current format

1994: MLB institutes the wild card; World Series canceled due to strike

1995: Bowl Alliance formed

1996: Big 12 formed; first Big 12 Championship Game

1998: BCS formed

2001: NCAA men’s basketball tournament adds 65th team, play-in game

2002: NFL reorganizes to 8 divisions, drops one wild card per conference to keep playoffs at 12

2003: Split national title between LSU and USC; BCS formula completely rewritten

2004: NASCAR implements its “Chase for the Cup” quasi-playoff system

2005: ACC expands to 12 teams; first ACC Championship Game

2005: AP Poll drops out of BCS formula, Harris Poll is formed to replace it


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