Luck of the Draw
November 29, 2005

I know this isn't usually my thing, but the chase for the national title this year in college football has been pretty compelling.  This week, both USC and Texas hope to extend their unbeaten streaks in hopes of making the Rose Bowl and playing for the national title.  I know both have had a quality win or two, but does anyone really take the Big 12 or the Pac 10 seriously as a conference?   Between those quality wins, their schedule has been stuffed with divisional tomato cans.  Both conferences have just three teams in the top 25.  Conversely, the Big 10 has five while the SEC has five in the top 20.  Even the ACC has four teams in the top 25.  So are USC and/or Texas with their cream puff schedules really that much better than Penn State, LSU or Virginia Tech?  I don't know, but I'd like to see a playoff system - just like there is in every other major sport - to see for sure. 

OK, enough blathering about something that's not likely to change anytime soon... how about a couple of trivia questions along those same lines.  Only one school has won NCAA Division 1-A championships in football, basketball, hockey and baseball... which one is it?  It's Michigan.  If you exclude hockey, Ohio State and California have also won championships in football, basketball and baseball.

Which school has won the most national championships in the four major sports?  Well, here ya' go: a list of the top men's collegiate athletic programs ranked by national titles in the four major team sports.

School
football
basketball
baseball
hockey
Total 
USC
11
0
12
0
23
Michigan
7
1
2
9
19
Minnesota
5
0
2
5
12
UCLA
1
11
0
0
12
Notre Dame
12
0
0
0
12
Texas
3
0
6
0
9
Miami
5
0
4
0
9
Alabama
9
0
0
0
9
Oklahoma
6
0
2
0
8
LSU
2
0
5
0
7
Kentucky
0
7
0
0
7
Michigan State
2
2
0
2
6
Ohio State
4
1
1
0
6
Wisconsin
0
1
0
5
6
Arizona State
0
0
5
0
5
Nebraska
5
0
0
0
5
California
1
1
2
0
4
North Carolina
0
4
0
0
4
Oklahoma State
0
2
1
0
3
Stanford
0
1
2
0
3
Duke
0
3
0
0
3
Arizona
0
1
2
0
3
Stanford
0
1
2
0
3
Maryland
1
1
0
0
2
Georgia
1
0
1
0
2
Syracuse
1
1
0
0
2

The criteria for making the above list is any school that has won at least three titles in one sport or at least one title in at least two sports since 1900, has at least one championship within the last 25 years and has to at least be occasionally competitive in at least two of the sports.  So if you're wondering why Penn State or Harvard or North Dakota aren't on here, now you know.

OK, so where am I going with all this?  OK, there may be a couple of detours, but I'll get there eventually.

So where was I?  Oh yeah, championship teams.  One of the criteria often used to rate college championship teams, other than their records, is the number of players on them who go on to successful careers in the pros.  For example, everyone loves USC this year because their top two players, Reggie Bush and Matt Leinart, will probably be the top two picks in the upcoming draft.  Several pundits have gone so far as to call this team the greatest offense in college history.  But pro talent doesn't necessarily make a great team.  If it did, LSU would have had a basketball championship instead of an early round exit when they had Shaquille O'Neal, Stanley Roberts, Chris Jackson (later known as Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf) and Vernel Singleton   And no, I'm not bitter about that... well, not too bitter anyway.  Winning championships at the college level is often as much about the coach as it is about the talent on the team. 

Even then, some really good college players just don't have the goods to make it in the bigs: Jason White, Gino Torretta, Danny Weurffel, Andre Ware, Archie Griffin, Johnny Rodgers, Christian Laettner, Danny Ferry, Ralph Sampson, Shawn Abner, Phil Stephenson... there's a lot of them.  But there are other guys who might have been pretty good had they just had a decent team to play on. 

For example, Steve Arlin was named MVP of the 1966 College World Series when he pitched five of his Ohio State Buckeyes' six playoff games, beating USC twice and Oklahoma State for the title.  The year before they had lost 2-1 in the finals to an Arizona State squad that featured future major league stars Sal Bando, Gary Gentry, Rick Monday and Reggie Jackson.  To get his team to that final in 1965, Arlin made his third start in four days pitching a 15-inning, 20-strikeout, 1-0 shut-out over Washington State.  True, the game was a little different back then (for one they played with wooden bats), but Arlin threw hard enough and was promising enough that he was picked in the first round of the 1966 draft by Philadelphia. 

A couple of years later the Phillies left him unprotected in the expansion draft where he was taken by the first-year Padres.  He was now on a team that was largely comprised of everyone else's castoffs, managed by one of the least successful managers ever, Preston Gomez.  This was a manager who on two separate occasions took starting pitchers out of games in which they had thrown eight no-hit innings.  In seven seasons, he finished last in his division six times.  Not that he wasn't bad enough, but the Padre front office had a decision to make after the 1969 season: stay with Gomez or promote one of their coaches who had been given an offer from another NL team.  They opted to stick with Gomez and then watched while George "Sparky" Anderson managed the Cincinnati Reds to two World Championships, and then the Detroit Tigers to one as well.  Ironically enough, the last one came at the expense of the Padres.  So... bad team with really bad leadership.  Interesting bit of trivia: Nate Colbert, who was the first baseman on those terrible early Padre teams is not only still the team leader in career home runs, but also one of two men to hit five home runs in one day (the other is Stan Musial, both records coming in double headers).

Anyway, after throwing a seven inning no-hitter in Double-A in 1967, Arlin's professional career was unremarkable until 1971.  That year, he threw four shutouts, one short of tying for the NL lead.  The following season, he had one of the most incredible runs of great pitching performances in history.  From June 18 to July 18, 1972, a span of eight starts, Arlin threw three 2-hitters and two 1-hitters including one that went 10 innings.  In the final game of that string - a duel against Phillies ace Steve Carlton - Arlin took a no-hitter into the ninth and was one strike away from immortality.  But with two outs and a two-strike count, Denny Doyle hit a chopper over the drawn in third baseman, rookie Dave Roberts (no, not that Dave Roberts, although last year's center fielder is the third player with that name to play for the Padres) and eventually scored on a follow-up hit.  Both Roberts and new manager Don Zimmer (who had ordered Roberts to play up), admitted after the game that had Roberts been playing in his usual position, he would have had a routine play on the Doyle's ball.

That same week, Arlin had finished tenth in the voting for the All-Star game.  But just his luck, NL manager Danny Murtaugh opted to go with only nine pitchers.  All totaled, Arlin had struck out 54 batters and allowed just 0.9014 baserunners per inning while pitching six complete games, giving up a total of 16 runs.  Despite his phenomenal pitching, his record in those eight starts was 3-4 due to poor run support, and he finished the season leading the NL in losses with 21.  In his first two full seasons in San Diego his record was an abysmal 19-40, quite a contrast from his respectable 3.54 ERA.  In 1973, he had another nice string of mid-summer starts, throwing three shutouts in four games from June 30 to July 17.   But the losing and probably the fatigue were taking their toll.  He finished with an ERA of 5.10, followed by a 1974 season that not only was worse on the field, but included a trade to Cleveland.  He left baseball that winter to pursue full-time what he's doing today: he's a dentist with his own practice in San Diego. 

All that to tell the Steve Arlin story?  Actually... yeah.  I hope you don't feel cheated, but if it makes you feel any better I do have a point to this.  Whenever the topic of great players comes up in conversation, inevitably one of the greats is branded "a product of the system he played in".   For example, would Emmitt Smith still have been a great running back had he played for the Cardinals for his entire career?  With guys like Walter Payton or Barry Sanders (or LaDanian Tomlinson?) the answer would still be "yes" because they succeeded on some pretty bad teams before playing on good ones.  But would James Worthy be considered an all-time great had he not played on the same team as Magic and Kareem?  Some might argue that Derek Jeter has benefited greatly from being on the same team as Mariano Rivera and some pretty talented starting staffs (not to mention some pretty good line-ups as well).  Would he still be considered "great" had he played for the Devil Rays? 

And I guess this is where Arlin comes in.  Can the converse be true?  It's true that Arlin wasn't a great major league pitcher, perhaps not even a very good one.  But he clearly had enough talent to be dominating.  Could he have become an All-Star pitcher had he been drafted by the A's or Orioles, two teams that were noted for their pitching excellence?  Even had he stayed with the Phillies, he might have had a decent chance; Chris Short and Rick Wise were both products of their farm system around the same time that Arlin was developing.  Are some fantastic talents finally beaten down to mediocrity by either untalented or unmotivated or poorly coached teams?  Would Kerry Wood have a mantle full of Cy Young Awards had he pitched in Atlanta instead of Chicago?  Would Tom Glavine still be considered a borderline Hall of Famer had he pitched for the Rangers all these years?  I'm not sure we can simply transpose the numbers to give us the answers.  To me, there is still an argument to be made for actually watching a player, or a team, play.  There are very few players (or teams) who are indisputably great.  For the rest, it's really the luck of the draw.