There are two of them, twins in a way, one published by the Associated Press, the other by United Press International, and they appear in the sports section of your newspaper on Monday evening or Tuesday morning throughout the college football season. They are the AP and UPI polls, and they rank the nation's Top 20 teams each week. The rankings are derided and cheered, deplored and cherished. They are almost wholly subjective and often based on ignorance and prejudice, and it would be easy to dismiss them as a waste of time except for one thing. Whereas basketball, hockey, tennis, golf, track and field, cross-country—in fact, any other NCAA sport you care to name—settle their national championships on the field, court, rink, track or fairway, the polls, and nothing else, ultimately determine which college football team is No. 1 in the country.
The AP poll, which was started in 1936, is compiled this year from the votes of 69 newspaper writers, television reporters and radiomen; the UPI, 14 years younger, reflects the opinions of 42 head coaches. Not only do these 111 men—and they are all men—rank the teams during the season, but they also cast their ballots in preseason polls, which, in effect, establish the morning line in the four-month race for No. 1. As we shall see, of all the polls, the preseason one, which is the most subjective, is also one of the most significant.
And how, you might ask, can anyone tell how strong a team is before it has even played a game and whether or not it is stronger than another untested team 3,000 miles away? What infinite knowledge do the voters possess? What rare insights? Let us see.
"Hey, Coach," says State's sports information director, "UPI's on the phone. They want your preseason picks."
September 17, 1978
"Handle it, will you? I'm getting ready for the opener."
"You know UPI doesn't like that, Coach. If they find out, they'll drop you."
"O.K., let's see. I want us somewhere in the top five and USC on top. Right on top. Put the monkey on their backs. Then put down Oklahoma, Nebraska, Colorado, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State...."
"Coach, Coach, don't you think that's a little heavy on the conference?"
"All right, take out Kansas State, but leave Kansas in there. They're tough. We only beat 'em 35-6 last year. Besides, their guy always votes for me."
"Who else, Coach?"
"Er, Notre Dame, Penn State—I like that Paterno; plays tough but never beats me—UCLA, Alabama and, er, Washington State."
"Darn right. We got to play them next week. Tough."
"What about Texas and Arkansas?"
"No! Not Texas and definitely not Arkansas, damn his funny jokes."
"That's only 12 teams, Coach. UPI wants you to vote for 15 this season."
"They want 15? What sort of way is that to pick a Top 20! I've got to get ready for Washington State. You fill in the other ones."
At about the same time, a letter arrives at the home of a reporter. It is from Charley, a friendly sports information director. "Hi," it begins. "Hope you and yours had a wonderful summer. This is just to remind you that we were 11-1 last season and that we have all 22 starters back plus a walk-on soccer-style Norwegian placekicker. We look forward to another outstanding season and hope you will remember us kindly in the AP poll."
The reporter crumples the letter but decides this is as good a time as any to make his preseason choices and send them to the AP bureau chief. He rattles off Ohio State, Michigan, USC, UCLA, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Texas, Arkansas, LSU, Alabama, Notre Dame and Penn State, even though he can't name five players on the whole lot of them and is not all that familiar with their schedules. That's 12 teams, and more years than not the national champion will be one of them. Now he picks Maryland from the ACC and Arizona State from the WAC, then remembers that Arizona State is now in the Pac-8, er, Pac-10, starts to erase and then figures that Frank Kush can produce a winning team in any conference.
That's 14 teams. One to go. "O.K.," he decides, "I deserve one for myself. I pick Tulsa. Why not? Tulsa has a fair offense and it has five patsies on the schedule. I live in Tulsa and, most important, I went to Tulsa. If I don't vote for Tulsa, who will?"
Although the above vignettes are fanciful, there are elements of truth in each, and we will return in a moment to inspect them. But first let us ponder the importance of the preseason polls in which the coach and the reporter took part.
Last year Arkansas won 10 of 11 regular-season games, losing only to No. 1 Texas 13-9 when the Longhorns scored the game's only touchdown in the final quarter. And yet entering the bowl games, the Razorbacks were ranked sixth behind four other teams with 10-1 records and never had a chance to become No. 1. Granted someone had to bring up the rear, but why Arkansas? Well, it's really very simple. The Razorbacks began the season ranked, as Lou Holtz put it, "76th or something." Certainly they weren't in either the AP or UPI preseason Top 20 as the other 10-1 teams had been. As one AP voter sheepishly admits, "I wasn't even aware of Arkansas until halfway through the season."
Sometimes there is little question which team should get the award, as in 1976 when Pittsburgh was the only 12-0 team in the country. Some may have suspected that USC, beaten only by Missouri in an opening-game upset, was stronger, but virtually everyone agreed that Pitt deserved the honor. Last year, however, no team was unbeaten, and five—Notre Dame, Texas, Alabama, Penn State and Arkansas—wound up 11-1. What made the voters, most of them at least, pick Notre Dame No. 1? There are five basic rules, unwritten rules to be sure, for winning a national championship, and the Irish followed them all. They are:
1) Get yourself on national television, more than once, if possible, and when you do, win.
2) If you must lose a game during the season (and one is the limit), do it early.
3) Don't let the athletic director talk you into dropping Kansas State and adding Oklahoma, even if it's for 1985.
4) Win by as big a number as possible, and be ready to justify it later.
5) At bowl time, play the highest-ranked team you can find, unless you are already No. 1, in which case play someone respectable but beatable.
Let's take these five rules as they applied to Notre Dame last year. The Irish appeared on national television three times, defeating defending national champion Pitt 19-9 in the opening game of the season, beating traditional rival USC 49-19—a victory from which they would have gotten even more mileage if USC had not lost three other games last year—and, finally, whipping No. 1 Texas 38-10 in the Cotton Bowl, the performance that put them on top. Three appearances on TV against Top 20 teams, three wins. Total score: 106-38. Pollsters are impressed by what they see on television, live or taped, and Notre Dame was indeed impressive.
The sole Irish loss came in their second game of the season, to Mississippi 20-13 in Jackson. This was their only tactical mistake of the season. If you are a Northern team, you should never play a day game in Mississippi—or Texas or Alabama—in September. The temperature in Jackson was near 90, hotter on the field. Notre Dame wilted. But at least it lost early and had time to recoup. Look at Texas. When the bowl games were over, it had an 11-1 record, the same as Notre Dame, Alabama, Penn State and Arkansas, but it had violated Rules 1 and 2, losing on national television and losing late in the season. In its final poll, AP ranked the Longhorns fourth, UPI fifth.
The Notre Dame schedule (Rule 3) was no softer than that of most of the other contenders, but it contained a number of patsies interspersed among the toughies, namely, the three service academies and Miami (Fla.). Miami, by the way, is Exhibit A for how not to be a national champion. If you ever find yourself with a pretty fair football team and for some bizarre reason you're afraid it might crack the Top 20, play Miami's schedule. Last year it opened with Ohio State, closed with Notre Dame and had Penn State and Alabama in between. That is (and was) a quick 0-4 before you even get around to looking at the rest of the schedule. (Miami wound up 3-8.)
Oklahoma and Ohio State violated Rule 3 last year, scheduling each other, as did Alabama and Nebraska. The Buckeyes and Sooners were a classic matchup, good for the game, thrilling for the spectators and disastrous for the loser—Ohio State, in this case. In either case, the loser was virtually sealed off from the national championship, while the winner has earned no guarantee. Two weeks later Oklahoma was beaten by Texas. Who can tell how much, in terms of preparation and effort, the Ohio State game took out of the Sooners? Texas, meanwhile, was warming up with Boston College, Virginia and Rice. Which leads us to Rule 4.
Pollsters deplore it individually, but their eyes pop when they see a big score and they vote accordingly. After the Buckeyes were beaten by Oklahoma, they dropped from third to seventh, but were still ranked higher than Texas, which was eighth with a 2-0 record. The following week Ohio State crushed SMU 35-7, but suddenly found itself two spots behind Texas, which was obliterating Rice 72-15.
That Texas laugher over Rice obviously impressed the coaches. So did Oklahoma 62 Utah 24, Texas 68 Virginia 0, Alabama 55 Louisville 6. Notre Dame obeyed Rule 4 with a 69-14 licking of Georgia Tech. Notre Dame also let Air Force have it 49-0. If the polls hurt the game in any way, it is here. Because voters are impressed by big scores, teams in contention for the national title will whip a dying horse, an act which is rationalized by the winning coach in a number of ways: "What am I supposed to do, tell our fourth-stringers they can't score?" Or, "Look, it's a funny game. I've seen teams leading 34-0 in the fourth quarter lose 35-34. Those guys were tougher than the score [66-0] indicates."
Paying close attention to Rule 5 is what really put Notre Dame on top. Come bowl time, always play the highest-ranked team you can find. As an independent, Notre Dame is fortunate not to be locked in contractually to a bowl. Michigan, with its one loss in midseason to Minnesota, had no chance at the national championship on Jan. 2, even though it was ranked ahead of Notre Dame at the time. The reason is that in the Rose Bowl the Wolverines found themselves playing a Washington team with four losses. Even had Michigan won big—the Wolverines lost—the pollsters would have been unimpressed. It was Michigan's misfortune that its opponent was not undefeated No. 1-ranked USC, although in such a case Michigan surely would have lost. But it at least would have had a shot at being No. 1.
Notre Dame went for the jugular when it chose the Cotton Bowl and top-ranked Texas, and in doing so it gave itself a chance. Two years earlier, Alabama had been upset by Missouri in its first game: it won the rest to wind up the regular season ranked behind Oklahoma. An Alabama-Oklahoma game in the Orange Bowl was in order, but Bear Bryant, having been cuffed about in recent bowl games, chose the Sugar Bowl on the guarantee that the Tide's opponent would be Penn State, tough defensively that year but weak on offense. Bryant won the game but lost his gamble when Oklahoma beat Michigan in the Orange Bowl. By not playing the highest-ranked team available, Bryant did not give himself every chance.
Last season Dan Devine did. And when the Irish dumped Texas, they were in. In the AP poll, 37 voters picked Notre Dame, 19 picked Alabama, five Arkansas, two Texas and one, in a Solomonic gesture, shared his first-place ballot among Notre Dame, Alabama and Arkansas. The UPI coaches awarded Notre Dame 23 first-place votes, Alabama 13, Arkansas two and Texas one.
Exactly who are these 111 men with the power to name national champions? Among them, the 69 voters in the AP poll cover every section of the country, but they are not evenly distributed. Every state is allotted one voter for every two NCAA Division I teams within its borders. For example, the state of Alabama, which has two such teams—Auburn and Alabama—gets one vote.
The bureau chiefs around the country select the voters. Associated Press sports editor Wick Temple estimates that about half of them are new every season. The voters phone in their ballots—this year for 20 places, up five from last year—to the bureau chiefs, who relay them to New York. The deadline depends on whether the poll is for a.m. or p.m. release, which the AP alternates each week. In New York, Herschel Nissenson, the college football editor, tabulates the ballots: a first-place vote is worth 20 points, second 19, third 18 and on down to 20, which is worth one point.
Ballots are almost always tardy. The AP generally sends out a "give us votes" message at midday Monday, followed by a "give us votes NOW" and finally "the kitchen is closed." Rarely will all 69 men get their votes in. "There's always someone off on a boat somewhere," says Temple. For instance, only 64 men participated in last year's final poll. "One guy [Ray Christensen, a Minnesota radioman] refused to vote because he doesn't believe in post-bowl game polls," says Temple. "We didn't know that when we selected him."
UPI's 42 coaches are distributed more evenly geographically, six each for seven sections of the country: East, Midwest, South, Midlands, Southwest, Mountain and Pacific. Until this year coaches voted for only 10 teams, 10 points being awarded for first, nine for second, one for 10th. Voting for only 10 teams presents two problems. Any coach honestly believing his team worthy of 19th or 20th place in the poll must vote it 10th if he wants to get any recognition at all. It has also happened that as few as 17 teams have been mentioned in certain weeks, so that UPI's Top 20 has come up three short. This season UPI is asking its coaches to rank 15 teams.
Just which coaches vote is up to two men in UPI's New York office, Fred McMane and Bill Madden. There is little change in the panel from year to year, but McMane and Madden do check with the bureau chiefs to see if any one coach is giving them trouble. Ballots are due Monday noon, but like the AP's, they are generally late. And it is not unusual for UPI to release its poll missing a vote or two. As noted, only 39 coaches voted in last year's final poll.
Now let us take a closer look at the two vignettes related earlier. Do sports information directors ever vote for their coaches? Most definitely, but how many do is difficult to determine. Some coaches "consult with their SIDs." Others have the SIDs phone in "my picks." A few freely admit they leave it up to the SID. When Iowa's Bob Commings is too busy, which is generally when he is on the road, he lets SID George Wine make the selections. Bill Dooley, who coached at North Carolina last year and is now with Virginia Tech, says, "I let my SID vote for me, but I give him input from week to week. I keep him informed about how I feel regarding the rankings. I probably spend about five minutes on it."
Woody Hayes of Ohio State is technically a voting coach, but he defers to an assistant, Line Coach Alex Gibbs, which partly explains Woody's puzzling comment after last year's 35-6 loss in the Sugar Bowl to Alabama: "If I had a vote I'd give it to Alabama."
Gibbs became Hayes' stand-in one year when UPI did not receive Woody's final ballot after Ohio State had been beaten in the Rose Bowl. The local UPI man asked Hayes for his vote and was lucky to come out alive. Hayes was nearly dropped from the board. Now Gibbs votes, perhaps consulting Hayes before he does.
When Dan Devine was with Missouri, he would vote for only nine teams and let his wife fill in the 10th. She would usually pick Missouri or the team Missouri was about to play.
Which leads us to: Do coaches use their poll for their own purposes? Of course. Remember when Michigan Coach Bo Schembechler was tossed off the UPI board? A couple of years ago virtually every coach had Ohio State No. 1. Bo voted Missouri No. 1. New York asked its man in Detroit, Rich Shook, to question Schembechler. "Do you really want Missouri?" Shook asked. "If you don't like the way I vote, take me off the board," said Bo. UPI did. It so happened Michigan was playing Missouri the next week.
Bill Finley of the San Diego Union noticed something strange a couple of years ago. "San Diego State used to play North Texas State every year," he says. "A week before the game, San Diego would always jump up there in the UPI rankings. Now I can't prove it, but I'll bet that Hayden Fry, the North Texas coach, voted San Diego a lot higher than he should have the week before the game."
Gene Caddes, the Ohio bureau sports chief for UPI, says, "Do coaches use the polls? Are you kidding? Last season some coaches of teams in competition for the top spot—in fact, the winner of the national championship—left Ohio State completely off his Top Ten when it was 8-1, with only that one-point loss to Oklahoma. Barry Switzer, who beat the Buckeyes 29-28, left the Buckeyes off two weeks in a row. We asked Oklahoma City the second week to query Switzer on how he could leave Ohio State off and put Kentucky on when Kentucky wasn't even eligible because it was on probation."
Most coaches admit to some regional partisanship, especially after they have indicated their top five choices. There is a natural tendency to vote for teams you have seen, especially teams that have beaten you. There is also a tendency to vote for coaching friends and for teams in the same conference. LaVell Edwards of Brigham Young freely admits to a certain amount of regional partisanship. "Without it," he says, "some very good teams would never get a mention." Which is true. Only recently have teams in the WAC received any notice in the polls. Some years back Arizona State could be 6-0 toward midseason and be ranked 15th behind many teams with one loss and a couple of big powers, such as USC or Alabama, with two. When Arizona State would lose, it would drop out of the Top 20.
When both UPI and the AP are confronted with an outrageous ballot, they may note it or question it, but they will never change it, although Wick Temple says he reserves the right to throw it out. Last season eyebrows were raised when, after the first week of the season, a pollster in Boston voted a team No. 1 that hadn't been in the preseason Top 20. Seems he had just seen that team crush a local college 44-0. Voters are often overly impressed by what they have seen in person. But the AP let the vote stand, and thus the man in Boston became the first of many who put Texas at the top of the list.
In last year's final poll, the AP did question the voter who selected North Dakota as the best team in the country. In this case, the voter had scratched ND on his ballot, and someone along the line had decided that ND did not necessarily stand for Notre Dame.
Do SIDs politic? Sure. Virtually every AP voter has received mail inquiring as to his health and thanking him for his support of, well, Alabama. Charley Thornton, who is technically an assistant athletic director, canvasses the entire country asking that the Crimson Tide be remembered when it comes time to vote. Bob Pastin, a former sports editor of The Bellingham (Wash.) Herald, says, "Thornton wrote and thanked me for supporting Alabama in the polls after the season ended. All that was supposed to do was make me think about Alabama when the polls roll around this year. There's no way he's going to write a newspaper way up here in Bellingham if he didn't have that in mind."
From time to time someone suggests that college football could put an end to all this by staging a national championship playoff along the lines of basketball's. But even if such a playoff were limited to eight teams—the winners of the five major conferences plus three at-large teams—it would require three additional games, and thus three additional weeks, for the finalists, making for a 14-game season. And some solution would have to be worked out to accommodate the bowls.
Perhaps all this will take place someday, but for the moment we are stuck with the polls, for better or worse. As LaVell Edwards of Brigham Young says, "You have to put them in perspective. They are not foolproof, not the last word."