College sports fans are strange (yes, you). The best example of this manifests itself in the never-ending "our program is better than your program" arguments that make up 50% of fan disagreements. Never has a concept been so simultaneously impossible, ridiculous, and important. Invariably everyone's arguments for their school, or against another school, are rooted in opinion, drunkenness, passion, mis-remembering things, and rumors, with a pinch of facts thrown in. While "Who has the better program?" is a question that all college fans "understand" (in the sense of those being English words that form a sentence), it is something that we in no way understand.
If someone were to come here from India or Mars (because those are similar places), and you were to ask them what they think is the best way to decide who has the better athletic program between two schools, there is little doubt that the foreign being would suggest something along the lines of, "whichever one has won more games". It is at this point you would slap the Indian-Martian and tell them they don't know shit about shit. That question is about something more than wins, right? The University of Pennsylvania has the 10th most all time wins of any basketball program, but they aren't the 10th "best" best basketball program are they? No, they aren't. But the hard part comes in answering the foreigners natural follow up question of, "Why?". (most common answer: "Because!".)
So what does "better program" even mean?
What we do know is that the answer is not based in fact, it is more of a feeling. If asked, most of us would say, without missing a beat, that Oklahoma State is a "mid-level" football program that is on the rise. Even though our all-time record is awful, and we have really never won anything, we would still consider ourselves to have a "better" program than say Baylor... yet Baylor actually has a slightly better all-time winning percentage than Oklahoma State (you may barf now).
In the end, there is no way to pinpoint exactly what "better program" means, there are just 100 small indicators that point to how "good" of a program each school has. It is a mixture of current and past results, championships, attendance, national interest, recruit interest, media buzz, traditions, how rabid your fanbase is, intangibles, historically memorable games and seasons, connection to local community, generational influence, traditions, apparel sales, logo usage, tv ratings, website traffic, facilities, political influence, money, and probably 50 more factors that I can't think of right now.
Out of my curiosity, I wanted to put it to the comments section. How do you evaluate how "good" a specific athletic program is? If someone has some solid criteria I would love to hear it.