Directors' Cup Shakeup Makes Clear the Pandemic's Impact on College Athletics

For the first time in 27 years, Stanford did not finish atop the standings. In a COVID-19 season, that’s not a coincidence.
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The longest winning streak in college athletics is over. The immovable object has been moved from the mountaintop. And this momentous happening may say a lot about who the COVID-19 pandemic most substantially affected.

On Friday, the Learfield IMG Directors’ Cup standings for the 2020–21 academic year were released. For the first time in 27 years, a school other than Stanford was the top overall athletic program in America. That school is Texas, powered by three national championships and several other top-five finishes. The Cardinal didn’t drop far, finishing No. 2 and just 56.25 points behind the Longhorns, but their domination had become so routine that this registers as a shock.

“It’s been a while since somebody else won one,” says Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, himself a former Stanford athletic director. In fact, the only other school to have won the Directors’ Cup since it began in 1993–94 is North Carolina, which claimed the inaugural one.

NCAA team logos

The rise of Texas and the slippage by Stanford are snapshots of the two strongest trends in Power 5 athletics during the pandemic year: The Big 12 surged and the Pac-12 struggled. Compared to the previous five-year average finish in the Directors’ Cup, Big 12 schools moved up an average of 3.4 spots among Power 5 programs, with six members improving over their previous average, three declining and one staying even. The Pac-12, meanwhile, was a mirror opposite: Its schools averaged losing 3.4 spots, with eight declining, three rising and one staying even.

(The Directors’ Cup formula, which is computed and maintained by the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics, ranks every school on national finish in 19 sports, four of which are mandatory counters: men’s and women’s basketball, baseball and women’s volleyball. For schools with more than 19 sports, the remaining best 15 are used.)

Broad strokes reaction to those developments: One league is anchored in California and the other is in Texas, and those two states took very different approaches to living through—and playing sports in—a pandemic. And if you’re into winning, the Texas way was the winning way. Of the four Texas schools in the Big 12, three (Texas, Baylor and TCU) improved their standing over their 2015–19 average ranking in the Directors’ Cup, while Texas Tech stayed even. Of the four California schools in the Pac-12, all tumbled in the rankings.

No conference started play in 2020–21 more cautiously than the Pac-12, with its football season kicking off on Nov. 7. The Big 12, after becoming the Power 5 swing vote that kept the 2020 season alive by deciding to play in the fall, began competing in football on Sept. 12 and had relatively few player opt-outs. By and large, it also had its other sports engaged in on-campus, organized practices far earlier than the Pac-12 schools.

“I don’t consider us to have taken risks,” Bowlsby says. “We made prudent decisions and went forward when we could.”

California was the first state to issue a mandatory stay-at-home order, whereas many Texans resisted efforts at a lockdown. Most of the universities in those states reflected that general approach. “It would be too simple to say it’s a red-state, blue-state thing, but it’s pretty clear that those who played more fared better,” Bowlsby says.

Indeed, while it doesn’t explain everything, it’s worth noting that five of the six states in the Pac-12 footprint went for Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election, and all five of the Big 12 states went for Donald Trump.

Beyond the Big 12, four other Texas schools were in the Directors’ Cup top 100: Texas A&M, Sam Houston State, Houston and Rice. While a total of eight from the Lone Star State in the top 100 is two more than each of the previous two seasons, it should be noted that the Aggies actually fell 10 spots compared to their 2015–19 average finish.

(Texas A&M’s outlier season is an example that this is not such an easily reduced formula. So is the state of Alabama, where the Crimson Tide rose 20 spots while Auburn dropped 19. In both normal and abnormal times, there are many factors that impact on-field success within broad-based athletic programs.)

Texas athletic director Chris Del Conte was magnanimous in victory, crediting previous Longhorns administrators for building the foundation of what he took over in December 2017. He also noted that Stanford “had a stranglehold on this thing” for more than a quarter century. But Texas certainly maximized its opportunities, winning a competition that scores 19 varsity programs while only fielding 20—that’s 16 fewer programs than Stanford.

“Our goal is to be a top 10 team in every program,” Del Conte says. “We chose to be excellent in everything we do. We’ve been close, knocking on the doorstep, and this year just happened to be one of those years where everything fell into place.”

While Texas might have had an advantage in terms of an earlier 2020 commitment to playing sports, it hardly had a quiet academic year. Racial turmoil affected the campus and its alumni base, with a firestorm erupting over the “Eyes of Texas” song and its role at athletic contests—especially football.

“There was so much noise around us,” Del Conte says. “We just buckled down, and our kids did a wonderful job of controlling what they could control. They just blocked out the noise and went to work.”

Del Conte says he sensed the momentum building throughout the year when visiting “The TANC,” which is the school’s athletic nutrition center, where athletes from all sports mingle at meal time. Throughout the second semester, success built upon itself. Men’s swimming won its national title in March; women’s volleyball made the championship match in April; women’s tennis and rowing followed with nattys in May; and the baseball team made the final four of the College World Series in June.

Out west, the drops in performance were precipitous despite the Conference of Champions living up to its nickname with eight national titles. Cal was the biggest faller, dropping 25 places and scoring 36% fewer points than its previous two-year average (NACDA changed its scoring formula in 2018). Colorado was down 26%, Washington State 25%, UCLA 22%, Washington 18%, Utah 14%.

And then there was mighty Stanford, down 19%. The Cardinal still won two titles, in women’s basketball and men’s gymnastics, and athletic director Bernard Muir expressed gratitude that there was a season of any kind.

“We weren’t sure we were going to even play sports,” Muir says. “We were on a different plan in the Pac-12, and a different set of circumstances, and the first thing was the safety of all our student-athletes. We really didn’t get out of the gate until January [when 35 of the 38 varsity sports began organized training on campus, while football and both basketball programs previously spent weeks on the road outside the state so they could compete].”

Muir noted that the Cardinal could still win one or both elements of the Capital One Cup, a different all-sports ranking that is divided by gender and has yet to announce its final results. Stanford currently is first in the women’s rankings and second in the men’s. “To even be in the hunt for that, and for the Directors’ Cup down the stretch, we’re pretty proud of that,” he says.

With an expectation of a return to near-normalcy on campus for the 2021–22 academic year, Stanford may be ready to reclaim the throne it occupied continuously since the first Clinton administration. But for one year, at least, it seems pretty clear that the pandemic played a major role in deciding the collegiate all-sports champion of America.

Below is information for every Power 5 team, by conference, on how their Directors' Cup standing changed in 2020–21.

Stanford celebrates its national title
Florida Gators mascot
Justin Fields and Ryan Day embrace after the win over Clemson
Texas Longhorns flag
UNC Tar Heels mascot

Biggest overall risers

Mississippi +28
Iowa +21
Alabama +20
Georgia Tech +19
Clemson +18

Biggest overall decliners

Penn State -29
California -25
Auburn -19
Syracuse -18
South Carolina -13

Non-Power 5 national champions:

Pepperdine men’s golf
Hawaii men’s volleyball
Massachusetts men’s ice hockey
BYU women’s cross country
Northern Arizona men’s cross country
Santa Clara women’s soccer
Marshall men’s soccer