It’s not hard to name the top programs in college football. Round up the usual suspects: Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson, Florida State, Oklahoma and USC. Twenty-two schools have combined to win the last 50 national championships. Even factoring in the rare Georgia Tech/Colorado radar blip of 1990, power is consolidated in the hands of the few.
That consolidation is even more pronounced in college basketball, where just 20 schools have combined to win the last 50 national titles. Butler or Gonzaga may occasionally threaten the established aristocracy, but ultimately it is a sport ruled by just a handful of programs.
Yet there is a big college athletic world outside the football/basketball industrial complex. The answer to the question of who is running that world – and who isn’t – is considerably less obvious.
So I ran some numbers to figure it out.
Using the Learfield Directors Cup standings, which rank athletic departments annually by their overall success, I compiled a five-year average for each of the Power Five schools. (For the uninitiated, those are members of the Atlantic Coast, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and Southeastern conferences, plus Notre Dame.) The complete 1-65 ranking can be found here, with trajectory and comment included on each school.
These are the richest athletic programs in the country, fattened by piles of cash that have poured in since conference media-rights deals exploded earlier this century. So what kind of broad-based bang are they getting for their buck?
The one school that has undisputed claim to the best all-around athletic department hasn’t won a football or basketball national title since World War II. It simply wins everything else, including four NCAA titles in the 2016-17 school year: men’s soccer, women’s volleyball, swimming and water polo. This marked the 41st consecutive year in which said school has won at least one NCAA championship.
Take a bow, Stanford. The student body that refers to itself as Nerd Nation is actually the most athletic in the land.
Football goliath Alabama, meanwhile, doesn’t even crack the all-around top 25. When Nick Saban needs a waterfall in the football locker room, that’s the priority. Non-revenue sports can get in line after that.
Virginia, which has a grand total of zero football and men’s basketball national titles in its history, is the No. 11 overall athletic department in the past five years. Clemson, which won the 2016 football title and was runner-up the year before, is No. 49. But the Tigers did build a miniature golf course as part of their new football complex, so there’s that.
Warm weather clearly can enhance all-around sports success – the top four in the Learfield five-year average are Stanford, Florida, UCLA and USC. But lack of year-round sunshine is hardly a deal breaker – Michigan, Penn State and Ohio State all are in the top 10. In one of the most surprising juxtapositions, Minnesota is No. 24 and Arizona State is No. 30.
Which schools are doing the worst all-around job? The three most egregiously out of step with their Power Five colleagues are Washington State, Rutgers and Pittsburgh.
Washington State hasn’t cracked the top 100 in the Learfield standings since 2010. The loneliest outpost in the Pac-12 is starkly out of step with its conference brethren, which include eight of the five-year top 30. In 2012-13 the Cougars were No. 192, tucked away behind the likes of Canisius, Winthrop, Santa Clara and Northwestern State.
The manifold incompetence that has gripped Rutgers athletics is well documented, but the Learfield numbers bring it home with renewed emphasis. At No. 116 overall in the 2016-17 rankings, the Scarlet Knights are 63 spots behind the next-worst Big Ten school, Michigan State.
Pitt is the most surprising laggard of them all, failing to rank higher than 85th in the last five years, but it’s not a shock to those in the know. The school’s inclusion in ACC expansion in 2013 was greeted with disdain in some circles because of the Panthers’ weak overall athletic program, and it has done nothing to change that since. (Unless you want to count finishing ahead of fellow all-around underachiever Georgia Tech in the 2016-17 Learfield standings.)
The best athletic programs outside the Power Five? Start with independent Brigham Young, which would rank in the top 40. So would Princeton, which doesn’t play FBS football. The highest-ranked program that plays no football at all is Denver, which would be in the Power Five top 50, and the top service academy is Air Force.
Our collective attention will pivot back to football soon enough – like next week, when conference media days begin with the SEC’s modest, four-day affair in Birmingham. Until then, this is a good time to salute the schools succeeding across the college sports landscape, and to scrutinize those that aren’t.
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