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Why College Football’s New All-Time Rushing Leader Isn’t Really Its All-Time Rushing Leader

With a 15-yard run in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s Las Vegas Bowl, San Diego State running back Donnel Pumphrey became the all-time career FBS rushing leader. Except, no, not really. But, officially, yes.

Wait, what?

Dieter Kurtenbach offers a good explainer about the situation at Fox Sports. Basically, in 2002, the NCAA started counting statistics from bowl games toward official records. Before then? Nope. So even though Wisconsin RB Ron Dayne ran for 7,125 yards in his career when we include bowl games — games in which the NCAA recorded the exact number of yards he ran for, and games whose yardage would count toward his career total if they occurred after 2002 — Pumphrey is your career “leader” with 6,405 yards.

Go figure.

This isn’t the first time a counting-stat record has been determined by an arbitrary bureaucratic decision or a data limitation:

• Officially, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich picked up his 1,000th coaching win in 2015 — but that’s only because the NBA doesn’t include playoff wins in its ranking of the most victorious coaches. If you count the postseason, Popovich won his 1,000th game two full years earlier. And his “true” 1,000th win even comes with a fun bit of arbitrary accounting: Because Popovich was sick, assistant coach Mike Budenholzer (now head coach of the Atlanta Hawks) coached the team that night in 2013 … but the win still counted toward Pop’s official tally, as per the NBA’s policy on interim coaching records.

• In 2015, Ivo Karlovic became the all-time ace leader in men’s tennis, zooming past former leader Goran Ivanisevic. But for aces, “all-time” only means “since 1991,” when the stat was first tracked on the ATP World Tour — and by then, Ivanisevic was already in his fourth year of competing, which effectively gave Karlovic a head start in his record chase. Plus, the ATP doesn’t include any aces recorded during Davis Cup play, even though those games count toward players’ win-loss records.

Nobody can agree on how many hits were racked up by early baseball star Cap Anson and others of his era. Because of both record-keeping discrepancies and disputes over whether the National Association, the league in which Anson played the first several years of his career, should be considered part of Major League Baseball (and therefore be included in MLB’s official stats), we can’t muster much more than an educated guess about Anson’s place on the all-time hits leaderboard. Here’s SABR’s Bill Felber on the topic:

More than any other achievement in the statistically obsessed game that is baseball, Anson’s hit totals are subject to debate. The most respected statistical references in the game disagree on how many hits the 19th-century Chicago star actually had … or whether he even reached 3,000. The Hall of Fame credits Anson with 3,081 hits. But The ESPN Baseball Encyclopedia gives him 3,012. Baseball Reference says Anson had 3,435 hits. Project Retrosheet accepts both the 3,012 and 3,435 figures, while the Macmillan Encyclopedia gives him an even 3,000. Total Baseball credits Anson with 2,995. Anson biographer David Fleitz puts the figure at 2,995 or 3,418.

So the NCAA isn’t alone in matters of head-scratching record-keeping decisions. For what it’s worth, they’ve even tried to offer up some justification for Pumphrey breaking Dayne’s record: They don’t want to retroactively change what was considered official at the time of an earlier season. (Counterpoint: Dayne literally rushed for more yards!!!) In the end, it’s just another example of a sports organization grappling with potentially incomplete data — and making a strange decision as a result.

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.