Our series of posts looking back at the last time various college football programs have won the national championship have predictably focused on power conference programs around the country. Over the course of time, a handful of national powers have faded into our rearview mirrors or simply adjusted to the new landscape of college football and athletics by accepting the reality. Despite a couple of down years for the Navy football program lately, the Ken Niumatalolo era in Annapolis has been one overflowing with pride and accomplishments. But you have to go all the way back to before World War II to recognize the last time the Midshipmen stood at attention above the entire college football world.
The year was 1926 the last time Navy football reigned supreme, and it remains the only year to see Navy claim a national championship. In the first season under new head coach (and a former Navy football player) Bill Ingram. The Indiana native and future College Football Hall of Fame coach returned to his alma mater after a few mediocre seasons with Indiana, but he clicked immediately with Navy. With All-American Frank Wickhorst leading the way up front on the offensive line, Navy’s offense was able to thrive on the ground long before the idea of the triple-option became the norm for the program. Navy opened the season with a 17-13 victory over Purdue and continued to flx their dominance with double-digit victories in their next three games, including a road win at Princeton.
Navy’s biggest win of the year came just before Halloween with a matchup against the 4-0 Michigan Wolverines, who were obliterating everybody in their sight under head coach Fielding Yost. With a packed house to see the game in Baltimore, Navy held their own with a scoreless first half and then upset the Wolverines with a 10-0 victory. It was the only loss of the season for Michigan and may have cost the Wolverines their own claim to a national title that season.
Navy ended their season with the annual Army-Navy Game, this time being played as the inaugural event for Chicago’s brand new Soldier Field. A victory would have given Navy as strong a case as possible for a national championship, but the Midshipmen tied their arch rivals from West Point despite jumping out to a 14-0 lead in the game. A missed Army field goal late in the game led to the game ending in a 21-21 tie. Navy’s perfect season was scratched but a record of 9-0-1 was nothing to shrug about. The national title claim would have to be shared, however, as undefeated Stanford and Alabama played to a tie in the Rose Bowl that same season while Navy did not play in a bowl game. Alabama and Stanford are recognized as national champions for the 1926 season depending on the poll you prefer, but Navy stakes a claim too thanks to the Boand System.
There was no AP poll. And there was no coaches poll. And there was clearly no College Football Playoff or BCS formula to rely on. In a time with so few bowl games you could count
Last National Championship Season: 1926 (92 years and counting)
Who was President?
As the country celebrated its 150th year of independence, Calvin Coolidge was sitting in the White House as President of the United States. Coolidge sat in the Oval Office as the Roaring Twenties were in full bloom less than a decade after the conclusion of the first World War.
What was on TV?
Nothing. Not yet, at least.
In 1926, America was still years away from getting hooked on TV so it was the radio that kept people entertained. Even then, the radio scene was still in its earliest forms and just getting started. Radio broadcasts were still going on the air for the first time in many parts of the world as radio communication was becoming as vital and important to people as ever before.
TV was beginning to be used in the government to transmit data such as weather maps, but we were still a long way away from the age of your local meteorologists giving you the seven-day forecast and weekend weather updates while you are eating dinner. It is worth noting that the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) began operation on the radio waves in 1926. NBC went on the air with 26 radio affiliates.
What movies were hot?
The box office sales figures from 1926 compared to today show we have come a long way to how much revenue is generated. In 1926, the biggest hit at the box office was Aloma of the South Seas, which raked in a cool $3 million worldwide to top For Heaven’s Sake and The Son of the Sheik for the top spot in the box office gross earnings. The latest Avengers movie probably did $3 million in its first 4 seconds once tickets went on sale.
This was still the age of the silent film, however, so people weren’t seeing movies with any actual dialogue they could hear, although the release of Don Juan introduced new sound technology that would allow viewers to hear both music and sound effects at the same time. That was quite a leap in technology.
If you were looking for some good laughs at the box office, then you were likely relying on the comedic stylings of Charlie Chaplin or Laurel and Hardy.
And long before Walt Disney took the animation world by storm, the animated short film genre was led by Felix the Cat.
What else happened in 1926?
Rogers Hornsby and the St. Louis Cardinals top Babe Ruth, and Lou Gehrig and the New York Yankees to win their first World Series title in franchise history.
The NFL played its seventh season in existence, with the Frankford Yellow Jackets winning the championship. Their only loss that year was a 7-6 setback against the Providence Steam Roller. The NFL has come a long way.
Michigan and Northwestern split the Western conference championship. Stanford took the Pacific Coast Conference title before facing Southern Conference (not SEC) champion Alabama. Oklahoma State celebrated a Missouri Valley Intercollegiate Athletic Association championship and SMU was champion of the Southwest Conference. Not even the Ivy League was in existence yet, leaving schools like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton to be football independents like Notre Dame, Army, Penn State, West Virginia, Pitt, Duke, and Wake Forest (and more).
The United States began using a standardized number system for the country’s expanding highway system.
You didn’t want to mess with Al Capone. He was fairly powerful at this time.
The legendary Bing Crosby recorded his first record with a recording of “I’ve Got a Girl.” Gene Austin also had a hit with “Bye Bye Blackbird,” and Duke Ellington had people dancing to “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo.”
Navy football today
Navy would go on to have some of the best college football teams the program ever had in the 1940s, perhaps not quite by coincidence either given the climate in the world at the time. Wayne Hardin would coach some national championship caliber teams in the 1960s as well, but Navy’s shot at winning a national championship have far been removed as a realistic scenario over the course of college football’s evolution and growth.
The reality of today’s game is Navy will likely never claim a national championship again unless they go the route of UCF. After decades of playing as an independent, Navy dropped anchor in the American Athletic Conference and seems to have found a good situation. The Midshipmen have had some great seasons in the conference already, although with no conference championship to claim just yet. But the security of being in a conference and the flexibility granted to Navy to allow the annual Army-Navy Game to be played ensures Navy football will continue to be in a good spot for the foreseeable future.
Navy is now coming off its first losing season since 2011 and hopes to return to the conference championship contender Niumatalolo has developed in recent years. After three straight years of seeing fewer wins than the previous season, it may be time for Navy to start getting back on track.