It's Writers vs. Coaches in Football's Ballot Bowl

The following is reprinted from ESPN College Football Encyclopedia: The Complete History of the Game, edited by Michael MacCambridge

Old joke: every morning, two guys stand in front of the same store and watch the same beautiful woman walk by. After she passes, they argue about what perfume she's wearing. The woman walks around the corner and the men go back and forth, one shouting, "Chanel No. 5," the other screaming, "White Diamonds."

Then they go to work.

This happens every day.

"Look," the store owner finally says. "Every day you two guys stand here. You never buy anything. All you ever do is argue about this girl's perfume, and you've never even met her. Why don't you just ask her what perfume she wears?"

The two guys look at him like he's crazy.

"What fun would that be?" they ask.

That, as Woody Allen might say, is the key joke when it comes to the two major polls -- the writers poll and the coaches poll -- that for more than half a century have picked college football's national champion.

The poll system is absurd, even laughable if you want to spend any time thinking about it. Imagine any other sports league finishing its season and then going to a group of sportswriters and coaches and saying, "Okay, you saw the teams play, tell us which one is the best."

Every year, people shout, "This is no way to pick a champion? What do sportswriters know? And as for the coaches, they don't even see the other teams. Why don't you simply match up the best teams? Why don't you have a playoff, like every other college sport?"

And every year the college football people look at the critics like they're crazy.

"What fun would that be?" they ask.

A History Lesson

The first Associated Press college football poll was in 1936.

It was the brainchild of a fairly extraordinary and forgotten man, Alan J. Gould, the sports editor of the AP. Gould lived something of a Forrest Gump life: Somehow he managed to be everywhere. He was there when Gene Tunney beat Jack Dempsey. He was there when Gene Sarazen hit the double eagle at the Masters. He was there when Jesse Owens won four gold medals in Berlin. Later, when Gould was the AP's executive editor, he was the one who made the right presidential call in 1948: "Truman," he told his reporters, "seems to be winning."

His passion was for college sports. In 1935 he started devising his own list of Top 10 college football teams in his column. That first year it was entirely his opinion. In the end, Gould named Minnesota, Princeton and Southern Methodist as tri-champions.

This created quite a fuss: who was this Alan J. Gould fellow to decide the college football national championship? When he made the mistake of not putting Minnesota alone at No. 1, his likeness was hanged in effigy in a small Minnesota town. "It created a storm," is how Gould explained it in an interview a few years before his death in 1993. And Gould loved the storm -- what, after all, are sports all about? Gould decided he was on to something, and he began to poll other sportswriters regarding who they thought was the best college football team in all the land. And then he tabulated and released their Top 10 picks.

"Newspapers wanted material to fill space between games," Gould would later say. "That's all I had in mind, something to keep the pot boiling. Sports then was living off controversy, opinion, whatever. This was just another exercise in hoopla."

The first full AP poll, in 1936, was as baffling as any that would follow. Nobody seems to know for sure how voters were chosen, but we know that 44 sportswriters voted that first year, and that they voted for Minnesota (7-1) as No. 1. The team that beat Minnesota -- Northwestern -- was also 7-1, but was ranked seventh in the poll. Louisiana State (9-0-1) -- the national champion choice of the Williamson Poll, a power rating invented by geologist (and Sugar Bowl committee member) Paul Williamson -- was ranked No. 2 in the AP poll.

And so began seven decades (and counting) of puzzling picks, kicked off by Gould's little exercise in hoopla.

A Call to Coaches

Eventually, United Press, the AP's direct competitor, decided it needed its own college football poll. There's no surviving story about the birth of the coaches poll, but it's easy to imagine a meeting in the UP executive offices:

Editor 1: We need our own college football poll.

Editor 2: How about we poll the sportswriters?

Editor 1: AP's already got the sportswriters. We need our own thing. How about we set up a playoff system, where the best teams in America would play each other in a sort of tournament, and the winner of that would be the national champion?

(Editor 1 and Editor 2 look at each other and shake their heads. "What fun would that be?" they ask.)

Editor 1: I've got it! We'll poll the coaches.

And so it came to pass. In 1950, for the first time, there were two major polls, AP's poll of 44 sportswriters and UP's poll of 35 coaches. The numbers would change (now 65 writers and broadcasters and 61 coaches vote), but the systems would more or less remain the same. That first year, the coaches and sportswriters agreed: Oklahoma was the best team in the country. The Sooners were 10–0 in 1950, and even though they lost to Kentucky in the Sugar Bowl, the voting was done before the bowl games. (That would change in time, but that story comes later.)

While there were occasional disagreements -- the writers going with Ohio State, the coaches with UCLA in 1954; the writers picking Auburn, the coaches Ohio State in 1957 -- the two polls were mostly in agreement well into the 1980s. In 1958, United Press merged with International News Service and became UPI. From that year (when both the writers and coaches voted Louisiana State No. 1) until 1989 (when both polls picked Miami), the coaches and writers agreed 27 out of 32 years. That means 84 percent of the time, there was a clear-cut national champion.

There was peace in college football.

In the 1965 season, AP, for the first time, had its final poll after the bowl games. Up to this point, the bowls had been seen as nothing but exhibitions -- "They are a reward for the players," Woody Hayes had said -- and they were supposed to be off-limits when it came to voting the national champion.

But in 1964, this line of thinking had produced an unsatisfying result. There had been two undefeated teams going into the bowls, Alabama and Arkansas. The writers and coaches both picked Alabama. But then Arkansas proceeded to beat Nebraska in the Cotton Bowl while Alabama lost to Texas in the Orange Bowl. So there was Arkansas, unbeaten, and without its deserved national championship.

So the next year the AP pushed its voting back until after the bowl games. The move turned out to be perfectly timed. There were three undefeated teams going into the bowls: Michigan State, Arkansas and Nebraska. The coaches refused to wait for the bowls ("You can't judge a team by a bowl game," one coach reportedly grumbled to UPI. "Those kids have a month to do whatever they want before that game"). They chose Michigan State.

The writers waited. And everything changed. Michigan State lost to UCLA in the Rose Bowl. Arkansas lost to Louisiana State in the Cotton Bowl. And then, in the big game, Alabama beat Nebraska 39-28 in the Orange Bowl. All three undefeated teams had lost. And the writers chose ... Alabama.

A new era in college football was ushered in.

Well, not immediately. There was uproar about the sportswriters placing such an emphasis on bowl games, and it was so intense that the AP went back to voting before the bowl games for the next two years. But by 1968, the system looked so silly that the AP permanently went back to the postbowl vote. There was no holding back. The polls mattered. And the bowls mattered.

In 1970, the coaches still refused to wait until after the bowls. They picked Texas, which ended up losing to Notre Dame by 13 in the Cotton Bowl. Meanwhile, the writers waited and chose undefeated Nebraska, which won the Orange Bowl.

Three years later, with the coaches still refusing to wait until after the bowl games, they chose Alabama, which was undefeated as it went to the Sugar Bowl to face Notre Dame. Notre Dame was also undefeated, and the Fighting Irish won the game 24-23. The writers voted for Notre Dame, and Alabama was left waving a fairly humorous "UPI National Champion" banner. After that embarrassment, the coaches decided in 1974 to vote after the bowls.

There were two other split titles. In 1974, the writers named Oklahoma No. 1, but the coaches kept them out of the poll entirely because the Sooners were still on probation and chose Southern Cal. And in 1978, when the writers (suckers for the story angle) went for aging coach Bear Bryant and his Alabama team. The coaches, noting that Southern Cal had actually beaten Alabama during the regular season, voted for the Trojans.

Other than those exceptions, for 32 blissful years the coaches and writers agreed every single year. Sure, there was always talk about the need for a playoff, and there were always newspaper columns mocking the system. But there wasn't much strife. The coaches and sportswriters almost always agreed. All was right in the world.

And then came 1990.

The Great Divide

I was a copy editor at The Charlotte Observer in North Carolina when news came in that Colorado had been voted the national champion by the Associated Press. This was a huge story in ACC country, where most people felt Georgia Tech deserved the top spot. After all, the Yellow Jackets had gone unbeaten, 11-0-1, the only blotch a tie with North Carolina. And Georgia Tech had thumped Nebraska in the Citrus Bowl.

And Colorado? Well, the Buffaloes had lost a game and tied a game, and they needed two miracles to have a record that good. In their final drive at Missouri, the Buffaloes had inexplicably been given five downs, an astonishing gaffe that allowed Colorado to score a last-minute touchdown and win. Then, in the Orange Bowl against Notre Dame, a debatable clipping call nullified a spectacular Rocket Ismail punt return for a touchdown. Colorado won 10-9.

Appalled at the writers' ignorance, and because I never did have a copy editor's sense of balance, my headline was "Georgia Tech Robbed of National Championship." Then, because we had the holiday skeleton crew in -- that was the only reason I was writing a headline on something that important to begin with -- the headline actually appeared in the newspaper. I assumed everyone would share my fury.

The reaction was very different from the one I expected. People were mad, all right. But as it turned out, they were mad at me. Why? Because in the headline (and, for that matter in the story I put together), I had all but ignored the fact that the coaches had selected Georgia Tech as national champions. It had been so long since we'd had a split national champion -- 12 years, in fact -- that the concept simply slipped past me. By throwing all my rage at the writers, I had, in fact, rejected the coaches poll (which, a year later, became known as the USA Today/CNN poll, and in 1995, ESPN replaced CNN in the title).

The letters received by the paper went something like this:

Dear [Moron, Loser, etc.],
I have been a subscriber for 10 years [a million years, two weeks, etc.] and I have never been so insulted [enraged, humiliated, etc.] as I was by the headline that said Georgia Tech did not win the national championship. In fact, if you knew anything at all [had any brains in your head, etc.], you would know that Georgia Tech did win the national championship, as voted by the coaches, who are the only people qualified to vote for the national championship [10,000 times smarter than sportswriters, the greatest people on planet earth, etc.].

Cancel my subscription.

That year was a turning point, all right. For the first time in the 40-year coexistence of the two polls, there was a violent dispute over which team was the best. All the other split national champions had been simple differences of opinion. But here, everybody disagreed with everybody. The coaches picked Georgia Tech by just one point, 847-846. And the writers went against their usual philosophy and bypassed the undefeated team. Many argued that Colorado wasn't worthy because of the nature of their tainted win over Missouri. Everybody argued about whether sportswriters or coaches were more qualified to vote. It was mayhem.

And when the writers and coaches disagreed again the next year -- this time the writers went with undefeated Miami while the coaches went with undefeated Washington -- the outcry was deafening. The system had to be changed.

Starting in 1992, college football had something called the Bowl Coalition, which led to something called the Bowl Alliance, which led to the Bowl Championship Series -- which isn't a series at all -- which was designed to match up big conferences in the bowl games and end the confusion.

Which, of course, it did not.

In 2004, after the BCS system had been overhauled for about the 28th time, the regular season ended with five undefeated teams, three of them -- Auburn, Oklahoma, Southern California -- from BCS powerhouse conferences. The BCS bumped Auburn out of the national championship game, leading at least one Alabama sportswriter to receive very angry hate mail. After the season ended, the Associated Press demanded that its poll no longer be used in the Bowl Championship Series.

And yet the polls go on. As do the arguments.

What Fun Would That Be?

A few years ago, a coach I like very much asked me how it was possible for a sportswriter to rate college football teams. "What do sportswriters know about football?" he asked. "Have you ever played? Have you ever coached? All you guys do is sit up in the press box, eat your free lunches, look at the statistics and watch a few highlights. How could you possibly vote for the national champion?"

"Well," I said, "how can coaches vote? You guys obviously don't know anything about other teams from other conferences. You can't even tell us about your next opponent until Tuesday when you've had a chance to study them. You have personal biases about certain coaches. There are always stories that many coaches don't even vote themselves; they have their sports information directors vote. At Maryland, Jerry Claiborne said his wife did the voting."

"His wife probably knows more about football than any sportswriter," the coach said. "I mean, give me a small break. We had a punt blocked once, and I had a sportswriter ask: 'Coach, why didn't you just block that guy?' You get that? Why didn't we just block him?"

"If coaches are so smart about football," I said, "they might be able to tell us something after the game instead of saying, 'I need to look at the film.'"

This went on for a while, until the secretary came in and said, "Why don't you just both admit that neither coaches nor sportswriters should be voting for the national championship?"

We both looked at her like she was mad.

"What fun would that be?" we asked.

Joe Posnanski has been a sports columnist at the Kansas City Star since 1996.