College Empire

July 9, 2007

Did you enjoy the birth of the college sports empire this past year?

The rest of the country was just hanging out, minding its own business like the ancient Persians and Egyptians, when suddenly out of the southeast sprang Al E. Gator the Great to conquer the known sports world like never before.

Winners of the 2006 Final Four, the ’06-‘07 BCS Championship Game and the 2007 Final Four. That’s a Hellen of a run.

Last summer we took a look at the schools that best excelled in both of the big money college sports, and then added baseball for a “College Triple Crown.” If I rewrote that piece this year it would have to be called, “Wow, Florida Is Really, Really Good.”

The University of Florida’s current athletic run is unprecedented on so many levels. The previous closest span between football and basketball national championships was Ohio State in 1957 and 1960. But the Buckeyes’ football title was split at best as OSU wasn’t undefeated in ’57 and they finished #2 in the AP poll. You also have to include that pseudo-championship to find a school that won three national titles in the big two sports in the same decade (OSU had an undefeated football season in 1954).

In the 41 years from 1961-2005 only one school won three combined championships in football and men’s basketball. Michigan State won a split championship in football in 1965 (after losing the Rose Bowl), and basketball titles in 1979 and 2000. A half-championship, then 14 years, then another 21 years. And now Florida is sitting on three in a 13-month span!

To win back-to-back championships in any sport is extremely difficult. Some may say, “Of course they won again. They brought the entire 2006 title team back.” Well, you can ask the 1998 Arizona hoops team how that can turn out. In order to repeat you have to win 12 consecutive NCAA tournament games, which is a remarkable feat no matter how many players return.

Then in between you squeeze a football championship just for fun. In the previous 15 years only one school had been able to finish in the AP Top Four in football and make the Final Four in basketball in the same academic year, and that was Wisconsin in 1999-2000. But the Badgers were #4 in football and lost in the semifinals in hoops that year, so they were still a couple steps away from a championship in either sport, let alone winning both.

Are you sick of Florida yet? Good. That’s the point.

The Gators give college sports its first true Evil Empire. In the professional ranks you have the New York Yankees, Dallas Cowboys, L.A. Lakers and San Antonio Spurs. You either love ‘em or you hate ‘em. College football has Notre Dame, but the today’s Irish are more like the modern British monarchs who live privileged lives without actually doing anything.

College athletics as a unified entity has never had a true king worth overthrowing until now. The Gators even have a couple unlikable characters developing, with Billy “Waffle” Donovan and Urban “Whine” Meyer captaining the two flagship sports.

And don’t forget: Florida finished second at the College World Series in 2005! They were a couple wins away from winning titles in the Triple Crown of Men’s College Team Sports in just three years. That’s disgustingly good.

But they didn’t win in ’05 and they still do not own a baseball championship. At least we can look down on them about something. In fact – since we’re making up reasons to feel superior – did you know there are only seven schools that have won a national championship in both basketball and baseball?

School – Basket - Base
Arizona - 1997 - 1976, 1980, 1986
Cal - 1959 - 1947, 1957
Holy Cross - 1947 - 1952
Michigan - 1989 - 1953, 1962
Ohio St - 1960 - 1966
Oklahoma St - 1945, 1946 - 1959
Stanford - 1942 - 1987, 1988

Since you’ll notice there’s only one school to have pulled it off since JFK was shot, your Arizona Wildcats are the undisputed kings of b-ball and b-ball. Is it any wonder we produced starting-point-guard-turned-six-time-Major-League-All-Star Kenny Lofton?

As we move past Florida to see which other schools are getting it done in multiple sports we run into a problem. Since they added an extra BCS bowl game how do we figure the “top four” in football? Is it better to lose in the championship game or win a different BCS bowl? On the one hand Ohio State technically came in second this past year, but who feels better about their 2006 football season, Ohio State after getting blown out on the biggest state, or USC who won the Rose Bowl?

(By the way, the Ohio State scenario is my worst UA football nightmare. OK, never having another winning season is my worst nightmare, but after that it’s finally putting it all together, winning the Pac-10, finishing in the top two in the BCS poll, and then losing the big game. No championship, no Rose Bowl. That’s why there would have been no shame in going to Pasadena in ’98 if UCLA had beaten Miami. If and when we finally make it to the Promised Land, let’s all agree to enjoy it no matter what the circumstances.)

So Ohio State joined the Top Four/Final Four In The Past 5 Years list by adding their basketball silver medal to their Fiesta Bowl wins in 2002 and 2003, and Louisville crashed the party by pairing an Orange Bowl victory with their trip to the 2005 Final Four.

When it comes to programs moving in the opposite direction, Oklahoma’s lack of a recent Final Four moved them from the Last 5 Years group into the Last 10 Years pool, and if Texas doesn’t make the 2008 Final Four they’ll be making the same slide next year.

Even though it often seems like ancient history, our U of A is still one of just eight schools to have an AP Top Four finish in football and a Final Four in the past ten years. But it’s definitely time to start adding new banners to the collection.

Because I know you can’t get enough of the baseball I also wanted to give you an update on our drafted non-seniors, and it’s great news so far. Not one of the five drafted players on last year’s team with eligibility remaining has signed a pro contract according to MLB’s draft tracker or Baseball America’s database.

We did lose our top incoming pitching prospect, Manuel Barreda of Sahuarita, who signed with the Yankees on June 20. But our highest rated rookie hitters, right-handed infielder Matt Presley and left-handed outfielder Bobby Coyle, have both resisted the pro dollars thus far. Come on down to Tucson, boys. Your destiny awaits.

We’ve got an Evil Empire to beat.

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