The Tournament of Champions (TOC) is a national high school debate tournament held at the University of Kentucky every year on the last weekend in April. The Tournament is considered the national championship of the "National Circuit," with debaters having to apply to compete. It is considered one of the most prestigious and competitive American high school debate tournaments. The tournament uses a bid system, in which placing high enough in certain nationally or regionally respected tournaments earns debaters a bid, with at least 2 bids needed to compete. Some popular bid tournaments include Greenhill (TX), Harvard (MA), and Harvard-Westlake (CA). In addition to attaining 2 bids, competitors can automatically qualify by placing high enough at last year's Tournament of Champions (or one of the two other national tournaments). Or, they may be accepted as an "at large entry", where they must apply to receive a bid after the season finishes.
The tournament was created by Dr. J.W. Patterson, the former director of debate at the University of Kentucky. Incepted in 1972, it serves as the pinnacle of high school debate, allowing the best debaters in the United States to compete without other, less experienced debaters affecting the rankings. Judges at the Tournament of Champions are all qualified, with none of the "lay" or "parent" judges commonly found at other tournaments. The Tournament currently holds competition in policy debate, Lincoln-Douglas debate, public forum debate, and Congressional Debate.
The Tournament of Champions is run independently by the University of Kentucky, however, it does use the rules and regulations provided by the National Speech and Debate Association (NSDA).
The Tournament of Champions was developed by J.W. Patterson, who has since performed the duties of tournament host. Patterson's previously had coaching high school policy debate at Muskogee Central High School in Oklahoma before joining the University of Kentucky However, when considering the need for another national championship tournament, he came to the conclusion that the major national tournaments in the early 1970s had three major problems: Quality of judges, internal politics and long lag times. Thus, Patterson created the tournament with the hope that his competition would redress the issues with other national championships.
After the first eight tournaments, Patterson recognized that the "national circuit" influence of the tournament required that the event adapt. Consequently, Patterson began to formalize a system of "Tournament of Champions Advisory Committees", encouraging coaches to give feedback and suggestions. However, while the committee informally began in 1980, official formal committees were not established until 1990.
Another major development in the Tournament of Champions' structure was the addition of Lincoln Douglas Debate. "LD" first appeared at the National Forensic League National Championship in 1980, but was not included in the TOC until 1986. Despite Patterson's efforts to include the event as early as 1983, strong opposition from the Advisory Committee prevented Patterson from adding Lincoln-Douglas.
The next event added to annual Tournament of Champions competition was Public Forum Debate. However, unlike Lincoln-Douglas Debate which boasted support by its proponents for inclusion into the Tournament of Champions, Public Forum Debate faced strong opposition against joining TOC competition from supporters and opponents of the event alike. However, it was introduced in 2004, but took place as a round robin unlike its peer events. In 2007, the round robin format was abolished
Beginning with the 2004-2005 school year, Congressional Debate was added to the TOC after three years as an independent event. Notable champions include Gregory Bernstein (who won the tournament twice consecutively) and Will Mascaro, who won by the largest margin since the event was added.
In 2012, the TOC added two Speech Round Robins--in Extemporaneous Speaking and Original Oratory. In 2012 and 2013, admission to the Round Robins was by application. For 2013-2014, invitations to compete in the two Round Robins will be extended to the finalists of a number of strong national and regional tournaments; the champions of select other tournaments will be invited to compete.
From 2015, all finalists at 49 tournaments around the country will be automatically invited to compete at the 2015 TOC; in addition, all semifinalists and finalists at the 2014 NSDA National Tournament who remain in high school are automatically invited.
In Lincoln-Douglas debate and policy debate, the TOC has six preliminary rounds and clears to octafinals. All entries with a 4-2 record have the opportunity to advance into the outrounds; as such, when more than sixteen entries have at least a 4-2 record, the Tournament of Champions holds the appropriate number of run-off rounds to determine which of the lower-seeded debaters will advance. For the first three years of its existence, the Public Forum division of the TOC was conducted in a Round Robin format.
Congressional Debate, which uses chambers and not rounds, employs the National Circuit standard way of advancing. Competitors are placed in chambers, where they debate for several hours with each other. The top number of competitors then go onto the next round. TOC has a semifinal round and a final round.
Lincoln-Douglas Debate debates the January-February National Speech and Debate Association topic. Public Forum Debate debates the April National Speech and Debate Association topic. Policy Debate teams debate that season's national high school topic.
Currently, preliminary rounds of Lincoln-Douglas, Policy, Public Forum, and Congress are held directly at the University of Kentucky. However, after competition on Saturday and Sunday, the tournament moves to a central location to conduct its annual "Breakfast of Champions" ceremony as well as the elimination rounds. Since the 2007 Tournament of Champions, the final day of competition has taken place in conference rooms at the Downtown Hilton in Lexington, Kentucky.
The Julia Burke Award is presented each year, in memory of Julia Burke, a debater at The College Preparatory School who was killed in a car crash in 1998. The purpose of this award is to recognize a "policy debater who achieves competitive excellence in high school policy debate on the national circuit, and who demonstrates goodness of heart despite the pressures of competition at the highest level." The award is accompanied by a $1000 scholarship and $1000 to donate to the charity of the recipient's choice Nominations can be submitted by any debater attending the TOC. They are then narrowed to a list of three or four debaters by a selection committee chosen by the Julia Burke foundation. The winner is chosen by a vote of all the attendees and coaches at the TOC.