Despite being one of the most geographically isolated schools in the country, Washington State University boasts a remarkable number of achievements among its athletic programs. Though not as prolific as other, larger schools, the Cougs have regularly fielded successful teams in Football, Basketball, Baseball, and Track & Field. However, a National Championship in a major sport (sorry, 1937 Boxing team) has seemingly eluded WSU throughout its decades of existence.
Or has it?
Some Coug fans have probably noticed a 1917 National Champions banner hanging in Beasley but know little about the title. Under the leadership of Coach J. Fred "Doc" Bohler, the 1916-17 WSU Men's Basketball team went 25-1 during the season and claimed a Pacific Coast Conference title. The 1916-17 did not receive recognition for its title until 1957 when the Helms Foundation, a third-party organization, retroactively named champions for seasons that took place prior to the creation of the AP Poll.
The banner at Beasley Coliseum represents the WSU's most visible championship claim, but there is one more championship team that has yet to be fully embraced by the university.
To the most hardcore of WSU buffs, the story of the 1915 WSU Football team is a familiar one. Most casual fans will have never heard of how William "Lone Star" Dietz, the legendary but enigmatic football coach, led a plucky Cougars team to their finest season in program history. After going undefeated in the regular season, the Cougs met Brown University in the Rose Bowl. Despite being favorites to win, the Bears were completely stymied by the WSU's ferocious defense, leading to a 14-0 victory for the Cougars. The team outscored their opponents 204 to 10 and secured a perfect 7-0 record. Despite helping to resurrect the Rose Bowl game and impressing the nation, the Cougar's accomplishments slowly faded from memory. Instead of being relegated to a footnote in our history, Washington State University should honor its championship past and begin claiming the 1915 National Title.
The prospect of claiming a title that is over a century old might seem dubious at best to many fans but proclaiming champions in College Football has been, and continues to remain, a point of debate.
Similar to College Basketball, College Football lacked any means of crowning a National Champion until the birth of the AP Poll in the 1930s. Unlike College Basketball, the NCAA lists National Champions in Football going back to 1879. For the 1915 season, the NCAA lists Cornell as the 1915 National Champions and cites the Helms Foundation and the National Championship Foundation in its listing.
However, the controversy is far from settled.
College Football has a long, complicated history surrounding National Champions, with teams like the 2017 UCF Knights being the most recent example of its contentious nature. While many College Football fans scoff at UCF's claim to the National Title and point to their ranking in the AP and CFP Polls, this hasn't stopped other schools from making questionable or even flat-out absurd claims to the title. The absence of any official group before the AP Poll opens the door for many teams to make their claim, including the 1915 WSU team.
Cornell may be the only officially recognized National Champion in 1915, but the season was full of strong teams. In total, there were eight teams that finished with perfect records, included powerhouses like Pitt and Nebraska, and even underdogs such as Colorado State and our very own Washington State, that have legitimate cases for the title of best in the country. Fans today can make solid arguments for any of these schools but WSU is the only school with a Rose Bowl victory that season. Those who saw the 1915 Cougs play in Pasadena recognized their greatness. Walter Eckersall, who served as one of the referees for the 1916 Rose Bowl, was convinced of their greatness. "[WSU] is the equal of Cornell," he later stated. "There is not a better football team in the country. I do not believe I ever saw a better one at any time." A writer from the Los Angeles Times was also in awe of the Cougars as they wrote, "There was no fluke in the victory. There can be no detracting from the greatness of Washington's eleven."
Since 1916, there has been little celebration of the 1915 WSU Cougars team until very recently. Those who have done the work to study the history of the 1915 squad have made the case for the Cougs. In fact, the Washington State Senate adopted a resolution to recognize the the 1915 team as National Champions in 2014. WSU itself has remained silent on the matter, leaving its rightful title unclaimed and unspoken.
Before any naysayers claim that such a move would damage the program's reputation, such fears haven't stopped other programs from making bolder claims with less credibility. Texas A&M generated controversy in 2012 by sneakily adding two additional National Championships to Kyle Field. Even more egregiously, Alabama used an obscure rating system to justify its claim to the 1941 National Championship decades later, despite finishing 8-2 and ranked #20 in the AP Poll. These are extreme examples but College Football is full of many other school making claims to a contested national title. With this being the case across the sport, what is stopping WSU from staking a rightful and deserving claim at glory?
Despite maintaining Power-5 status for well over a century, WSU has long been snubbed by larger, wealthier, more accomplished programs. This disrespect has fueled a pride in Cougar fans and alumni alike for decades, with the moniker of Wheat Field Underdogs striking a cord with the community. We are right to embrace being the underappreciated, dark horse program but we should also embrace and remember our history as champions. There is little to be gained by claimed by an ancient title but nothing to lose either. The argument for the 1915 Cougars carries a great deal of merit as the team dominated its regular season schedule and won the Rose Bowl game to cap it all off. What we can gain as a community of Cougars is an appreciation of our past and a celebration of WSU Football's greatest accomplishments.
While I believe that claiming the 1915 National Title is important, navigating through the disintegration of the Pac-12 and conference realignment should remain WSU's main priority at the present time. 2025 will mark the 110th anniversary of the 1915 season and I can think of no better time of honoring the team's achievements. Raising a banner or placing a monument at Martin Stadium feels like a great way for generations of Cougs to know and remember the story of how their humble team was once champions.