Commentary: Please, Just Eliminate the Coaches' Poll
by Jonathan Hodges
In a sport with a national championship decided by the opinion of a few dozen
voters, there is bound to be controversy. Even after incorporating an official
national championship game (the Bowl Championship Series, or BCS), major college
football has still been mired in controversy, and with the proliferation of
cable television and the internet, the arguments are happening 24/7.
component of the BCS ranking system since its inception in 1998 has been the Coaches' Poll, which is currently run by USA Today and
consists of 61 current coaches of FBS/I-A teams. The poll began in 1950 and has
released a final post-bowl poll since 1974 (following the 1973 season), and has
also been sponsored or co-sponsored by United Press International (UPI), CNN,
Since its inception, the Coaches' Poll has crowned a different
national champion than the other major poll, the Associated Press (AP) Poll, 11
different times, most recently in 2003 when the Coaches' Poll named BCS champion
Louisiana State its champion (the coaches are technically bound to vote for the
BCS championship game winner), while the AP Poll named Southern California as
Now, a major source of contention is the final regular
season poll that is one third of the BCS ranking formula that decides the top
two teams who will compete in the BCS title game. The other portion of the
ranking is the Harris Interactive Poll (one third) and a compilation of
computer rankings (one third).
Even though the poll doesn't carry much
meaning before and during the season, it can have a huge impact on which teams
get the most media coverage and which teams have the best chances of reaching
BCS bowl games and the title game at the end of the year. And, almost
invariably, every week there is at least some sort of controversy based on the
rankings of teams.
This year, we've already seen an undefeated Houston
team ranked below an Oklahoma State team that they beat on the road, an
undefeated Iowa team ranked below a Penn State team that they beat on the road,
and an Oregon team that just crushed California sitting six spots lower despite
identical records. There will undoubtedly be further controversy as the season
I will go into detail on the major issues with the Coaches'
Poll and why it should be eliminated.
the final regular season poll votes have been released in recent seasons, the
rest of the ballots remain secret and are a major source of conjecture. Sports
Illustrated's Andy Staples began a Freedom of Information Act campaign to unearth the ballots,
albeit with limited success, particularly since many of them are submitted
verbally by phone with no specific written record.
surrounding Texas' jumping of California to grab a coveted BCS bowl berth in
2004 (they went to the Rose Bowl), the coaches' final regular season ballots
were released and published by USA Today. But recently, the poll has discussed
going back to a completely secret format beginning next season, which has, of
course, stirred even more controversy.
There are a number of stories
around the secrecy issue one can use to support an argument to throw out the
poll. There was Texas' Coach Mack Brown's campaign to move his team up in the
rankings in order to get a BCS bid in 2004 (the aforementioned controversy that
sparked some changes). And there's the mystery preseason vote for Duke that
appeared for a long period despite their poor performances on the field for the
better part of two decades (the vote was confirmed by current South Carolina
coach Steve Spurrier, who formerly coached at Duke, as he gave them a 25th place
vote until they lost their first game).
The AP Poll results are open and
available for public scrutiny on a weekly basis, like at Pollspeak, while the public only gets one glimpse at the
Coaches' Poll, at the end of the season. Although that is the only poll that
technically decides who will play in the title game, the relative rank of teams
in the preseason and throughout the year has a major impact on where they end
up. An example is in 2004, when Southern California and Oklahoma were ranked
one and two wire-to-wire, while undefeated Auburn didn't really even have a shot
thanks to being ranked 18th in the initial preseason polls.
And a secret
ballot does nothing to help the poll's cause with some major bias issues, which
is the next topic of discussion.
How on earth does
it make any sense to have the coaches rank teams within their own sport when the
results have a major impact on the final destination of their or their
opponent's teams at the end of the season?
And there's the issue of media
coverage, as well, as ranked teams (especially highly ranked teams) draw a lot
more media attention during the week leading up to the game and during the game
itself (with TV coverage much more likely for a game involving a ranked team,
along with highlights playing afterward across the nation and the score
regularly appearing across traditional media and the internet).
additional media attention can pay huge dividends in the recruiting game as the
head coaches vie for the nation's top football prospects. And the rank at the
end of the year has a direct impact on bowl placement.
Don't forget that
these coaches also have strong relationships with each other, both good and bad,
forged on the field and the recruiting trail. It would be insane to think that
those positive or negative relationships don't factor into some voting
decisions, even though it has nothing to do with the strength of the teams on
the field of play.
There's also the issue of conference loyalty and
affiliation, with a strong incentive for coaches to vote for teams within their
own conference in order to boost their own strength of schedule. With an
unbalanced numbers of conference members and a roll of voters that changes
annually (primarily due to a high turnover rate of college head coaches), it is
very difficult for the poll to maintain balance between conferences, even though
they try to do so.
Overall, bias is a huge issue that just can't be
overlooked when it comes to coaches voting on a pool of teams that includes
their own and their opponents'.
It's a well known fact that the coaches are rarely the
ones actually ranking the teams and submitting the votes, in fact, many coaches
have publicly admitted that a department staff member, such as the sports
information director, compiles the information and runs it by the coach before
submitting the ballot.
College football head coaches are very busy
people: They are responsible for leading their football program, preparing the
game plan for the upcoming opponent, dealing with 85 or more student athletes
and their assistant coaches, preparing for the season beyond the next opponent,
and, of course, taking care of recruiting that involves traveling, phone calls,
email, reviewing tape, and entertaining recruits on basically a weekly basis.
And that's just scratching the surface.
Oh, and while most games are
being played any given Saturday, the head coach likely has his own game to
prepare for and coach in, which is followed by plenty of evaluation and
film-watching, leaving little to no time to actually see other teams in action
besides whatever short clips appear on the highlight compilations.
fact is that the head coaches know precious little about teams except for their
own and the ones they will face in a given season. And, most likely, they only
really know their upcoming opponent all that well. Otherwise, all they'll see
are the final scores and any highlights shown on TV (which is why media
attention is so vital as it essentially feeds on itself).
college football coaches know the ins and outs of the game better than anyone
else, they are hardly qualified enough to evaluate many teams against each
other. There are alternatives out there, like the BlogPoll, published by CBS, and the aforementioned AP and
Harris Polls, which are not without bias, but at least one knows that the voters
had the ability to take in multiple games in more depth than a typical
To think that the majority of coaches sit down and evaluate the
top 30 or so teams every week in order to place their vote is ludicrous and
therefore the college football community would be better off either changing the
name to the Sports Information Directors' Poll or just scrapping the thing
With major issues such
as secrecy, bias, and lack of time to actually have informed voters, the
Coaches' Poll has really become obsolete and should be eliminated.
are evident on almost a weekly basis, and now with the proliferation of the
internet and computers, it's been easy for fans to analyze and pick apart the
obvious deficiencies in the poll results. Add to that the fact that media
coverage has unearthed some of the fundamental issues (like bias and lack of
information), and it's clear that the time for this poll to end has
Maybe there is a place for a coaches' poll in other collegiate
sports with less media coverage and lower numbers of teams (there are 120
football teams in the FBS/I-A) and where the head coach may have more time, but
it's clear that the typical major collegiate head coach has no place ranking the
top 25 teams in the nation.
Although not without bias and informed voting
issues of their own, the AP and Harris Polls are huge steps forward and include
people whose job it is to watch, analyze, and report a lot of football. For
now, the best solution is to use only these polls (although for clarity it would
be best to have only one major poll, as now there are essentially three plus the
BCS rankings which begin in October, making things even more confusing for fans)
and to finally retire the outdated Coaches' Poll.
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is the primary content provider of HailToPurple.com. His commentary
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