Editor’s note: Welcome to the first article in what will be a semester-long series on the state of Ivy League athletics over the past decade. Over the summer, Cole Jacobson, Sam Mitchell, and I set out to chronicle how each team at each school performed in the past 10 years. In this series, we’ll be highlighting some of our results, starting with overall rankings of all the schools. In the coming weeks, we’ll look at the best individual teams, Penn’s place in the Ivy League, and much more. Each new article will shed light on a specific topic we find intriguing and insightful. Thanks for reading, and enjoy! - Jonathan Pollack
This is a condensed version of the methodology and terminology used in this study. For the complete version, please visit our methodology report.
We considered all sports where at least half of the Ivy League competes at the varsity level. This means that we did not include certain sports in which only a few Ivies compete, such as sprint football, skiing, men’s volleyball, water polo, etc.
We took data from the past 10 complete school years going back to 2008-09. We saw this as an appropriate compromise between being large enough to have a sample size indicative of which schools were best, yet small enough to reasonably demonstrate which programs are the best right now.
For sports where some Ivy teams don’t compete, each team’s finish was mathematically adjusted to a hypothetical finish on an eight-team scale, with the first-place team remaining at 1 and the last-place team finishing 8.
Ivy League titles were split into outright and overall titles to account for shared titles. In the case of a shared title, each team that earned a part of the Ivy title was given a championship.
We felt it was important not to have any ties in our study, as it would have made our analysis much more complex. The general tiebreakers, in order, are head-to-head results, Ivy Tournament seeding, Ivy point differential, head-to-head point differential, and RPI. Several sports required sport-specific tiebreakers that replaced the general tiebreakers.
Premiere postseason appearances, wins, and national titles refer to the NCAA Championship or Tournament, or each sport’s equivalent of that.
Here are our rankings of the eight Ivy League athletic programs.
Princeton clearly was the most successful school in the Ivy League over the last decade. On top of an average finish that’s nearly half a place better than the next best school, the Tigers had the most Ivy titles, Ivy postseason titles, NCAAs appearances, and top 25, 10, and 5 finishes. Princeton dominated in several sports, with nine teams earning the top average finish in their respective sports, but that’s not all that made the Tigers the best in the conference.
Princeton most impressive feature is that it was competitive in almost every sport. 29 of Princeton’s 33 teams took home an Ivy title in the last 10 years, with all but two of those 29 teams winning at least two titles. The Tigers averaged a top-four finish in 25 sports, and their worst overall finish was just 5.2 — just 0.1 less than Dartmouth’s overall average. With a few standout teams and all-around above average performance, Princeton easily earned the top spot.
Right behind Princeton as an elite Ivy League athletic program is Harvard. The Crimson are clear second fiddles to the Tigers, but still stand head and shoulders above the rest of the league. While it placed second in average finish, Ivy titles, and NCAA appearances, Harvard had the most national titles in both the team and individual categories. This was largely due to the sheer dominance of its women’s squash team, which racked up seven team titles and six individual championships.
Harvard’s average finish might actually undersell how close they are to Princeton. The Crimson had a median finish of 3.2, well below their average finish, indicating they were dragged down by a few poor finishes. Most notably, the three men’s running teams — cross country, indoor track and field, and outdoor track and field — averaged finishes of 6.4, 4.7, and 5.1 respectively. With 26 out of 33 sports earning at least one title and 12 different teams grabbing the top spot in their sport, Harvard, much like Princeton, was competitive in almost every sport.
Moving on to the middle tier of Ancient Eight, Cornell takes third place behind a few dominant teams along with many that were solidly in the middle of the pack. Cornell wrestling is perhaps the best individual team in the entire study — the Big Red captured all 10 Ivy titles, nine ECAC titles, and 10 individual NCAA championships. Besides wrestling, Cornell had the best running teams in the league. Five of the Big Red’s best nine teams, in terms of average finish, came in either cross country or indoor/outdoor track and field, and those teams combined to bring home 13 Ivy championships and the school’s lone non-wrestling individual national title.
Most of the metrics pointed to Cornell finishing slightly over Penn and Yale. Cornell had significantly more Ivy titles, both outright and total, as well as a higher average finish, more sports with a title, and more national titles. However, the Big Red finished sixth in terms of median finish, and they have the second-most teams that averaged a finish of sixth or worse, with nine. Still, the overall average finish and number of titles were enough to put Cornell in third.
Slotting in behind Cornell but just ahead of Penn is Yale. Yale volleyball is another team that was clearly the best in its sport, taking home four outright Ivy titles and seven overall. The Bulldogs also have some of the more impressive national title runs, taking home the 2018 men’s lacrosse and 2013 men’s hockey titles. Both of those titles came in sports the Ivy League had not won in a long time; it was the league’s first men’s lacrosse title since 2001 and first men’s hockey title since 1989.
Yale is the only school to rank higher than its average finish would dictate, due to a number of other statistics. Aside from average finish, the Bulldogs lead the bottom five schools in almost every category — Ivy titles, team national titles, teams with the conference’s top average finish, teams with Ivy titles, median finish, and teams that finished in the top half of the league. Like Harvard, Yale suffers from a poor showing in indoor and outdoor track, significantly pulling down its average finish. With all of these factors combined, Yale is able to leapfrog ahead of Columbia and Penn to take fourth place.
Penn rounds out the second tier of Ivy schools, finishing just behind both Yale and Cornell. Much like Cornell and Yale, Penn has one particular sport that it towers over the rest of the league in. The Quakers’ women’s lacrosse squad took home four outright Ivy titles, nine overall, and three Ivy Tournament titles. Aside from women’s lacrosse, Penn football weathered a coaching change to remain one of the better teams in the conference, with titles in half of the seasons.
Unlike Yale and Cornell, which have more teams at both ends of the conference, Penn teams are often squarely in the middle of the conference. The Quakers have 11 teams that averaged finishes between fourth and fifth; no other Ivy school has more than seven. Likewise, Penn has very few teams at either the top or the bottom of the league, with just nine teams that averaged finishes better than third or worse than sixth. By most stats, Penn was quite average, and its unspectacular showing earns it fifth place.
Sitting slightly beneath the trio of Cornell, Penn, and Yale is Columbia. Columbia boasts one of the more dominant Ivy teams in its men’s tennis squad, which captured seven Ivy titles, accounting for more than 20 percent of the school’s total. Columbia’s other strong program is fencing. Between the men’s and women’s teams, the Lions have eight Ivy titles, two team national titles, and four individual national titles. Columbia is also the school with the largest discrepancy between men’s and women’s titles, with 25 men’s championships to just 7 women’s titles.
While the Lions actually have an average finish that is better than Yale’s, they rank behind Yale and Penn in nearly every other category, including major categories such as Ivy titles and NCAA appearances. Columbia has only 12 teams that won titles in the past decade, a drop from the 16 teams that Penn had. Like Penn, Columbia has just one sport with the best average finish in the league. Even when adjusting for the fact that the Lions have the fewest total teams in the Ivy League, they don’t have a strong enough profile to push past the schools in front of them, landing them in sixth place.
In seventh is Dartmouth, which sits well behind the previous schools but comfortably in front of Brown. Dartmouth men’s soccer is the school’s premier team, taking home six titles in a very competitive Ivy sport. That team also won eight games in eight NCAA Tournament appearances, tied for second-best among all non-squash teams in the study. Dartmouth’s other strength came not in the form of a team, but a particular athlete. From 2009-2013, Abbey D’Agostino dominated the cross country and track and field circuit, earning all seven of the Big Green’s individual NCAA titles, including the Ivy League’s first ever cross country title.
Still, the gap between Dartmouth and sixth-place Columbia is considerable. Aside from a 0.4 gap in average finish, the Lions nearly doubled up on the Big Green in Ivy titles. Dartmouth had just eight sports that finished in the top half of the league, and only nine that won titles. Aside from D’Agostino, the Big Green had a poor national showing; just 11 wins and only one top 10 finish. All of this combines for a second-to-last place finish for Dartmouth.
In every sport, someone has to come in last, and by all accounts Brown did just that in the Ivy League over the past 10 years. The Bears finished dead last in almost every category — average finish, Ivy titles, NCAA appearances, NCAA wins, and NCAA titles. The only sport where Brown really held its own was rowing, where its men’s heavyweight and women’s open teams both placed near the top of the conference and contended for the national title each year. And while Brown’s past is quite bleak, the future doesn’t look much better. Brown’s last Ivy title came in 2015-16 with men’s lacrosse, but the Ivy League currently houses the reigning national champion in Yale.
Like Harvard and Yale, Brown has a misleading average finish. But Brown’s actually gives it more credit than it probably deserves; Brown’s median finish is nearly 0.4 spots worse than its average. The Bears averaged finishes of sixth or worse in 19 out of 33 sports, and were the only school to not have at least one sport where they had the best average finish. Brown had just five sports where it average at least a top-four position in the league, and none better than 2.6. Flatly put, Brown was bad across the board.
Next week — We look at the most dominant teams of the past decade.