One of the more interesting and contentious discussions revolving around the history of high school football in Pennsylvania is that of historical state champions. As we approach championship weekend for 2016, let’s take a look back at the teams determined by one measurement to be state champions throughout the history of the sport in our state.
Much of the lore and tradition surrounding the culture of high school football comes from either hearing about or – if we had the chance – seeing teams considered to be “the best.” Chances are, asking any number of fans across the state for their opinion on a particular season’s best team would yield a number of unique responses. Calling a team “the best in the state” is inherently an extremely subjective exercise, especially for the years before 1988 when teams began settling the matter on the field through the state playoff brackets. And in some ways, finding the “best” team from a given year isn’t actually all that important. Many fans of football follow the sport because it’s important to them through a variety of personal connections. If a flawless and all-encompassing measure of team quality existed (and I apologize, but it never will), would that diminish the enjoyment a fan experienced from watching a team that was rated, say, 8th best in the state that year? I doubt it. But the major aim of this site is to collect and record as much historical information about high school football in Pennsylvania, and a list of yearly champions is certainly a crucial part of the story of the game.
Relative to the rest of the country, Pennsylvania began crowning state champions on the field very late in its history. From the beginning of high school football in the state (which dates as far back as at least 1885) until 1987, all teams considered to be state champions were either:
a.) Purely mythical champions or anecdotally considered to be the best in the state that year
That means that there is over a century of seasons in which the true state champion is up for debate, and always will be. For the purposes of this site, the yearly champions of the Saylor Rating System will be included as that year’s state champion. The list presented here is not meant to be an end-all, be-all compilation of the definitive best teams from each season. Rather, it should be viewed as one perspective of the teams that earned the highest rating based on the same system. The Saylor system was chosen because it rated teams yearly from 1887 until 1987, Pennsylvania’s final season without on-the-field champions. The system isn’t perfect and the method Dr. Saylor used to determine the ratings is not known, but it is a consistent, statewide and historically comprehensive measurement. As much as I would love to be able to present a perfect list of inarguable state champions, the fact is that the uncertainty and debate surrounding who truly was the best team that year is probably as important, if not more so, than actually knowing which team it was. Having a definitive state champion for every year pre-1987 would erase some of the nostalgia and mythology that surrounds teams from hazy, long-ago seasons.
With all of that being said, here are some important things to note when looking at this list:
- The ratings presented here were originally created by Dr. Roger Saylor, a former Penn State professor. The inspiration for this list stems from a copy of the 2012 Pennsylvania Football News Resource Guide that I own. In it, the top ten teams based on Saylor Rating from each season from 1914-1987 were included. That list was compiled by Hal Wilson and Bob Grube, with assistance from Dr. Saylor himself. I want to stress that the information presented on this site was gathered independently of the PFN list, and thus there are a few differences between that one and the compilation you’ll see here:
- The list on this site includes teams from 1887 through the present day. I have included teams from all years in which a rating was derived (1885 and 1886 teams did not receive one from Saylor) and also all post-1987 teams to win on-the-field PIAA titles. This gives the list you’ll see here a complete record of all state champions.
- The PFN list is only complete statewide for 1939-1987. Before 1939, the authors note that there are some missing teams from the western part of the state. I have tried to include all teams statewide for all years since 1887, and this has allowed the list you’ll see here to fill in some missing pieces.
- Teams named state champions by this list up through the 1987 season held the highest Saylor Rating for that year. I’ve combed through individual team files and recorded every team in state history to achieve a Saylor Rating of at least 500; in most seasons, a 500 rating puts a team in the top 15-18 teams in the state. There have been at least 857 teams to earn a 500+ rating all-time. For a few seasons in the 1800s, no team reached 500 points, so I searched every team for every year to find the highest rating for those seasons. In a future post (or possibly a series of posts), I’ll break down the members of this “500 Club” in more detail.
- There are a few schools (namely Belle Vernon, Hampton, Kiski Prep, Lancaster McCaskey, Middletown, Shady Side Academy, Wyoming Seminary, and a few long-closed prep schools) that do not have ratings included in their files. I don’t know why this is the case, but these schools will not be included because of the lack of this data. If these ratings can be found, those schools will be added to the list.
- This list is mostly complete, but there is still data that is missing (see #2 above) or that possibly hasn’t been found yet. Because of this, the list of state champions could potentially change if new information surfaces in the future. This is a living document; new champions will be added each year and adjustments/corrections/additions will be added when found.
- Champions through 1987 are based on the Saylor System and champions from 1988 until today are the PIAA champions as determined by on-the-field state playoff competition. That’s it.
- Only one team to earn a 500+ rating has been removed from this list. The 1974 Aliquippa team earned a 567 rating, which would be the 3rd-highest in state history and was nearly 30 points higher than the three teams that tied for second place that season. However, the team went 5-3-1 and didn’t play for a WPIAL title. The year before, the Quips also went 5-3-1 and earned a rating of 467. In 1975, they went 6-3 and earned a 466. Because of this, I am strongly convinced that the rating for the 1974 team is a typo and chose not to include it on this list. Historical ratings for Aliquippa can be viewed in the file shown here, under column DZ.
I’ll be devoting more posts based on this research, but please leave any comments or questions in the comments section below. Without further ado, here’s the link to the list: