Most Dominant Men’s College XC Programs Since 1961

Over at fasterthanforty.com, Rick Miller recently did an analysis of the last 50 years of the NCAA (men’s) Cross Country Championships and determined that Wisconsin has dominated the landscape more than any other program in that time period.

His entire top 20…

1. Wisconsin
2. Colorado
3. Arkansas
4. Oregon
5. Providence
6. Tennessee
7. Georgetown
8. Villanova
9. BYU
10. Michigan
11. Penn State
12. Notre Dame
13. Arizona
14. William & Mary
15. Texas
16. Northern Arizona
17. Iowa State
18. Oklahoma State
19. Minnesota
20. Kansas

There has been a spirited and rather thoughtful debate about his calculations at Let’s Run. Miller admits that this, or any other ranking, is almost entirely dependent on what you think is important. In a numbers-based project like this one, it’s all about how you assign values and make calculations.

Miller’s calculations are based on some good ideas but are rather unsophisticated, and he’s either unaware of some changes that have occurred over the years or chooses to ignore them.

Basically, he gives points each year for the number of NCAA Division I teams beaten, on the principle that a deeper field of competition is harder to beat and therefore worth more. Example: there were 347 Division I teams last year, so Oklahoma State got 346 points for its NCAA Championships win. In 1961 there were only 244 Division I teams*, so Oregon State only got 243 points for its win. He then totaled these up over the last 50 years to get his ranking.
*called the “University Division” until 1973

The problem, of course, is that merely qualifying to the NCAA Championships garners a huge number of points, and not qualifying scores none. Thus it scores more points to qualify and get last in two seasons than to win the national title in one and not qualify in another–but there isn’t a coach, athlete or AD in the country who wouldn’t take the latter over the former. The difference between taking first and second in a championship meet isn’t particularly big, and is the same as between second and third, third and fourth, and so on. But in terms of how meaningful (and difficult) it is, those differences are largest at the top of a championship meet and get progressively smaller as you go down the standings.

The result is that regularly qualifying ends up being far more important than competing well. Georgetown is seventh in Miller’s ranking, despite never having placed higher than sixth in any NCAA Championships meet.

Furthermore, it ignores the fact that the NCAA Cross Country Championships didn’t require qualifying at all in the 1960s or most of the 1970s. It was an all-comers meet. If you wanted to run, show up. Those that regularly did are over-rated here. In the very early years (before 1961), it was more of a regional meet among midwest colleges, and retained a bit of that flavor through the 1960s; Bill Bowerman didn’t even bring his powerhouse team to six of the meets held in the 1960s. When he did, they were right at the top, finishing second, second, eighth and third.

Seeing as how I love sports history, and love playing around with numbers, I did some reworking of the data. I made qualifying and being at the bottom count for not much more than not qualifying at all. I made the difference between first and second be the greatest in terms of points value, with that value gradually decreasing as you go down the standings. I did preserve the idea that years with deeper fields are worth more, but muted it a bit.

And here’s what I got, with Miller’s original ranking in parenthesis:

1. Wisconsin (1)
2. Arkansas (3)
3. Oregon (4)
4. Colorado (2)
5. Stanford (24)
6. Providence (5)
7. Villanova (8)
8. Northern Arizona (16)
9. Notre Dame (12)
10. Oklahoma State (18)
11. UTEP (22)
12. Michigan (10)
13. Georgetown (7)
14. BYU (9)
15. Arizona (13)
16. Tennessee (6)
17. Iowa State (17)
18. Penn State (11)
19. Iona (29)
20. NC State (21)

51. Bowling Green (89), my alma mater

All this makes sense. Over 50 years, no one has been consistently as good as Wisconsin. Arkansas has 11 national championships. Oregon has six, and Colorado surprisingly has only three, but always seems to be in the mix, and Stanford has four. Other programs with multiple championships, like UTEP (7), San Jose State (2) and Western Michigan (2) fail to rank high because their high degree of competitiveness was short-lived.

The eyebrow-raiser might be Northern Arizona. But did you know that the Lumberjacks have had fourteen top-ten finishes at the NCAA Championships? And seven times they’ve been in the top four?

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2 Responses to Most Dominant Men’s College XC Programs Since 1961

  1. Rick Miller says:

    “The problem, of course, is that merely qualifying to the NCAA Championships garners a huge number of points, and not qualifying scores none. Thus it scores more points to qualify and get last in two seasons than to win the national title in one and not qualify in another–but there isn’t a coach, athlete or AD in the country who wouldn’t take the latter over the former.”

    — Jerry, totally fair point… We’re thinking about this — based on the spirited debate on the boards, and just some general hindsight on our part — and we’ll probably make some revisions.

    “Furthermore, it ignores the fact that the NCAA Cross Country Championships didn’t require qualifying at all in the 1960s or most of the 1970s. It was an all-comers meet. If you wanted to run, show up. Those that regularly did are over-rated here. In the very early years (before 1961), it was more of a regional meet among midwest colleges, and retained a bit of that flavor through the 1960s; Bill Bowerman didn’t even bring his powerhouse team to six of the meets held in the 1960s. When he did, they were right at the top, finishing second, second, eighth and third.”

    — This I did NOT know, and is very useful to have when considering the revisions we expect to make. If it’s okay with you, I will publicly credit you for that idea.

    — Some folks have chimed in with some interesting ideas about how to determine which fields are deep versus shallow. I have a feeling you’re gonna have some pointed thoughts about those ideas (good or bad — hopefully good). I’ll keep you posted.

    Love your site!

  2. admin says:

    You’ve had the intellectual honesty to say that how you set up your calculations is key to how the rankings would come out, and I really appreciate that. I have no problems with your particular rankings. I think different things are important, and so I did different things with your data set, and came up with rankings that made me say “yeah, that looks right”.