ESPN cites conflict of interest issues with poll

ESPN withdrew from the college football coaches' poll Tuesday,
the second major news organization to say it didn't want to be a
part of the Bowl Championship Series' weekly rankings.

The cable sports network said it no longer wanted its name
attached to the rankings unless all ballots were made public, not
just the final ones. USA Today will continue running the poll,
which helps determine who plays for the national championship.

In December, The Associated Press told the BCS to stop using its
media poll in its weekly formula.

"Coaches have the perfect right to conduct their voting the way
they see fit," said Vince Doria, ESPN's vice president and
director of news. "We just feel, in our best interests here, we
couldn't reconcile having our name on the poll and being able to
cover any controversy that might arise."

Unlike the AP voters, the coaches' ballots have always been
secret. ESPN asked this year that they be public, but the coaches
agreed only for the final regular-season poll. Doria said ESPN
wanted it for the entire year.

"We just felt that to be as ethical as we possibly could in
this situation, that's what we needed to do," Doria said. "This
wasn't a case of us questioning the ethics of the coaches or the
validity of the voting. These things tend to create controversy.
When there is some vetting to be done, it needs to be done
thoroughly and we didn't feel it could be done."

Doria said ESPN notified USA Today and the coaches' association
of its decision, but not the BCS.

"There will still be a coaches' poll, and it will be used by
the BCS, but we don't have a comment on ESPN's decision," said Bob
Burda, spokesman for BCS coordinator Kevin Weiberg.

The AP poll and the ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll had been the
major components of the BCS rankings.

However, the AP said such use was never sanctioned and had
reached the point where it threatened to undermine the independence
and integrity of its poll.

ESPN had sponsored the coaches' poll with USA Today since 1997.

Doria said the network became uncomfortable last season, when
California lost a shot at a major bowl after dropping in the final
coaches' poll, causing a public outcry and debate among fans.

The Golden Bears finished fourth in the coaches' poll, but six
coaches dropped them below No. 6 on the final ballots – four at No.
7 and two in the eighth slot. In the previous week's poll, nobody
picked Cal lower than sixth.

The final vote came after Cal's 26-16 win at Southern
Mississippi – a close game, but a tough road contest that wasn't in
doubt in the final minutes.

The drop cost Cal its first Rose Bowl bid in 45 years. The
Golden Bears instead went to the less glamorous Holiday Bowl while
Texas got into the Rose Bowl.

"In essence, that was really the determining factor," Doria
said. "The poll was more than something that is there primarily
for fans to discuss and debate. It was a determinant element in the
BCS poll."

Monte Lorell, managing editor for sports at USA Today, said he
was surprised at ESPN's decision.

"As recently as a week or so ago, my understanding was that if
the coaches were to move to the level of transparency that
ultimately they did, that that would satisfy ESPN," Lorell said.

In November, the BCS signed a four-year deal with Fox to
televise the Sugar, Fiesta and Orange bowls from 2007-10 and the
national title game from 2007-09. The Rose Bowl has its own
television deal with ABC.

"Our BCS interest is focused only on our TV coverage, which
begins in January of 2007," Fox spokesman Dan Bell said.