Bear Bryant is wholly honest about it now. He once told a friend that one reason he left Texas A&M for Alabama was that it would be easier to win a national championship at Alabama, "where a man can have the whole state going for him, all those doctors and lawyers helpin' out with recruiting."
"Any year Alabama's not up there righting for first," says Bryant, thereby revealing exactly what the ratings mean to him, "I have done a poor job."
A few coaches have minor complaints about the stampede for No. 1, even though they admit that's the real objective now in college football.
"I would like to believe the polls are very accurate, because we finished first in all of them in 1963," says Texas' Darrell Royal. "But another impression I have is that no one in the Southwest stands a chance at the national championship unless Notre Dame and everyone in the Big Ten have been beaten."
Royal adds, "I think the polls suffer from human failings. People have a tendency to give the benefit of the doubt to a team from their own section, or a coach they like. A major weakness is that many so-called pollsters fail to take into consideration the quality of a team's opposition. But we've all become affected by the ratings. I know we might not have gone for two points against Arkansas in 1964 if we hadn't been the national champions. I felt that we ought to defend the title or go down swinging, which we did."
Nebraska Coach Bob Devaney feels much the same as Royal, that the Corn-huskers suffer in the polls against a Notre Dame or Michigan State. "We were rated No. 1 in the preseason polls of 1965, won 10 straight games and wound up third," he says. "It makes you wonder what you have to do."
The best summing-up of the fever that the polls have created comes from USC's John McKay. "All I know is that John McKay reads them, my kids read them and everyone I know reads them, so they must increase the interest in college football," he says.
Polls and systems to determine the No. 1 team are not nearly so ancient as the mere naming of the "intercollegiate champion" by a Casper Whitney or a J. Parmly Paret. Ironically enough, they can be traced back only 40 years, to none other than good old Knute Rockne at good old Notre Dame.
It happened like this. In 1926 a teacher of economics named Frank G. Dickinson at the University of Illinois was a football buff who privately enjoyed rating teams by his own mathematical formula. He happened to mention this in class one day, and a student in the back row who was sports editor of The Daily Mini wrote a story about it. The story came to the attention of a Chicago clothing manufacturer named Jack Rissman, another football buff, who decided he would like to use Dickinson's ratings to select the top team in the Big Ten each year so that he could present a trophy to the winner. When Knute Rockne heard about this, he invited both the professor and the clothing manufacturer to lunch at South Bend and said, "Why don't you make it a national trophy that Notre Dame will have a chance to win?" Never one to miss out on a good thing, Rockne also persuaded Dickinson and Rissman to predate the whole thing a couple of years so that the 1924 Irish—the Four Horsemen team—could be the first official, system-rated national champion. Notre Dame has always had a lot of ways to beat you.
For better or for worse, Dickinson's system was relatively simple. At the end of a season he divided all teams into two categories—those that won more games than they lost, and those that did not. He then awarded points for victories over teams in the first division and fewer points for victories over teams in the second division. Quality of schedule was not a factor but, just as inequitably, the number of games played was, except for bowls. Still, the Dickinson system was accepted by football fans as the law until well into the 1930s. By then a lot of other systems had been originated.