- When the Associated Press decided in 2004 that it no longer wanted its Top 25 poll to be a part of the formula for the BCS standings, the move was a watershed moment for the format. How did the decision come to be, and would the AP do it all over again?
Mike Persinger can always claim he helped change college football history.
But that wasn’t necessarily the intention of a column he penned on Dec. 10, 2004, during which he announced, because of ethical complications with the Bowl Championship Series, that his newspaper, the Charlotte Observer, was ceding its vote in the Associated Press college football poll. Persinger was mildly surprised when that column sparked the AP to do something that, at the time, shook the sport: demand for the BCS to no longer use its poll as a part of its formula.
“The kicker on what I wrote to begin with was there should be a playoff,” says Persinger, still the sports editor in Charlotte, “and the fact that there is, that’s satisfying to me.”
In the 20th anniversary of the BCS’s inaugural season and nearly 14 years since the AP’s decision, the questions remain: How much did the AP’s withdrawal rock the now-defunct BCS, why’d it happen and would the organization do it again?
Bill Hancock, who became the executive director of the BCS in 2009 and now serves the same role for the College Football Playoff, admits the decision was a “blow” to the BCS, and he believes that if the AP “had it to do over again, they may not have done it.” That’s not necessarily the case, according to Tom Curley, the CEO of AP from 2003 to 2012. He stands by his organization’s decision more than a decade later, calling it “the right thing to do” in light of criticism its voters experienced and controversy regarding the selection process.
It all really started the year before in 2003 with a split national championship—the exact outcome the BCS was created to eliminate. LSU beat Oklahoma in the BCS national championship game, but USC finished with 48 out of a possible 65 first-place votes to edge LSU atop the AP Poll. That resulted in a fourth change to the BCS formula in the system’s sixth year, increasing the significance of the two human polls (each the AP and coaches counted one-third) and reducing that of the computers (an average of six computer rankings counting one-third).
Then came the 2004 season, which was marked by two controversies that left Cal and Auburn feeling jilted and put the polls that determined their fate in a burdensome position.
Thanks to a late push from voters in the AP and coaches polls resulted in the Texas jumped Cal for the No. 4 spot in the BCS rankings, a week after both teams had finished their regular seasons, which put the Longhorns in position for selection to the Rose Bowl. Three AP voters in Texas flipped their votes in favor of UT following a soapbox speech from coach Mack Brown.
Persinger, in the column explaining his decision to give up his then-reporter Ken Tysiac’s AP vote, noted the difference in Texas's Rose Bowl payday—$7 to $8.5 million per team—and what Cal earned for its Holiday Bowl appearance, about $1 million. “Mack Brown went guns blazing at trying to sway voters. That fired up their fan base. Texas fans started emailing a bunch of AP voters,” Persinger recalls. “It ranged from a reasoned argument why Texas should be ranked higher to pretty vile stuff.”
As one of three undefeated teams, Auburn was the odd team out in 2004’s final rankings, ascending to No. 3 in early November but never managed to pass USC and Oklahoma for a top-two spot. Alabama beat reporter Paul Gattis of the Huntsville Times was heavily criticized for putting Auburn No. 3 behind Southern Cal and Oklahoma on his AP ballot. In fact, Gattis’s own editor chastised him in a column that ran on the front page of the newspaper.
Gattis was far from the only writer to take heat for his ballot. John Rohde, who wrote for the Daily Oklahoman in Oklahoma City, told the New York Times in 2004 that he had to install multiple antivirus programs on his computer because of 1,000-plus emails from fans criticizing him for ranking the Sooners third earlier in that season.
On Dec. 21, the AP sent a cease-and-desist letter to BCS headquarters, stating that the BCS had “damaged and continues to damage AP’s reputation for honesty and integrity in its news accounts through the forced association of the AP poll with the BCS rankings.”
Some believe the AP should have never been involved. “Media shouldn’t be creating the news,” says Yahoo Sports columnist Dan Wetzel, a vocal adversary to the BCS whose 2010 book, Death to the BCS, outlined the case for switching to a playoff. “If you want to have an AP basketball poll for the fun of it, knock yourself out. It’s just fun coverage, but you’re determining the champion. The AP poll was a lark and fun to do, and now they legitimized it.”
More than a decade later, the BCS is gone and the AP poll trudges on, using a rotating panel of media voters who still name their own national champion at the end of the season. Now the most distinguished weekly ranking that runs all season, the poll enters its 83rd year of existence in 2018, having outlasted the BCS’s 16-year life by more than six decades. The poll’s exit helped it avoid the final controversies that doomed the BCS.
Curley recalls the moment when Kathleen Carroll, then the AP’s executive editor, walked into his office one day to deliver a message: The AP newsroom and the AP membership, its lengthy list of clients (many of them newspapers), had agreed that the company should remove its poll from the BCS formula. “Of all the decisions that occurred, this one did not involve a lot of meetings,” Curley says.
It did involve at least one phone call. Persinger received a call from Terry Taylor, then the AP’s executive sports editor, asking for his thoughts on the subject and the reasoning behind his column. “Got no indication they’d do anything,” Persinger says. Twelve days after Persinger’s column published, the AP’s move went final.
Not all agree with the AP’s decision—namely Hancock and BCS creator Roy Kramer—but both men say they understand the move, and Hancock expressed his respect for the long-standing poll. However, the fact that the AP’s rankings continue apace confounds Kramer. “They said they were creating news by covering it, but they’re still doing the same thing,” he says. “They create their own national champion.”
“I got a good chuckle about the AP taking themselves so seriously,” says SEC Network TV host and former Alabama sports columnist Paul Finebaum. “I’m for journalism, but this had nothing to do with journalism.”
As a replacement, the BCS created the Harris Interactive College Football Poll, built by votes from 115 former players, coaches, administrators and media members. Wetzel recalls some Harris poll voters admitting after the season that they had never seen some top-10 teams play. “The AP poll was better than the Harris,” he says.
Hancock and Kramer defend the Harris poll, calling it a more “broad” voter group than the media-only AP. There is no longer a multi-poll system to determine football’s national champion. A 13-member committee selects and seeds four teams. And no, it’s still not a perfect system—nothing ever will be.
“I have to laugh sometimes today,” Hancock says. “Someone will say to me, ‘You don’t need those experts. You’d be better off with a math formula.’ Ha! I say, ‘We had that for 16 years.’”