Columbia has as many titles as Duke??Posted by rtmsf on May 22nd, 2007
One thing that a casual fan of college basketball may never hear about unless he makes a practice of sifting through the detritus of message boards is the curious case of Helms Foundation titles. Everyone knows about NCAA titles – UCLA has 11, Kentucky 7, Indiana 5, UNC 4, and so on down the list. But not everybody is aware of these Helms championships, and with good reason.
In 1936, Bill Schroeder and Paul Helms created the Helms Athletic Foundation (now defunct) in Los Angeles, a panel of experts in college basketball and football who were tasked with designating retroactive “champions” and all-america teams for each year since the inception of the sport (football in 1883; basketball in 1901). Keeping in mind that this group formed in the mid-1930s, they had very little in the way of substantive evidence on which to make their decisions, other than personal recollections and (perhaps) newspaper clippings of the games. This is a surely a long way removed from the modern analysis involving strength of schedules, efficiency ratings and RPIs – analytical tools that results in an invitation for a chance to win the national championship!
We won’t even get into the ridiculousness of the modern BCS rankings in college football, but suffice it to say that given the evidentiary limitations of the times, a Helms title that was given retroactively is at best a loosely educated guess of who may have been the best team during a particular year. Who can honestly say that the Helms Champion 1906 Dartmouth (16-2) squad was better than every other team that season (irrespective, it’s always Drinking Time at Dartmouth)? It’s difficult enough to make such an assessment in today’s environment, even with bountiful video and statistical data on every team available in seconds – imagine doing it without ever seeing a team or their opponents play a single game! Which is, of course, essentially what the Helms Foundation did when making its selections.
Is Keggy the Keg aware of Dartmouth’s National Championship?
So why is this relevant to today’s game, and by proxy, this blog? Ten years ago it wouldn’t have been. But nowadays, this has become a fairly contentious issue amongst some of the game’s bluebloods. Most notably, UNC has inarguably been touting its retroactive 1924 Helms title as a championship on equal footing with its four NCAA titles in its media guides and other media outlets (ESPN, CBS, etc.). It also has a banner celebrating this championship hanging next to its NCAA championship banners in the Dean Dome (see the 1:00 minute mark). And Heel fans can also purchase replica banners, including one honoring the 1924 champions, at a store on Franklin St. in Chapel Hill. In a sport that has always crowned its champions at every level in a tournament format, this does not sit well with members of other traditional powers, especially at Kentucky and Kansas, where the message boards enjoy periodic states of delirium over this issue.
Kentucky boasts seven NCAA titles, and rightfully honors those teams in the rafters of Rupp Arena. Kansas sports two NCAA titles, and also honors those teams with banners in Allen Fieldhouse. Although both programs mention their Helms titles in their media guides (Kentucky was awarded a 1933 championship retroactively and a 1954 championship contemporaneously; Kansas was awarded 1922 and 1923 championships retroactively), both schools also distinguish how these titles were awarded, and are not listed as championships among their school paraphernalia for sale to the public. This is not unusual. A brief check of other major schools’ athletic sites who have also won Helms titles (Syracuse, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh) seems to give the award short shrift, with none of them going out of its way to tout the Helms as a national title in the same way that Carolina is clearly doing.
So what does all this mean? It means that Carolina’s marketing strategy to promote its Helms title as legitimate on the college basketball public really burns some fans up. One NC State fan on the blog State Fans Nation seems to capture many fans of other programs’ sentiment when he recently wrote about his own program:
If we tried to hang a banner for winning the national title in 1973, I would personally rip it down. If we tried to hang a banner for winning the national title in the 1920s, I would burn the building down. It’s one thing for a program that has NO history whatsoever to try and beef things up a bit…so if SUNY-Stonybrook wants to hang an NIT appearance banner, I get it. When you’re UNC and you’re trying to do the same thing, you just look sad. It’s your building, hang the banner. You still look pathetic.
Carolina fans, to their credit, seem relatively nonplussed about the issue – they tend to see it as just another nice banner honoring a great Carolina team of yore. While commemorating a team for an award such as the Helms is all well and good, it’s surely no coincidence that the Helms banner is on equal footing in their arena, nor is it mere chance that media sites such as ESPN and CBS are putting forth on-screen statistics citing UNC’s five “national championships” during the past couple of years.
Where is Steve Kirschner’s trophy?
UNC Sports Information Director Steve Kirschner’s work in manipulating this previously arcane piece of basketball history into the public consciousness surely merits a raise commensurate with Roy Williams’ salary for bringing yet another title to Carolina. The question now is whether the others schools will catch on, leading to a historical arms race for titles (we already see this in college football, where voting for champions is considered normal); or whether Carolina will eventually be publically shamed into distinguishing between the two versions of national titles.
For the complete list of Helms Champions in basketball and football, click here.