Please, Just Eliminate the Coaches' Poll
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.
One 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); it has also been sponsored or co-sponsored by United Press International (UPI), CNN, and ESPN.
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 their champion.
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.
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 progresses.
I will go into detail on the major issues with the Coaches' Poll and why it should be eliminated.
Although 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.
After controversy 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 up 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).
There's also 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.
A secret ballot also 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 opponents' teams at the end of the season?
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).
That 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 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'.
Lack of Information
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.
The 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).
Although 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 coach.
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; therefore the college football community would be better off either changing the name to the Sports Information Directors' Poll or just scrapping the thing altogether.
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.
Issues 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 come.
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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