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The Coaches’ Poll Slips Into Darkness

By · June 9th, 2009 · 0 Comments · 2,485 views
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The Coaches’ Poll Slips Into Darkness

The American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) decided that transparency in revealing coaches’ voting in its final poll was a mistake. Over the four years coaches’ votes have been publicized, fans have seen a pattern of coaches promoting their own teams, sometimes shamelessly, clear conference bias and some strange votes. Rather than dealing with these issues, the AFCA, whose board members make up those coaches who vote in the poll, jumped at the opportunity to hide its participants’ results. Like a rotting, barnacled hulk brought to the surface sinking out of sight again, the USA Today Coaches’ Poll will once again become secret in 2010.

“Historically, we have never released the votes,” AFCA executive director Grant Teaff said. “When it came up that, OK, it would be better if you did, I think there was acquiescing by the coaches. As to whether it’s helped the poll or not, I don’t think I can really say. Whether it’s hurt it or not, I don’t know.”

The Coaches’ Poll is one of the three components in the BCS standings and wants to be the only one without accountability and visibility of votes. With millionaire coaches’ livelihoods, contract bonuses with performance clauses for themselves and their assistants, and inherent biases, the poll’s credibility has been tested by revealing individual coaches’ voting results.

“The perception is that there’s a huge bias, and we’ve never really found that,” Teaff said.

You’re not looking very hard at your board members’ voting, Grant.

Coaches Self-Promoting Their Teams

In the 2008 Coaches’ Poll, I found that 12 of the 61 AFCA board members’ teams finished in the top 25. Of those 12, nine (75%) voted their team one spot or higher. Four (33%) coaches voted their team two spots or higher. Frank Beamer was the only coach who voted his team lower (-4 positions) than its final ranking. Eliminating Beamer’s uncommon vote, the other 11 coaches voted their team higher at an average of 1.8 spots!

Since Florida’s Urban Meyer and Texas’s Mack Brown could not have realistically increased their respective team’s spot by more than one—which they did, the other eight coaches inflated their team’s ranking by an average of 2.0 spots led by Mike Leach (+6) and Gary Pinkel (+4).

Three other AFCA board members voted their teams into the top 25, though final voting totals left their teams out of the top 25. Using final total vote rankings, Greg Schiano (+11), Butch Davis (+7) and Bo Pellini (+4) significantly self-promoted their team’s rankings. Schiano evidently did not consider Fresno State, who beat up Rutgers 24-7, a better team—nor Boston College, Iowa, Florida State or California.

Including all 15 AFCA coaches who voted for their teams in the final poll, the average self-promotion was 2.5 spots!!

Self-Promotion by Conference

Big 12 coaches (4) won the top spot in self-promotion by elevating their individual teams by an average of an overwhelming +4 positions, followed by the WAC (+2.0, 1 coach voting), Mountain West and ACC (+1.5, 2), and Big Ten, Pac-10, and SEC (+1.0, 2)! (If Schiano’s voting were included, the Big East would have taken the top spot with +11.0.)

The AFCA coaches rejected the recommendation that coaches should not be able to vote for their own teams. “By keeping things confidential, I think there will be less hidden agendas,” said Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez, AFCA board member. More secrecy, less hidden agendas, Rich? Lewis Carroll would have loved that one.

Coaches also had a clear tendency to boost teams in their conference both for the poll’s top spot and for the top 25 rankings.

Conference Boost: Top Spot Voting

Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson said of the change: “My personal feeling is that a person is more free to vote his conscience instead of worrying about what the public is going to think about his vote.”

Of the seven SEC coaches with a vote, six voted Florida to the top spot. Steve Spurrier had the Gators at number two to Oklahoma. Urban Meyer had Florida and Alabama 1-2 after the SEC Championship.

Of seven Big 12 coaches, four (Chizek, Hawlins, Pellini, and Pinkel) had Oklahoma and Texas 1-2. Mike Leach had Oklahoma and his Texas Tech Red Raiders 1-2 with Florida #3. Five of seven had Big 12 teams 1-2.

Of the seven Big Ten coaches voting, only one (Lynch) had Florida #1, four (Bielema, Dantonio, Rodriguez, and Zook) had the Gators #2, and the other two (Tiller and Tressel) had Florida #3.

With 26 of the 61 first place votes for the Gators, an average percentage for a block of seven coaches, as in the above three conferences, would have netted Florida two or three top spot votes from each conference.

Bobby, you mean in secret balloting more SEC coaches would vote for a Big 12 champion instead of the SEC champ? How will we know?

Ranking Boost by Conference: Top 25 Teams

Urban Meyer: “I think at some point you have to trust the people who vote.” Urban wants fans to take a “leap of faith” after observing four years of clear bias in voting for conference teams.

For 2008, conference coaches tended to vote for each others teams, boosting their conference teams’ positions: Pac-10 (+2.3 spots), WAC (+2.0), Big Ten (+1.6), Big 12 (+1.6), Big East (+1.6), ACC (+1.5), Conference USA (+1.5), SEC (+1.3), MWC (+0.1), and MAC (-0.6). In other words, if you had a team competing for the top 25 in any conference except the MWC and MAC last year, you could expect an average boost by conference coaches of 1.7 spots!

  • Six of the seven Big Ten coaches voted Iowa in their top 25
  • Four of the six ACC coaches named Boston College on their ballots
  • Four of the seven SEC coaches boosted Mississippi higher on their ballots

The Rebels were bumped up 15 spots by Les Miles, 10 by Urban Meyer, 5 by Phil Fulmer, and 4 by Mark Richt. Tommy Tuberville listed them one spot higher, Sylvester Croom one spot lower, and Steve Spurrier three spots lower. Miles and Meyer lost to Mississippi, while Spurrier beat them.

Does that mean these coaches are more impacted by head-to-head conference matchups and less able to evaluate other teams nationally over the course of a season?

And the Crown Goes to…

Tommy Bowden was king of conference-boosting. Though he lost his job at Clemson in mid-October, he kept his vote and voted five ACC teams in the top 25—Georgia Tech 10th (+7 spots), Virginia Tech 13th (+6), Boston College 16th (+10), Florida State 21st (+7), and North Carolina 25th (+6). His ACC advocacy resulted in his voting five intra-conference teams 34 total spots higher than their results, an average of +6.8!

Regional Voting: Florida vs. Texas

In addition to the six SEC coaches voting Florida #1, including Urban Meyer, the six other coaches in Florida ranked the Gators either #1 or #2. Mario Cristobel (Florida International) and Howard Schellenberg (Florida Atlantic) ranked the Gators #1 as did Tommy Bowden. FSU’s Bobby Bowden, USF’s Jim Leavitt, and UCF’s George O’Leary voted Florida #2, as did former Florida coaches Steve Spurrier and Ron Zook.

Of the nine votes ranking SEC Champion and eventual National Champion Florida as #3 in the nation, five came from Big 12 coaches, two from non-Big 12 Texas coaches and two from Big Ten coaches.

Mack Brown did not get the kind of solid support in Texas that Meyer got in Florida. Four coaches—Mike Price of UTEP, Todd Dodge of North Texas, Gene Chizek of Iowa State (former Defensive Coordinator at Texas), as well as Rick Neuheisel of UCLA (whose assistant coach at Washington was Texas’ Bobby Kennedy) voted the Longhorns #1. Brown voted his Longhorns #2. Mike Patterson of TCU chose them #3. Art Briles of Baylor and Mike Leach of Texas Tech voted Texas #5. In short, three coaches from Texas voted UT #1 or 2 and the other three voted them #3 or 5.

No Regional Boosting by Conference Foes

No significant regional boosts came from non-BCS conferences to their BCS conference rivals:

  • Six MAC coaches had the Big Ten teams only slightly higher (+0.6 spots)
  • Six Conference USA coaches to the SEC teams (+0.6)
  • Four Mountain West coaches to the Pac-10 teams (+0.15)

The MAC had 13 games against the Big Ten (finishing with a 4-9 record), Conference USA had 9 games against the SEC (0-9), and the Mountain West had eight games against the Pac-10 (6-2). If there were no bias, these rankings should approach those made by BCS conference coaches.

Kentucky coach Rich Brooks feels keeping the Coaches’ Poll’s final voting public “maybe has a little more validity if it’s not protected, if it’s open.” Steve Spurrier feels the same: “I thought that we would stay public on that last vote. I sort of think we ought to stay public, you know. It keeps everybody pretty honest.”

Coaches’ Poll 2010

Mack Brown’s statement after looking AFCA decision: “I appreciate Grant Teaff and the AFCA taking such a serious and thorough look at improving the Coaches’ Poll. The Gallup Poll provided valuable insight and the AFCA put a great deal of thought into it. Since it is such a key factor in our national championship game, the goal is to continue to make the poll as fair and accurate as possible. I like the changes that are taking place this year and am excited about the recommendations for the future.”

For the Coaches’ Poll results in 2005, 2006, and 2007, The Blue-Gray Sky’s contributor, Jeff, generated thorough analyses. He concluded in his 2005 report “it’s still somewhat shocking to see such blatant gamesmanship laid bare.” Each year Jeff was able to show similar and worsening patterns of self-promotion and conference-boosting among the coaches. Likewise, countless other Internet sites have illustrated the routine bias and “mistakes.”

The BCS and the Coaches’ Poll

Whether or not the Coaches’ Poll remains part of the BCS formula is thankfully not up to them and their participation may be in doubt. After declaring their final vote would no longer be publicized, BCS Coordinator, John Swofford: “In the past, the commissioners have favored transparency in voting by the people who participate in the two polls that are used to compile the BCS standings. The commissioners review all aspects of the BCS arrangement—including the BCS standings—at the conclusion of each season, and I know the AFCA’s decision will be on the agenda for that review after the January 2010 games.”

As far as accuracy in picking the winners of BCS games, Jeff found that, taking the coaches’ rankings for four years, they were accurate less than 50% of the time (49.3%) in ranking the BCS game-winners higher. “You would be better off flipping a coin to figure out who is going to win a BCS game than looking at how coaches ranked the teams.” Is it better to flip a coin than using the Coaches’ Poll to determine BCS participants?

After viewing such blatant partisanship and obvious bias, the relic known as the Coaches’ Poll should be allowed to slip quietly beneath the murky surface of college football.


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