The Helms Conundrum

I’m from North Carolina, and I have a Helms issue – and for once, I’m not talking about Jesse…

uncbannersTo count the Helms championship or not…

The NCAA tournament began in 1939.  How were national champions determined prior to 1939?  They weren’t.  So then how does Carolina have a national championship from 15 years before the beginning of the NCAA tourney?  You can thank the Helms Foundation for that.

According to Wikipedia,

The Helms Athletic Foundation was an athletic foundation based in Los Angeles, founded in 1936 by Bill Schroeder and Paul Helms. It put together a panel of experts to select National Champion teams and make All-America team selections in a number of college sports including football and basketball. The panel met annually to vote on a National Champion until 1982 and retroactively ranked football teams dating back to 1883 and basketball back to 1901. The Helms Foundation also operated a Hall of Fame for both college sports.

So, in the last 1930s, a panel declared the 1924 undefeated Carolina team as national champions.  For many years, a nondescript banner noted the award in the Smith Center, but when the banners were redone, the 1924 team was recognized with a full-blown championship banner just like the (then) four other NCAA tournament champions.

It is an easy target for ABCers to bloviate about UNC’s “made-up” championship, but it’s not like a school that (now) has the 3rd most NCAA titles all-time has to gin up a basketball tradition.  The 1924 team was one of 35 or so basketball teams thus honored, although few schools even recognize the Helms champions designation (e.g. Kentucky has a media guide section on it, but with 7 NCAA titles, I guess they don’t feel like they need to add their two Helms non-NCAA awards) and I don’t know of any other than UNC that actually claim it.

I do have a number of problems with the ABCers argument.  First is the retroactive nature of the title.  Yes, it was awarded retroactively, but UNC was the only undefeated team in the country in the 1923-24 season.  The counter to that argument is that UNC didn’t play anyone outside of the region that season.  Can someone tell me what team did?  This was 1924, for crying out loud.  To use that line of thinking, it has been argued that much of the UCLA tournament success of the late 1960s and early 1970s was because the NCAA tourney at that time was truly regional, meaning UCLA only played weaker west coast teams until the Final Four.

Further, the ABC argument goes, the Helms Foundation is an illegitimate arbiter of declaring champions.  The NCAA record book listed the Helms Champions (though carefully did not declare them national champions) until just a few years ago.  But until the early to mid-1950s, the NCAA tournament was considered inferior to the National Invitation Tournament, so it could be argued that any of the NCAA champs of the 1930s and 40s were illegitimate given the weak competition.

But the crowning argument of the anti-Helms crowd is that it is a mythical national championship, awarded not on the court but by a panel of “experts” after the fact.  Is that not what we do in Division I college football every year?  But for the retroactive piece to the Helms titles, what is the difference in that or Georgia Tech’s split 1990 national title?  When I go to Grant Field, I don’t see “1990 AP National Champions, split with Colorado” – I see “1990 National Champions” period.  But college football is a different animal without a method for determining a champion while college basketball has such a method.

As for me, I have no problem if UNC wants to claim the Helms title as just that – the Helms title.  If the 1924 banner above was changed from just “national champions” to “Helms Foundation national champions” it would take the wind out of the ABC argument and make the basketball purists happier.



Filed under Carolina Basketball

7 responses to “The Helms Conundrum

  1. Awesome Blog, Mate! I am always on the watch for new and interesting sports sites and postings… which is what led me here. I certainly plan on visiting again! Cheers

  2. Ian

    Excellent argument. My alma mater, Kansas, also claims its two Helms championships. I never understood the argument that being “selected” national champions was somehow okay in football, but not in hoops. Best wishes.

  3. DeeCee

    What a crock – you damned your own argument by saying no one played outside their region in 1924. So WHY ON EARTH would there be a NATIONAL champion crowned? UNC has got such an inferiority complex since duke won their 4th title.

    This, in conjunction with the 1957 banner, under Coach Frank McGuire’s probation-inspired recruiting, make UNC no better than UCLA in the Sam Gilbert “pay-to-play” era.

  4. “Yes, it was awarded retroactively, but UNC was the only undefeated team in the country in the 1923-24 season.”

    This is incorrect. Texas was also undefeated that season. I don’t know whether or not any other teams were.

    Also, all evidence shows that the Helms “panel of experts” actually consisted of only one person — Bill Schroeder, the first director of the Helms foundation. The “panel of experts” nonsense is just something that has been repeated thousands of times by basketball fans on the internet until it has become accepted as true.

  5. Butler also lays claim to a 1924 national championship as the won the AAU Basketball tournament, the longest-standing and closest thing to a national tournament at that time.

    The Helms awards were awarded by 1-2 individuals (Bill Shroeder and Helms) in some cases 50+ years after the fact (1921-42 choices were published collectively in 1943; 1901-1920 selections not until 1957).

    The ‘system of the day’ or football poll comparisons don’t hold, as it was not the system of that day and there weren’t recognized polls made up of many national voters that were designed to pick eventual champions.

    At the end of the day, basketball in that era was still developing with broader interest, rule interpretation and the concept of a national championship evolving.

  6. Fritz Smith

    Kansas (1922 and 1923) and Kentucky (1933) also recognize their Helms Foundation National Championships. The significance of the titles is: They demonstrate that Kansas, Kentucky and North Carolina are the true Blue Bloods of college basketball. These three programs have SUSTAINED excellence for nearly 100 years. None of the other programs can make this claim. Also, along with the 1924 championship, UNC has PLAYED in the NCAA championship game every full decade that the NCAA tournament has existed — the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s and 2010s. NO other program can make that claim.

  7. Steve Jordan

    So the Helms foundation governed college basketball and how it was determined a college won the National title in 1924 as the NCAA Governed how college basketball was determined and won the National title in later years. Lets hope another organization doesn’t take over and determine how a college basketball team is crowned with a National title in the future or, “We will have to exclude any previous National title wins”. I rest my case!!!…Gooooooooo Heeeeeelssss in 2018 bring a #8 National title banner home to the roof with a three peat appearance and back to back National title victorys…:0)

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