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One True Champion 1927 Edition Minnesota or Illinois #TBT

When the 1927 season ended both Minnesota and Illinois were undefeated. The Dickenson System awarded that years National Championship to the Illini. The only problem with that? The Dickenson System was created at the University of Illinois.

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Illinois coach Bob Zuppke and his art.

In the 1920s college football was just beginning to sort out rankings systems and champions. Enter a Econ Prof from Illinois. The Dickinson System ranks colleges based upon their records and the strength of opponents. Initially designed to rank just the Big Ten conference. Every champion needs a trophy right? A man called Jack Rissman, a clothing manufacturer from Chicago, had Dickinson rank the nation's teams, and awarded the Rissman Trophy to the winning university. The first Rissman Trophy had gone out in 1926 to Stanford.

Rissman Trophy in 1929 (sorry about the quality, best photo I could find)
The Anniston Star (Anniston, Alabama)

So in the second year of the Rissman the Illinois professor awards the trophy to Illinois? Crazy. Let’s compare Minnesota and Illinois schedules.

Illinois 1927 Season
Minnesota 1927 Season

Unfortunately Minnesota and Illinois did not cross each other in conference play. The last game between the two teams was a 1924 clash in which the Gophers came out on top 20-7. They wouldn’t play each other again until 1941 when Minnesota would again win 34-6.

Illinois outscored its opponents 152 to 24, but had no consensus All-Americans. By comparison the Gophers scored 209 point while giving up 51. Herb Joesting the great Minnesota was an All American at fullback.

Footage of Minnesota vs Michigan in 1927.

Both teams played Iowa and Michigan in 1927. Minnesota had the more impressive win over Iowa while Illinois beat Michigan by a slightly bigger margin. Illinois’ tie game came against Iowa St. Whereas Minnesota tied vs Notre Dame and Indiana. Fun note, the Houlgate System would award the Fighting Irish 1927’s crown, however Notre Dame does not officially recognize this #1 ranking.

Game action. Gophers vs Michigan 1927
U of M

The biggest L that Minnesota took all year came after the season, when school President Lotus Coffman addressed the issue of Minnesota and Illinois being tied in the conference standings.

The Decatur Herald
(Decatur, Illinois)22 Nov 1927, Tue • Page 11

From the article:


Captain Joesting and Mates Feted At Banquet Attended By 7,000 Fans

(By Associated Press)

MINNEAPOLIS. Minn., Nov. 22— Minnesota's football warriors, back home Monday from their conquest of Michigan, were feted as heroes at a gigantic dinner attended by 7,000 fans in the Municipal auditorium.

The spice of victory over the Wolverines added new zest to the celebration, the largest of its kind ever held in the Northwest.

Won't Claim Tie

There was full acclaim of Minnesota's power, but there was also apparent agreement with the statement by Dr. L. D. Coffman, president of the university that the Gophers claimed no share of the 1927 Big Ten championship.

"So far as Minnesota can see, there is no tie," said Dr. Coffman. Illinois has the title. Our record is sufficient; claims to the title could add nothing to it"

Prominent in the picture was the "Little Brown Jug" traditional trophy of the Minnesota-Michigan clashes since 1903... it shared honors with Captain Herbert Joesting and his men.

For Minnesota, 1927 was Clarence Spears -- nickname “Fats” third year as coach and the Gophers first undefeated season since 1915. While Coffman conceded the Big Ten Conference title to Illinois it’s not actually clear this did any real damage. Nevertheless Spears was furious, in his mind the Gophers had earned a share of the title. So incensed by this would eventually lead to Gopher coach Fats Spears to leave Dinkytown. Interestingly, Minnesota now claims 1927 as one of its 18 conference titles (I’m not sure when it began counting this year towards it’s overall titles).

Illinois team 1927

Meanwhile Bob Zuppke, painter, friend of Ernest Hemmingway and Illini coach had taken his team to its 4th undefeated season under his tenure.

The Decatur Herald
(Decatur, Illinois)22 Nov 1927, Tue • Page 11

From the article:

Zuppke Pays Tribute to "Starless" Illini

Chicago Nov. 22 -The "starless football team" of Illinois reaped the reward. of theft victorious 1927 season Monday night at the annual football banquet, closing their training period. Coach Robert C Zuppke called them the bunch of fellows he had ever had among the many good squads he had coached at Illinois in 15 years.

While the Illini celebrated their Western conference championship at Champaign, the University of Minnesota team gloried in their decisive victory over Michigan and declined in the words of President. Lotus D. Coffin to see any tie existing in the title situation because Minnesota was also unbeaten...

The triumph of Illinois this fall was one of the dramatic surprises of football. Loss of their greatest stars of last year caused the Illini to be counted out by the sideline experts, when Jake Lanum and Frosty Peters failed to return to school.

Several players who might have gained stardom were sacrificed to make a successful season for their team, instead of an All-American player out of one or two. All of the ten or twelve first string ball carriers were given their chances, and fresh man gave the Illini attack its sustained power which none of the five conference opponents could withstand.

The Risman Big Ten trophy, awarded the conference winner under the Dickinson rating system was presented to the Illinois team at a special convocation of the university.

Illinois professor Dickenson used “math” to proclaim the 1927 National Champion. Since then several retroactive polls such has Billingsley have named the Illini this year’s top team. I will note that the Billingsley Report, written by a college football fan, is not really worth anything. None of these polls have stopped several other teams claiming the 1927 National Championship: Georgia, Texas A&M, and Yale.

I say the Rissman trophy is bunk. But Minnesota has at least a meager claim to it. It eventually retired when Notre Dame won it 3 times and created the Knute Rockne Trophy. Apropos of nothing, Minnesota won the Knute Rockne Trophy 3 times and it too was retired (Minnesota then created something called the A.V. Williams Trophy). ANYWAY.

This is kind of a moot point, but what else is the internet for? If Illinois, (and 3 other teams) lay claim to a 1927 national title, Minnesota should also. I am here to write the wrong of Lotus Coffman. By the power vested in me as a bloggers (and hopefully to incite a flame war) I say Minnesota was ACTUALLY the better team.