Deciding what’s a “football school” or a “basketball school” is an inexact science. Longstanding tradition — not wins and losses — often determines whether most fans’ hearts belong to the gridiron or the hardwood. Culturally, Florida State didn’t stop being a football school during its recent stretch of substandard performance, nor did Michigan adopt the persona of a basketball school even as its men’s team made multiple Final Fours in the 2010s (and its football faltered). And Kentucky, where men’s basketball coach John Calipari recently made headlines for speaking the obvious, is not a football school — despite an impressive resurgence for the Wildcats on Saturdays in recent years.
But at some point, on-field or on-court excellence supersedes culture, and that point is now. To find a definitive answer to what’s a football school and what’s a basketball school, we ranked the current 65 Power Five schools using a point system based on our Elo rankings in football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball since 2001.1 Points for a given sport were assigned based on a team’s ranking in average Elo during a given year, with full weights attached to football and half-weights attached to each of men’s and women’s basketball.2 A “football school” got at least half of its total points from football, while a “basketball school” got at least half of its points from basketball. In total, that gives us 36 football schools — or schools that got at least half of their points from football — and 29 basketball schools.
|School▲▼||Football points▲▼||MBB points▲▼||WBB Points▲▼||Total points▲▼||Type▲▼|
|North Carolina State||536||338.0||384.5||1258.5||Basketball|
The top five point-getters on the gridiron probably come as no surprise: Oklahoma, Louisiana State, Ohio State, Georgia and Alabama are among the most decorated and recognized brands in college sports. In men’s basketball, the top five are the traditional mainstays (Kansas, Duke, Kentucky, Michigan State and North Carolina); similarly, on the women’s side, current and erstwhile powerhouses Baylor, Stanford, Tennessee, Duke and Notre Dame have racked up the most points.3
Some of these schools, though, fare well across the board. Ohio State, for example, claims the No. 1 overall spot by total points, thanks to not only its perennial national title contender in the Horseshoe but also consistent runs on the hardwood — including two Final Fours for its men’s team in 2007 and 2012. Notre Dame has been highly successful in both sports as well, making several playoff and New Year’s Six bowl appearances in football to go with its juggernaut squads in women’s basketball — which included the winners of an epic national championship in 2018 — and a fairly consistent tournament team on the men’s side. And it must be noted that, in maybe the most surprising finding of this whole exercise, the Irish are classified as a “basketball school” by our system — 53.6 percent of their total points came from the hardwood. (Sorry, Knute Rockne.)
Of course, not all schools take the same balanced approach. For a counter-example, you need look no further than Durham, North Carolina, where Duke’s football team has ranked dead-last in average football Elo four times and in the bottom 10 a total of 13 times since 2001. Meanwhile, the legendary Duke men’s basketball program has shouldered the load with a top-10 average Elo in all but one year, and the women’s program enjoyed its own unbroken stretch of top-10 rankings from 2002 to 2015. And though Alabama basketball has made a comeback in recent years — the men’s team contributed to a memorable sports equinox last fall, beating No. 3 Gonzaga as the football team won the SEC title game, while the women’s team made its first NCAA Tournament appearance in nearly two decades in 2021 — football rightly has a reputation for bringing home the bacon in Tuscaloosa.
Here were the most imbalanced schools according to our method, based on who had the largest absolute difference in points between football and basketball:
|School||basketball points||Football points||Abs. diff||School type|
These labels aren’t static, though. Think about Florida State: The Seminoles rebounded from their lean late Bobby Bowden years on the gridiron with national success in the early 2010s to reclaim football-school status. But a sneaky-good track record in men’s and women’s basketball since the mid-2010s has flipped FSU to a basketball school again. Michigan, which maintained its strong football-first status in the twilight years of the Lloyd Carr era, has seen a roughly even split between basketball and football over the past 14 years — and basketball still accounted for nearly half of its point share in 2021, when the football team finally started to deliver on its massive promise. And Miami, once a crown jewel of college football, has see-sawed back and forth from football to basketball since 2007.
Though none of those programs would be thought of as “basketball schools” by their fans, the numbers indicate that their less-heralded hoops squads have performed at a higher level than their football teams in recent decades. In other words, traditional labels can change faster than we might think. So Calipari should probably watch his back: Even if Kentucky isn’t likely to become a football school by history and tradition anytime soon, its recent gridiron success could eventually lead to a shift in the balance of power in Lexington.