The next time you hear area college sports fans boast of their favorite team’s success in the Learfield Directors’ Cup most assuredly will be the first time.
Sports fans generally know little to nothing about the Cup, which has been around since the 1993-94 school year and has ranked the collective success of men’s and women’s college athletic programs ever since.
“Have heard of it, but don’t know much about it,” said N.C. State graduate and longtime booster and fan, Tony Withers, who did recall recently hearing of the Wolfpack’s Cup ranking of 15th nationally in 2018.
While fans generally shrug their collective shoulders about the Cup, it appears the primary credence given to these rankings is among college athletic directors.
“ADs talk about it,” said Bubba Cunningham, UNC’s athletic director.
Outside Cunningham’s office in the Williamson Athletic Center’s reception area, the trophy for UNC winning the inaugural Cup in 1994 is housed. It is a beautiful trophy with a Waterford crystal ball resting atop a black base.
UNC captured that first one, presumably on the backs of the Tar Heels’ NCAA championships in women’s basketball and women’s soccer that school year. Since then, Stanford has added a Learfield Directors’ Cup to its trophy case each of 24 consecutive years.
“I tell people, we won it and the last (24) years Stanford’s gotten lucky,” Cunningham said with a laugh.
The national rankings for Duke, UNC and N.C. State athletic directors are no laughing matter. They all view the standings as an excellent gauge for how an athletic program performs.
“The college athletics landscape is filled with competition, and the Learfield Directors’ Cup is a premier measuring stick for NCAA institutions at all levels,” wrote Kevin White, Duke’s athletic director, via email. “To be sure, we follow each reporting cycle closely and take great pride in Duke’s past, present and future achievement.”
UNC and Duke have fared best among area programs in the Cup standings. After winning the Cup, UNC has placed in the top 10 nationally 19 times since, including runner-up finishes in 1995, 1997, 1998 and 2009. Duke has six top 10 finishes, including highs at No. 5 in 2005 and 2011.
“If you have a lot of sports like we do, it is important to you,” Cunningham said. “Our goal for our department is we want to be top three, top 10; top three in the conference in every sport we offer and top 10 in the country in every sport we offer.”
NC State rises
When Debbie Yow arrived as N.C. State’s athletic director nearly nine years ago, she set out to make the Wolfpack’s overall program among the top 25 in the nation. N.C. State was ranked No. 89 in the Cup standings that year. This past year’s No. 15 ranking was the best in program history.
The Learfield Director’s Cup has operated over the years under the name of the National Association of Collegiate Director of Athletics, USA Today and Sears Cup. The scoring rules also have changed from time to time, recently settling on awarding points to each program in a predetermined number of men’s and women’s sports.
Perhaps as a way to recognize programs besides Stanford, the Capital One Cup was instituted in 2010-11 with a winner named for both men’s and women’s athletics. The Capital One Cup also differs from the Learfield Directors’ Cup in giving greater emphasis in the scoring system to the major sports such as football, men’s basketball and women’s basketball.
If, in fact, that was the basis for forming the newest Cup, it has been with mixed results. The Stanford women have won five of the eight Capital One Cups and the Stanford men have prevailed twice.
UNC captured the 2013 women’s Capital One Cup, spearheaded by a lacrosse NCAA championship. As a bonus, athletic department officials attended the ESPYs award ceremony in Las Vegas to accept the Cup.
The Atlantic Coast Conference is positioning itself to have a banner year in the Learfield Directors’ Cup. The fall standings found Wake Forest ranked No. 6, followed by Duke at 7, Notre Dame 9, N.C. State 10, Virginia 14, UNC 15, Florida State 17 and Syracuse 19.
Perhaps one of those programs will produce a stellar spring, push Stanford aside and vault into the top spot. Then that program’s fan base can begin chanting at sporting events that it “Won the Cup!”
Or maybe not.
2017-18 Learfield Directors Cup Final Standings
Source: Learfield Directors Cup