It seems that one of the fundamental questions in American sports has
always been “Who is the best?” It doesn’t matter if it’s horseshoes
or horse racing, the question will always be brought
up by someone – and everyone will have an answer. So why should high
school football be any different…
The following article, submitted by writers Timothy Hudak and John R. Pflug, Jr., seeks to answer the burning question: Who was the Country’s Best High School Football Program in the 20th Century? I’ll let you read it yourself to see what the duo found out, but there are several items of interest I found in reading it. Here are some:
*Massillon Washington (nine) has more HS football national championships than any other school in US history. Cincinnati Moeller (five) is tied for third. Toledo Scott (four) is tied for fifth.
*Between 1900-1999 there were 131 teams tabbed “national champions.” Of that number, 28 were from Ohio, which was more than double the second place states of California, Texas, and Illinois (13 each).
*Nine different schools in Ohio history have won a HS football national championship.
Football in this state is no doubt special.
Who Was The Best High School Football Team of the 20th Century?
By Timothy Hudak and John R. Pflug, Jr.
It seems that one of the fundamental questions in American sports has
always been “Who is the best?” It does not matter if it is horseshoes
or horse racing, golf or baseball, the question will always be brought
up by someone – and everyone will have an answer. So why should high
school football be any different.
The game of American football is closing in on its 150th birthday, and the high school version of the sport is nearly as old. The first collegiate game was played in 1869 when Rutgers defeated Princeton six goals to four. The high schoolers in New England took up the game shortly thereafter and it has been with us ever since.
Long before now, however, people were asking the question “Who is the champion?” or “Who is the best?” The very first high school football game played in the city of Cleveland, Ohio, back in October of 1890 was for “the championship.” Most commonly the champion, or best team, is decided annually for a league, a city, a state or even for the nation. The question being asked here is which high school team was the best during the 20th century, i.e., the years 1900-1999. Student Sports magazine made a partial stab at it when it picked Cleveland’s St. Ignatius High School football team as the “Team of the 1990s”, but that still leaves a lot of time unaccounted for.
And just how would one go about picking the best high school football team of the 20th century? This is hardly an exact science, but there are several criteria that can be considered: total wins to include won-lost record and percentage, championships (state and national) won, and strength of schedule.
Why the 20th century? Purely an arbitrary time frame, but it makes sense. For one thing, it represents a classic timeline, 100 years with a definite beginning, 1900, and a definite ending, 1999. The period before 1900 had the game of high school football still in its infancy, with new schools taking up the sport yearly. The period after 1999 belongs to a whole new century – someone can figure out that one in 2101.
A national high school football champion or champions (there are years with multiple named title holders) has been declared almost yearly during the 20th century; only in 1917, 1944 and 1945 was there no known or declared title holder and for the years 1901,1905,1907, and 1909 claims to the championship have yet to be verified. These champions have been named by about a half-dozen recognized polling agencies, sometimes by popular acclaim in the earliest years, and even by actual championship games. The criteria used for ranking the teams varied from poll to poll, but they all had one thing in common – they were all “human” polls and not done via purely computerized formulas. The use of computerized formulations did not occur until after the year 2000, with the CalPreps and Massey rankings being the most prominent.
While it would be possible, though very difficult, to look at the champions of the 20th century as a whole, it would be much easier and more accurate for this study to look at them by decade.
The national championship ranks during the first decade of the 20th century were dominated by schools from Illinois, specifically the Chicago area, with six champions coming from the “Land of Lincoln”. This continued into the second decade (1910-1919) as Oak Park (Ill.) High School was named the national champion four straight years, 1910-1913. The title then started to move a little to the east as Fostoria High School and Toledo Scott High School (twice) in Ohio were named national champions a total of three times. Strangely, two high schools named Everett, one from Massachusetts (3 times) and the other from Washington State (one title), were also named champion.
The 1920s would see the end of the dominance of the earliest champions and the continued emergence of teams from one state that would hold and maintain a prominent role in this area (i.e., national champions) of high school football throughout the balance of the century. Oak Park (Ill.) and Everett High School (Washington) shared the championship in 1920. Over the remainder of the decade teams from seven different states would be declared national champion, but Ohio would dominate with four different schools winning a total of five titles, with Toledo’s Scott High School winning two more.
The 1930s saw the championship go to schools in seven states as far west as Arizona and as far east as New York. Ohio, however, took home the lion’s share with five titles, three of these championships being won by Massillon Washington High School.
Massillon again took home the top trophy in 1940, its fourth title since 1935, and every championship team was coached by the legendary Paul Brown.
As in the ‘30s, seven states would claim championships during the 1940s, with Miami High School in Florida winning twice just before the Second World War and a couple of Texas schools (Waco and Wichita Falls) winning championships at the end of the decade.
The decade of the 1950s would see the championships continue to jump around the country. California would get its first two champions in 1954 (Vallejo High School) and 1955 (San Diego High School). Texas would add another title when Abilene High School was named champion in 1956 and Portland Oregon’s Jefferson High School would win back to back titles in 1957 and 1958. But Ohio’s Massillon Washington High School, like it did in the 1930’s, would dominate the decade with its four championships (1950,52,53,59).
The 1960s would see a pronounced swing in title holders to the West and South. Only Ohio’s Massillon Washington in 1961 (it’s ninth) and St. Rita High School of Chicago in 1963 (first parochial champion) would go against this trend. Valdosta (Ga.) High School would win two championships in 1962 and 1969; Coral Gables (Fla.) would win three in 1964, 1967 and 1969; and Reagan High School in Austin, Texas, would also win a pair in 1967 and 1968.
The first half of the 1970s would see a continuation of this West-South championship trend, but in the latter half of the decade there would be a sudden and dramatic shift back to the Midwest. Reagan High School would win its third title in 1970, while Texas schools would win three others. Valdosta (Ga.) won its third championship in 1971, with three other Georgia schools also taking home titles during the decade. Two California schools (Loyola of Los Angeles and Rancho Cordova) would experience the unique situation of two schools from the same state each being named the champion in 1975. However, Archbishop Moeller High School of Cincinnati, Ohio, would bring the focus back to the Midwest by winning four national championships in five years, 1976,77,79,80.
The decade of the ‘80s would see the championship swing between the Midwest and the South. As already mentioned, Moeller won the championship in 1980 and would take another in 1982. St. Ignatius of Cleveland would bring a third trophy to Ohio in 1989. Valdosta (Ga.) would win two more championships in 1984 and 1986, while Warner Robbins High School would bring a third title to the Peachtree State in 1981. Pennsylvania schools would grab a couple in 1983 and 1987, while Alabama (1988), Illinois (1985), California (1987) and Texas (1989) would each claim one.
With as many as six polls naming national high school football champions by the mid-1980s, there was bound to be multiple title holders named for any given year. Beginning in 1987 and continuing through the end of the century this was almost a yearly occurrence. For this reason the decade of the 1990s had 19 declared national champions. California garnered the most with De La Salle taking three (1994, 1998, 1999) and Mater Dei winning two (1994,1996). Valdosta took two in 1991 and 1992, giving that school a total of six national championships. Hampton High School gave Virginia its second and third national titles by winning in both 1996 and 1997.
Cleveland St. Ignatius (1993, 1995) and Berwick (Pa.) (1992, 1995) also won twice, giving each school a total of three. Canton McKinley added to Ohio’s total with a championship in 1997. Texas added two more championships while Louisiana, Oklahoma and Indiana each claimed one title.
All totaled there were 131 champions declared for the years 1900-1999. The state with the most national championship holders was Ohio with 28, a total more than double that of the next closest states of California, Texas, and Illinois, all of which have had 13 title holders during the century. Georgia, with 10 title holders, is the only other state to have reached double digits.
While no school won as many as 10 national championships during the 20th century, two schools do stand out from the others. Massillon Washington in Ohio captured nine titles, while Valdosta High School in Georgia won six. Assuming, based on this, that these are the prime candidates for the title of “Best High School Football Team of the 20th Century” how do they stack up against other schools and against each other?
Not only have Massillon and Valdosta won the most national championships, but unlike other schools their titles indicate a long history of top flight success. For example, Cincinnati Moeller has won the third most national championships with five, but the Crusaders did this over a span of only seven years, 1976-1982. Similarly, Reagan High School in Austin, Texas, has won three titles over a span of just four seasons, 1966-1969. Even in the old days, Oak Park High School in Illinois won five championships, but all came within a span of just 11 seasons, 1910-1920.
Compare those years of success with those of Valdosta and Massillon. Valdosta’s Wildcats spread their success over a span of 30 years, 1962-1992, and Massillon’s Tigers won their nine championships over a span of 26 seasons, 1935-1961. During those years both teams seldom, if ever, had an “off” year, but consistently played outstanding football year in and year out. The fact that in their national championship era Valdosta also won 14 state championships and Massillon took home 18 state titles bears this out.
No other teams in the country can come close to this demonstration of sustained success as shown by the long term combination of national and state championships won by Valdosta and Massillon.
Having demonstrated that the Valdosta Wildcats and the Massillon Tigers are at the head of the pack, it must be determined which is the better team overall. Each team has a national championship “era” of 25-30 years. In that time Massillon has won the most championships, 9 to 6, so that part of the comparison must go to the Tigers.
Each team has demonstrated that it was highly successful during its respective time in the national spotlight, but how did they do over the whole course of the 20th century. Both schools have shown a consistently high caliber of play. Valdosta’s record in total games played during the 20th century is 775-156-36, .820, and Massillon’s record is 721-208-35, .766. Overall, both teams have won or shared 24 state championships during this time.
Another way to determine how good a team might be is to check the quality of its competition. This is easily the most difficult of factors to determine. However, while quality of competition does fluctuate from year to year in every state, there are indicators that can point to the overall quality of competition a given state might possess. For instance, not only does Ohio own the most national championships during the century with 28, but these championships were won by nine different teams. Even more significantly, Ohio high schools have shown an overall consistently high caliber of play by winning at least one national championship in every decade of the century but the first. Georgia, on the other hand, has won just 10 titles shared by four teams and bunched into a relatively small 30 year period.
Two other factors lend credence to the overall superiority of 20th century high school football in Ohio. First, during the earliest days of the century, the years 1904-1927, 16 games were played that are recognized as having been played for the national championship. Ohio teams played in 10 of these games, winning four and tying one.
Only one other state had teams in as many as five of these games, and no state has won more than twice. In addition, while a total of 13 states were represented in these championship games, Georgia was not among them.
Secondly, the National Sports News Service (NSNS) has been ranking high school football teams on a nationwide basis since at least 1927, and possibly earlier. It would have been nice for those of us interested in high school football if all of these rankings still remained. Unfortunately, the earliest are apparently no longer available. However, the final standings for the years 1959 to 1999 are available. In these final rankings (usually Top 10 or Top 20) 39 Ohio teams are listed, as opposed to 36 from Georgia.
While some very good high school football is annually played in Georgia, based on the evidence presented above it would appear that the overall quality of high school football played in the Buckeye State during the last century surpasses that of the Peachtree State.
Overall, therefore, when all factors are taken into consideration, the Tigers of Massillon Washington High School emerge as the best high school football team over the entire length of the last century. In light of this it is truly regrettable that Massillon and Valdosta have never faced each other on the gridiron or that their championship seasons did not overlap. Had either or both of these situations been part of this study, that truly would have been grist for a great conversation.
No system is perfect and, as stated above, this is hardly an exact science. There are no doubt those who would have a different view of this, and that is one of the main reasons for providing this study – to stimulate some conversation and debate around the “hot stove.” There will be those who think that their school or another school should be the best. Cincinnati Moeller was virtually unbeatable in its championship days and De La Salle of Concord, California, was – literally – unbeatable during its championship run. But these schools, like most others in this study, have one fatal flaw: they did not demonstrate their championship caliber of play over an extended period of years as did our final two contenders.
So there you have it – and let the conversation begin.
Want to contact the Writers/Reserachers? Please feel free to send questions, concerns and thoughts to:
Timothy L. Hudak
Sports Heritage Specialty Publications
John R. Pflug, Jr.