The NCAA’s official record books, starting with 2017, will record San Diego State’s Donnel Pumphrey as the all-time career FBS rushing leader. Pumphrey’s 115 yards against Houston in Saturday’s Las Vegas Bowl gave him an incredible 6,405 over his four years at SDSU. No player in major college football history has run for more, if you believe the NCAA’s accounting of statistics. It was a heartwarming thing.
Of course, we shouldn’t believe that accounting.
The NCAA makes a conscious choice not to count postseason statistics in its records if those numbers were accrued before 2002.
It’s a record-keeping quirk without a clear and convincing rationale, other than that lots of teams started going to bowls around that time. It means anything anyone did in a bowl game or a conference title game before 2002 doesn’t count.
The way the rule changed didn’t make sense in 2002, either.
Steve Snapp, sports information director at Ohio State, said his school, and most in the Big Ten, always have included bowl games in their statistics. The conference has a rich bowl tradition, he said, and postseason stats shouldn't be excluded.
Tom Schott, sports information director for Purdue University, agreed that it's time the NCAA made the adjustment.
"It was silly not to," he said. "In every other sport, they include the postseason."
Schott added that he would like to see the NCAA go back into the record books and add in bowl games from the past.
"I think it's doable," he said. "I can understand them not wanting to go back right now. I hope at some point they go back."
The man Pumphrey passed on Saturday for the rushing record is Ron Dayne, the Wisconsin star running back in the 1990s.
The NCAA says Dayne ran for 6,397 yards in his four college seasons.
Of course, that’s hogwash. Dayne actually ran for 7,125 yards, but 728 happened to come in postseason play. So the NCAA doesn’t count them, and instead of Dayne sitting 720 yards ahead of Pumphrey, he is eight yards behind him for all of eternity. Pumphrey should also be behind Pitt’s Tony Dorsett, whom the NCAA credits with 6,082 rushing yards but factually had 6,526.
Pumphrey ran for 528 bowl and conference title yards in his career. Those yards count, but Dayne’s don’t. It’s a 1,248-yard swing, in the aggregate.
Dayne both recognized the record and pointed out his own actual total.
Congratulations young man #GOAT #7125— Ron Dayne (@Ron33Dayne) December 17, 2016
The NCAA nearly found itself in a similar place in 2014.
Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon made a hearty run at Barry Sanders’ single-season rushing mark, set in 1988 at Oklahoma State.
The NCAA recognizes Sanders as running for 2,628 yards in 11 games. He ran for 2,850 in 12, having piled on 222 more yards in a Holiday Bowl win over Wyoming.
Gordon ran for 2,587, nearly catching Sanders (according to the NCAA) in Wisconsin’s Outback Bowl against Auburn. Gordon came up 41 yards short of Sanders officially, but factually was 263 yards short.
Sanders’ 1988 was singularly incredible, just like Dayne’s entire college career. Gordon wasn’t actually that close to Sanders, and Pumphrey wasn’t actually that close to Dayne, who was 720 yards better in every record book except the one that counts.
Sometimes there are good reasons not to count historical stats.
The NFL didn’t start to compile sacks until 1982, so it doesn’t recognize team-tracked sacks from before that. It’s caused some consternation, but it’s understandable. Football’s been played for a long time, and it’s hard to be certain of numbers put together many decades ago.
College football’s an even older enterprise than the NFL, and it’s impossible to vouch for the accuracy of every number. So if the NCAA thinks it can’t be certain about some numbers, it doesn’t have to pretend otherwise.
But that isn’t what’s going on here. Many bowl games before 2002 were on color television. The internet existed for many of them. Box scores were not appreciably different, and to whatever extent they were different, they still included rushing yardage.
The NCAA already tracks and counts regular season stats from before 2002. Its record book begins with 1937. Nobody’s going to argue that a bowl stat from 1995 is less reliable than a regular season stat from 1937, but it’s the one from 1937 that counts. That’s a matter of convenience, not accuracy.
It’ll be argued that if the NCAA lifts the ban on counting pre-2002 postseason stats, it’ll start historians and statisticians down a slippery slope.
Getting everything together might take lots of work hours. Numbers from as far back as the 1902 Rose Bowl would have to be worked into the books for every player to ensure consistency.
The NCAA doesn’t necessarily have to change its policy.
But if it cares about the integrity of its own information, the organization should at least exempt the top 10 players on major career lists from the pre-2002 postseason stats ban. That’d be a start, guaranteeing that the first few pages of its history books are accurate. Or it should point out the obvious, at least, about Dayne.
If some bowl stats are unavailable, that’s OK. College football’s not that serious. But Dayne’s stats are from the 1990s, not the Stone Age, and they’re sitting in plain view. To not call him the all-time FBS rushing leader is willful ignorance, and it cheapens Pumphrey’s remarkable career by overselling his own greatness.