By Jeremy Rubin
Stanford claimed three NCAA championships in late 2019 in men’s water polo, women’s soccer and women’s volleyball before the NCAA decided in March to cancel the remainder of its winter seasons and the entirety of the spring campaign.
These three titles increased Stanford’s total to 126 and extended the Cardinal lead for most trophies earned by a single college athletics program to eight. Pac-12 rival UCLA falls in second and currently has 118 championships, and another Pac-12 school, USC, checks in at third with 107 at the end of the decade.
Just 30 years ago, however, these three schools were in different positions. Prior to the 1990 calendar year, USC led the pack with 69 championships, UCLA had 61 and Stanford trailed both Pac-12 foes with just 40.
From there, however, Stanford took off, capturing 36 NCAA championship wins in just 10 years. The Cardinal have not looked back since. The below graph illustrates that trend, as well as the rise and fall of other major NCAA Division I powerhouses by each decade.
Prior to this turn around, the first half of the 20th century was all USC. The Trojans, who then competed in the now defunct Pacific Coast Conference, claimed the most championships by a significant margin in every decade until the 1970s, when the school ceded its reign to fellow Southern California university, UCLA.
Stanford, meanwhile, sat far behind both schools and barely ahead of current 10th-place school, California.
The Cardinal began their rise in the 1980s, claiming a nationwide high of 23 championships. The upward trend continued in the ’90s with 36 title wins — the single highest total for championships ever seen in a decade. From there, it was a three-horse race within the then-named Pac-10.
Entering the 21st century, just seven championships separated the school with the most (UCLA with 83) and the third-highest (USC with 76).
For the next 17 years, UCLA maintained supremacy. Stanford was never far behind but was unable to surpass the Bruins’ ever-growing total. Finally, in 2017, the tide turned. Four championship wins: from the Cardinal men’s and women’s soccer teams, women’s swimming and diving and women’s water polo allowed Stanford to leapfrog UCLA. The upward trajectory has continued for the last three years.
In total, Stanford has 67 men’s NCAA championships and 57 women’s. The 57 women’s trophies outpace UCLA’s 43 and USC’s 22 by a significant margin. The Cardinal women’s total is also greater than the combined number of men’s and women’s championships of all schools but UCLA and USC.
When comparing the number of NCAA Championships won with undergraduate populations, Stanford also stands above the rest. With around 7,000 undergraduates on the Farm, Stanford proves that wins do not equate to undergraduate size. Stanford is more than twice as small as the next smallest school, UNC, and the Tar Heels’ only come it at No. 8 in all-time championships. Both UCLA and USC have student bodies at least two and a half times larger than Stanford’s.
Stanford and USC are the only private schools to make the all-time top-10.
Contact Jeremy Rubin at jjmrubin ‘at’ stanford.edu