The Decade's "Best" in Debate, (The 1970s)
William Southworth, The University of Redlands

Journal of the American Speech Association, Fall 1981 Reprinted with permission of the American Forensic Association.

As I was preparing my report on "The National Debate Tournament in the 1970's,"/1/ it occurred to me that something important was missing. The NDT's records yielded their facts, which I duly tabulated, but more and more I came to feel that there were debaters, teams, institutions and coaches who were not listed but perhaps should have been. But for the luck of the draw, a debater's untimely illness, or some other factor, the results that emerged from my study might have been different. Without detracting from anyone's real achievement in the NDT, I could remember distinctly superior teams and individuals who, for whatever reason, failed to demonstrate their superiority in that final championship meet.

Such reflections led rather naturally to a series of questions, "Who was the best debater of the past decade? The best team? Considering everything, during that ten year history, out of all those participants, tournaments, and seasons, who was really Number One?" If my second thoughts about the results of the NDT were correct, then surely a different picture would emerge from a survey of a wider data base than the NDT archives. At this point, I undertook another study to provide plausible responses to these inquiries.

Admittedly, it is not possible to arrive at a universally acceptable answer to the question of who is 'best' in debate, just as it is impossible for everyone to agree on the 'best' movies, or boxer, or baseball team over a span of time. Yet simply because such matters are questions of personal judgment, unresolvable by a simple retreat to statistics or facts, makes them no less fascinating or worthy of inquiry. Indeed, the activity itself rests first and foremost upon just such highly individualistic opinions.

Therefore, in the spring of 1980, I designed a simple survey of the opinions of forty debate coaches and/or participants who were significantly active in debate throughout the decade; thirty responded to my questionnaire. In a sense, the sample is representative of the field, since there is a good dispersal of the respondents by geography, by institutional affiliation, by age, and even by coaching philosophies. However, I recognize the obvious limits inherent in any sample such as this. Of course, this is not, strictly speaking, a scientific sample. But the forty survivors whom I identified are surely competent to speak with considerable authority on these matters. The result, I feel, whether totally scientific or not, is both interesting and worthwhile. It provides an answer, if not the answer, to my questions. As was once said of the Kinsey Report when it first came out, "It may not be the most scientific sex survey, but at the moment, it contains the only statistics in town on the subject."

A list of twenty-five debaters who had either been first or second speaker at the NDT or accumulated numerous speaker awards during their competitive years was provided. The respondents were then asked "Rank you top ten (1, 2, 3, etc.). You may rank your own debater(s), and if you feel strongly that a deserving debater has been left off use the appropriate blank provided. Rank in order, your top ten debaters only." The results were rather clear-cut. The points next to the names reflect ten points for being ranked first, nine for second, etc. The number in parenthesis is the total number of ballots in which the person was in fact ranked.

I decided finally to simply ask the respondents to "Rank your top five judges for the decade?" Like the other questions, any attempt to define best would be hopeless and skew the purpose of the survey; the results, like all the other questions, were relatively clear in their results.

The Best Judges of the Decade

James Unger, Georgetown


William Southworth, Redlands


David Zarefsky, Northwestern


Ken Strange, Augustana/Dartmouth


Tom Kane, Pittsburgh


The final question was phrased just as simply, "Rank your top five coaches for the decade?" Not too surprising, there is some duplication with the above question.

The Best Coaches of the Decade

James Unger, Georgetown


David Zarefsky, Northwestern *


William Southworth, Redlands **


Donn Parson, Kansas */*


John DeBross, USC **/**/**


(* Had a team win the NDT; ** Had a team place second at the NDT.)

The foregoing report of the debate's "best" of the past decade was a more enjoyable project for me than my earlier report about the National Debate Tournament, because it has been more creative and imaginative. These lists of the "best" show that twenty-nine other debate coaches with direct personal experience over the years agree with me that the "best" was not always the same as the NDT results. If the debaters, teams, tournaments, coaches, and judges named here were not, in fact, the "best" according to some more scientifically objective measure, they were the "best" in the memories of thirty individuals who were in a position to venture their opinions. Speaking for myself, and hopefully for the forensics community, I am happy to report the results of this survey. To be remembered and recognized in this fashion is a distinct honor to those involved.

/1/ William Southworth, "The National Debate Tournament in the 1970's," Journal of the American Forensic Asociation, 18 (Summer 1981), p. 68-73.

The Best Debaters of the 1970s

Tom Rollins, Georgetown


Joe Loveland, North Carolina


Charles Garvin, Harvard

136 (21)

Gil Skillman, Kentucky


Mark Fabiani, Redlands


Robert Feldhake, Augustana


Joe Anglund, MIT


Robin Rowland, Kansas


Stuart Singer, Northwestern


Mike Miller, Houston


(* Top speaker at the NDT; **Second speaker at the NDT)

The top five debaters of the decade accounted for an impressive array of accomplishments. Rollins was at or near the top in virtually every ranking of records in this survey, as well as being the only person in history to be top speaker twice. Loveland was a member of the team rated first by the coaches. Garvin was the only one of the five highest rated debaters to be a member of the winning team at nationals. Skillman was a member of the sixth ranked team of the decade. And Fabiani was the only debater in the decade to qualify for the elimination rounds four successive years at the NDT.

From a list of thirty teams who had either been finalists at the NDT or received first-round-at-large bids being ranked number one the coaches were asked to, "Rank you top ten teams (1,2, 3, etc.). You may rank your own team(s) and if you feel strongly that a deserving team has been left off use the appropriate blank provided. Rank in order your top ten teams only." I again ranked the teams based on ten points for a first place ranking, nine for second, etc. and again the results were rather clear cut.


The Best Teams of the 1970s

North Carolina (Loveland & McGuire)


Harvard (Garvin & Rosenbaum)


Augustana (Feldhake & Godfrey)


Kansas (Rowland & Cross)


Georgetown (Rollins and Walker)

104 (16)

Kentucky (Skillman and Oberst)


Georgetown (Jay & Ziff)


USC (Palmieri & Winston)


Northwestern (Marmer & Mineberg) 60(11)
Northwestern (Cotham & Singer)


(* First place team at the NDT; ** Second place team at the NDT)

North Carolina won virtually every major tournament in the country between 1970 and 1972, except for the NDT. In 1971 they reached the quarters of the NDT, and in 1972 they went 4-4 with sixteen ballots and failed to qualify. Their awesome support as the top team of the decade suggests that the National Tournament does not always reflect the top team in the country.

Indeed further support for this thesis was provided by our respondents when they were simply asked to, "Rank in order your top five tournaments over the decade?" Their ranking placed the National Tournament third.

The Best Tournaments of the 1970s

1) HEART OF AMERICA University of Kansas
2) OWEN COON Northwestern University
4) GEORGETOWN INVITATIONAL Georgetown University
5) CHRISTMAS CLASSIC University of California - Los Angeles

An interesting second question requested a ranking of the National Debate Tournaments from 1970 through 1979 on a scale of one to ten, with one as best. Those results were as follows:

The Best NDTs of the 1970s

1) Metropolitan State College,Denver, Colorado 1978 (78)
2) University of Kentucky, Lexington, Kentucky 1979 (95)
3) US Air Force Academy, Colorado Springs, Colorado 1974 (114)
4) University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah 1972 (134)
5) University of the Pacific, Stockton, California 1975 (139)
6) Southwest Missouri State College, Springfield, Missouri 1977 (144)
7) University of Houston, Texas 1970 (153)
8) Boston College, Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts 1976 (161)
9) Macalester College, St. Paul, Minnesota 1971 (179)
10) US Naval Academy, Annapolis, Maryland 1973 (185)