The College Triple Crown

June 26, 2006


The College World Series is wrapping up with North Carolina and Oregon State in the championship series. I'm rooting for the Beavers because of their ties to the Pac-10 and, well, OSU doesn't win at anything. UNC at least has its status of one of the elitest of the elite men's basketball programs.

With a renowned "basketball school" trying to become a baseball champion, it brings us to the question: Is it possible to be among the best at more than one sport? And which schools have had the most success in the big money sports?

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But first we take a moment to recognize the loss suffered by the Wildcat athletic family this past week when football great Theopolis "T" Bell passed away. T had a long NFL career and went on to become a beloved educator and mentor in the Tampa area, but long-time Arizona fans will remember him as a big-play receiver for the Cats.

Not only does T still hold the UA records for receiving touchdowns in a season (11) and career (30), but in setting those marks he was also a large part of the best 3-year run in UA football history. From 1973-1975 the Wildcats posted a record of 26-7, a win total that hasn't been matched since. The 1997-1999 Cats went 25-12 but they didn't even come close to T & company's 3-year winning percentage of .788.

A huge Bear Down to one of the all-time Wildcat greats.

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When you talk about multi-sport success in big-time college athletics, you have to start with the Big Two: Football and Men's Basketball. These are the two sports that are on TV all throughout the regular season. These are the sports that put on huge postseason spectacles, and these are the sports that make the fat bank.

We'll add baseball later to complete the Triple Crown, but the reality is if you're not really good at the moneymaking sports, you don't have the revenue to spend on everything else.

The next challenge is setting the rules. How do you determine the best in a particular sport? People can use things like overall wins or playoff appearances, but I'm going to focus on one thing: Winning in the postseason. You have to be good to make the postseason, and you have to be the best to win in the postseason.

In basketball, that means one thing: making the Final Four. The championship is settled on the court and the four best teams win their region to meet on the biggest stage.

Football isn't so easy. There's no tournament to determine a champion. We have a system of campaigning and voting and computer formulating and we-got-screwed-ing and then we have some bowl games. So how do you know which are the "Final Four" football teams each year?

We'll use two sets of criteria to try and cover all bases. On the one hand we have the winners of the four BCS bowls (the Rose, Fiesta, Orange, and Sugar) and on the other we have the top four teams in the final Associated Press poll each year.

I discovered finishing in the AP Top Four is a lot harder than winning a BCS bowl. Michigan and Wisconsin have both won 3 BCS bowls in the past 15 years but they've each only been Top Four in the AP once in that span. But no matter which football standard you use, the list of 7 teams that made the "Final Four" of both the two big sports in the last 15 years stays the same:

Arizona
Florida
Louisiana State
Oklahoma
Texas
Utah
Wisconsin

(Michigan and Ohio State would also be on the list if not for their rivalry of cheating to make basketball Final Fours.)

If you break things down by 5-year chunks, our Arizona Wildcats are the only team that moves depending on which football standard is employed. You have to go back 15 years to include our BCS bowl win (the '93-'94 Fiesta), but when you use the AP Top Four we move up to the Last 10 Years list due to our finish in '98-'99.

When you get down to the most recent of the best-the teams with a Top Four in both football and basketball in the past 5 years-you're looking at Florida, LSU, Oklahoma and Texas. That's it. And if '06-'07 doesn't see Oklahoma back at the Final Four or Florida winning a BCS bowl game, the list will be even shorter next year.

Florida makes up for its recent football slip with repeat greatness in both sports over the years. The Gators stand alone with 3 Top Four's in football and 2 hoops Final Fours in the last 10 years, and an outstanding 4 in football and 3 in basketball in the past 15 years. In other words, inventing your own sports beverage has its benefits.

The UF is also just one of three institutions in the last decade-and-a-half to pull off the double feature in the same school year. The Gators had a Sugar Bowl win to go along with their Final Four in '93-'94. Wisconsin went AP Top Four/Final Four in '99-'00. The third school? Your very own University of Arizona with our Fiesta/Final Four combo in '93-'94.

When you add baseball, the list gets even more exclusive. Using the teams that made the semifinals of the College World Series, you only have Florida and Texas with a trifecta in the last 5 years, with LSU doing the trick in the last 10 years. It's interesting to note that until both Florida and LSU made this year's Final Four in hoops, Texas was all alone in elite football/basketball/baseball success. Dern them 'Horns.

But what about winning it all? Yeah, finishing in the Top Four is nice, but even second place is the first loser, right?

Here are the elite 8 schools to have won both a football and basketball National Championship at any point in history (the football year is listed first):

Cal 1920, 1959
Florida 1996, 2006
Maryland 1953, 2002
Michigan 1997*, 1989
Michigan State 1965*, 2000*
Ohio State 2002*, 1960
Stanford 1926, 1942
Syracuse 1959, 2003

(*Michigan has won 7 football championships and Ohio State has 5. Michigan State has won 2 each in football and basketball, making the Spartans the only team with more than one in both sports.)

As you can see, there are a lot of dusty old trophies on that list, especially in football. Here are the only 3 schools to have won it all in both sports within a 10-year span:

Ohio State 1954-'55 to 1959-'60
Michigan 1988-'89 to 1997-'98
Florida 1996-'97 to 2005-'06

Drink that Gatorade, kids.

Half of the versatile 8 also have baseball championships, meaning there are only 4 schools to have won the whole thing in all 3 sports (the years listed are the baseball titles):

Cal 1947 & 1957
Michigan 1953 & 1962
Ohio State 1966
Stanford 1987 & 1988

In other words, Mike Stoops could get us into some very elite company. I'm just sayin'.

I give Ohio State a lot grief, but I do have to point out that the Buckeyes are the only team to win the Triple Crown within the same decade. Of course, that was from 1957-1966, back before they learned their devious ways.

These days, the entire nation is huntin' Gators. With a hoops Final Four in 2006 and a College World Series in 2005, Florida is just one year of football greatness away from being the undisputed best of the best.

The recent challenger is clearly Texas. The Longhorns had no football Top Fours or hoops Final Fours in the '90s, but Texas exploded for National Championships in both football and baseball plus a basketball Final Four since the turn of the millennium. Can they keep the cattle drive going in Austin?

It ain't easy. How hard is it to be the best at multiple sports? No school has won multiple championships in all 3 sports. Ever.

From a Wildcat perspective, it's less a matter of dreaming the impossible dream as it is trying to get back where we once were. If we had done this study in the mid-'90s we would be boasting of a Fiesta Bowl win, Final Four and College World Series championship in the past decade. We've got the road map to the top of the mountain. Now we just have to get the bus tuned up to take us back.

That's the goal. We don't want to be just a "basketball school" like Kansas or Duke. If we put a team out there, we're trying to be the best. Want proof? All of our head coaches in the three men's team sports own National Championship rings. Let that rattle around your optimistic mind for a while.

Embrace the challenge. Be patient through the rebuilding, continue to support all our Cats, and know we're moving toward greatness.

They say heavy is the head that wears the crown. I'll take a triple order of neck pain, please.



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