The Chicago Cubs recently ended the most oppressive drought in American team sports. How fascinating it is, then, that some older Bears — but not too old; they’re still going to school — carry one of the longest and most significant droughts in college football.
A word at the outset: Many football schools have never achieved anything of note or reached a certain milestone (or holy grail). Arizona, for instance, has never played in a Rose Bowl. Vanderbilt has never won an SEC championship in football. For these and other schools, there has never been a “last time since Year X.”
A “drought” is best understood as a period of shortage, of dryness and barrenness, which suggests that once upon a time, there was enough rain or water to sustain the land. Droughts can be long and pervasive, but they call to mind a time when better conditions existed. For purposes of this piece, a drought (the Cubs going 108 years without a World Series title, 71 without a National League pennant) is a period since the last time a school achieved a given milestone of considerable significance. A drought is therefore set apart from its close relative, the “O-fer,” applying to the Arizonas and Vanderbilts of the college football world.
If one has to identify the most significant droughts in college football, here are a few of them. If the Cubs could break through in baseball, these schools hope that their football day of deliverance will come before too long:
The California Golden Bears don’t deserve this situation, but they’re stuck with it. No Pac-12 team (or more precisely, no team from the original Pac-8, which preceded the Pac-10 and Pac-12) has suffered a longer Rose Bowl drought than the Golden Bears, whose last parade to Pasadena occurred in the 1959 game in Iowa, shown in the black-and-white photo at the top of this story page. Cal should have played in the 2005 game, but a postponed game against Southern Mississippi — which, when played in early December of 2004, did not go smoothly — and the relentless lobbying of Texas coach Mack Brown swayed enough voters that the BCS standings gave the Longhorns the nod to play Michigan in the Arroyo Seco.
Given the utter disregard for defense in the Sonny Dykes era, it seems that Cal — which recently upgraded its football facilities — will need a “supercoach” to guide it to the New Year’s Day promised land.
The Rose Bowl, being cherished at a level no other (non-championship, non-playoff) bowl is cherished, holds an almost spiritual level of significance for Pac-12 and Big Ten teams. Cal has the longest drought of any school from either conference, but among Big Ten schools, Minnesota owns the most oppressive absence from the big game in the shadows of the San Gabriel Mountains. The Golden Gophers’ last trek to Southern California in January was 1962, when they defeated some other bears from the Pac, the Bruins of UCLA.
Wait, you might ask: When did Indiana and Purdue get in? Later in the 1960s, and more precisely, in consecutive seasons: Purdue in the 1967 game, Indiana in 1968. Minnesota isn’t favored to win the Big Ten West, but the Gophers will get a chance to play their way into the Big Ten Championship Game. They must go through Wisconsin and Nebraska in the coming weeks.
The Ole Miss Rebels defeated Nick Saban and Alabama in 2014 and 2015… and STILL couldn’t win the SEC. Ole Miss led Bama by 21 this season, but couldn’t close the sale. The Rebels, with Chad Kelly injured, are almost certain to not even make a bowl game, joining Michigan State and (most likely) Notre Dame and Oregon on a list of teams that will improbably stay home for the holidays.
This season is the latest gut punch for an Ole Miss program which takes football very seriously in the SEC… and yet has not won a league title since 1963, a drought one year longer than Cleveland’s pro-sports title drought, which was ultimately snapped by the Cavaliers this past June in the NBA Finals.
Mississippi State hasn’t won an SEC title since 1941, and South Carolina — formerly in the ACC — has won only one conference title period, in 1969, but among Southern football droughts, the now-53-year dry period for Ole Miss (which also owns a unique “O-fer” as the one original SEC West member never to have played in the SEC title game) is historically oppressive.
The ACC does not feature any overwhelmingly long title droughts — at least not on the same scale of the Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC. North Carolina State won the league in 1979, North Carolina in 1980, Virginia in the George Welsh years, Duke in a shared title with Virginia in 1989 thanks to Steve Spurrier. (Forget about Big 12 droughts — the conference hasn’t existed long enough for various droughts to take on otherworldly dimensions.)
ACC schools are saddled with a lot of historical O-fers more than droughts, which is a separate discussion for another time. For now, though, the one historical drought which eclipses the others is that North Carolina — a highly-resourced school — has not appeared in a major bowl (defined as the current New Year’s Six bowls, the former BCS bowls, the pre-1996 Cotton, the post-1980 Fiesta, and the Rose-Sugar-Orange trio in any season) since the 1950 Cotton Bowl against Rice.
The idea of Duke not having made a major bowl in a long time (1961 Cotton, if you were wondering) does not seem nearly as shocking as UNC’s major bowl drought. If there’s an ACC wilderness period which has not yet come to an end, that’s as good an example as any.