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Coaches Association Says Coaches Don't Have to Turn Over Poll Ballots

Aug 26, 2009 – 7:00 PM
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Jim Henry

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Bobby Bowden has heard the fuss -- there are fans who believe the USA Today coaches' poll is fraught with bias -- but the veteran coach believes in the poll's integrity and feels the voting process should remain confidential.

"It seems that it's something that ought to be private, to me," Bowden said Wednesday. "What's going to happen is you're going to have a lot of voters drop out of it."

The American Football Coaches Association has a policy that keeps the coaches' ballots private except for the final poll after the bowl games. However, Sports Illustrated recently made an open records request to all 51 coaches at public universities who participate in the poll. SI's request landed on the desk of the 19th-ranked Seminoles late Tuesday afternoon.

Todd Bell, director of media relations and special projects for the AFCA, reiterated Wednesday that neither the association nor its voters are required to release poll ballots. In fact, Bell said AFCA ballots are not ballots in the traditional sense -- votes are tallied by telephone. Bell pointed out, however, the AFCA does not restrict a coach from releasing his selections.

"This has been tried before and it didn't work the last time because the ballots don't belong to the universities, they belong to us," Bell told FanHouse.

"It's actually two separate discussions. If a coach wants to release his ballot, we've never prohibited a coach from doing that. The [open records request] does not apply in this situation because the university can't release something that doesn't belong to them. The right to vote is given to the AFCA member, not to a university. We are not going to release a coaches' ballot and we're not going to tell a coach he has to release his ballot because that's not our policy."

The University of South Florida Wednesday morning was the first public school that elected to respond to the open records request, and Bulls head coach Jim Leavitt believes his team is the best in the Big East Conference and the 18th-best team in the nation. When all the votes were tallied, USF was ranked 40th in the preseason poll released on Aug. 7.

The coaches' poll counts for one-third of the formula used to determine which teams qualify for the multi-million dollar BCS bowl games and the BCS title game. With so much money at stake, with coaching careers hanging in the balance, and with, at least on appearance, a rampant conflict of interest, it's easy to see why some fans don't view the poll as authentic and honest.

Bowden, however, says he takes the voting seriously and does it himself. He's also old school, believing opponents could use his voting as bulletin board material.

"We have to play those people," Bowden said.

"There are times when I've sat up until 2 o'clock trying to find out how that game on the West Coast came out. If I couldn't find out, I'd have to get up the next morning and [vote]. I'll wait until the last moment. I try to watch highlight films coming on TV. I do take it pretty serious."

Bill Hancock, media relations director for the BCS, told FanHouse Wednesday that the organization plans to observe and "sit tight and see what happens after this year."

Last May, the AFCA announced the final regular-season ballots in the coaches poll will no longer be made public beginning with the 2010 football season. The decision surprised some coaches, but AFCA executive director Grant Teaff said the adjustment was made based on the results of a three-month independent study by Gallup World Poll of the voter selection process and voting procedures.

Teaff said Gallup recommended the change because confidentiality leads to a better poll, which also allows coaches to vote for their own team. Bowden also believes that coaches simply vote their conscience and not vote to benefit a team or a league in the BCS standings.

"I've never done that; never thought about it to be honest with you," Bowden said. "I don't think any coaches would do that."

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College writer Andy Staples, of Sports Illustrated, made the opens record requests and reminded fans that South Carolina coach -- and public school voter - Steve Spurrier told CBSSports.com after learning the 2010 results would remain private, the looming secrecy allows "a chance for some real hanky-panky."

Staples also pointed out that states, such as Florida, have broad laws regarding open records requests. For instance, NCAA documents in an infractions case against FSU are state law, a Leon County circuit court judge ruled last week, even though the documents could not be printed out or downloaded.

Barbara A. Petersen, president of the First Amendment Foundation in Tallahassee, Fla., was intrigued by the open records request involving voting in the coaches' poll, especially since the poll helps determine bowl games that translate into revenue for a public university such as FSU.

"That would make for a stronger argument that [ballots] should be subject to public disclosure," Petersen told FanHouse.

Cincinnati coach Brian Kelley believes voting should be made public, explaining his stance in a diary entry posted Monday on the Cincinnati Enquirer's Web site.

"I have a lot of regard for a coaches' poll, and I want it to have credibility," Kelley wrote.

"I don't think you should get your director of operations to do it. If that's the case, then we shouldn't do it. That's why I've always been in favor of publicizing your Top 25. I think there should be transparency. If the coaches have a poll, and you're serious about it, there should be transparency. If you're not, the coaches shouldn't have a poll. Just do away with it. But I'm in the minority. Our coaches' association has decided that they don't want the poll publicized."

When the preseason coaches poll was released earlier this month, Leavitt, who also voted Oklahoma No. 1 over state neighbor -- and defending national champion -- Florida, was asked by The Tampa Tribune about USF's preseason ranking and how he voted.

"I'll be honest -- I really am honest -- it really doesn't matter to me," Leavitt said. "It doesn't matter to me whether we're anywhere or if whether we're ranked [No.] 1. It really doesn't. The last few years we haven't been able to finish in the Top 25 and that does mean something to me."

Bowden, who has divulged his ballot in the past when asked, still would rather keep his vote close to his vest.

"I sure hate to start announcing that because we're going to get some criticism," he said.
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