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Wednesday, May 27, 2009
Heavy price for ballot secrecy

By Pat Forde
ESPN.com

College football coaches love secrecy. This we already know.

It's why most practices are closed to the public and the media, and why fences surrounding the practice fields are covered in opaque wind screens. It's why coordinators cover their mouths when talking on headsets. It's why they lie about injuries and suspend players for "violation of team rules," without ever saying what the team rules are.

So I guess it shouldn't come as a surprise to see the American Football Coaches Association announce Wednesday that, starting in 2010, the final Top 25 ballots in the USA Today coaches' poll will no longer be made public.

Urban Meyer
Starting in 2010, the public won't see the final coaches' poll ballot of Urban Meyer or his colleagues.

That's just coaches being coaches.

It's also coaches being cowards.

It took years for enough pressure to build up before they made the grand concession of releasing their final ballots. Judging from the resistance to that move, you'd have thought they were being asked to put their playbooks on Facebook. What they actually were doing was granting a much lesser request for transparency than voters in the Harris and AP polls (their ballots are made public every week).

Now the Very Sensitive and Oh-So Secret Ancient Order of Whistle-Blowers is taking back even that small measure of openness. This season will be the last season that we have any idea how coaches are voting in a poll that constitutes one-third of the decision-making data in the Bowl Championship Series.

That's pathetic and insulting. We might as well move the Rose Bowl from Pasadena to Pyongyang if the coaches are going to treat the public's right to know with such disdain.

Todd Bell, the director of media relations for the AFCA, said the decision was in response to feedback from Gallup, the polling service. The AFCA asked Gallup to study its voting and suggest changes that would make for a more accurate poll -- and one of the changes was to go totally off-radar with the ballots.

"A confidential ballot tends to be the most accurate ballot," Bell said the AFCA was told by Gallup.

Naturally, the group wholeheartedly agreed, having been handed the golden excuse: We're just going along with the recommendation of the polling experts.

Sure. And Nick Saban had no interest in the Alabama job.

With all due respect to Gallup, this is not a scientific sampling of likely voters in the Iowa caucus. We're talking about football coaches who carry decided agendas -- team and conference loyalties, first and foremost -- with them every waking moment. The only way we can feel secure in the vote's integrity is by making the ballots public.

And the BCS power brokers know it. This runs counter to their mandate.

"In the past, the conference commissioners have strongly favored transparency," BCS spokesman Bill Hancock said Thursday. "And they will discuss [the new AFCA stance] at the end of the '09 season."

It should be pointed out that not every coach is in lockstep agreement with the secrecy movement. Count Kentucky 's Rich Brooks and South Carolina's Steve Spurrier among the group that doesn't mind the current format.

"In my opinion, it maybe has a little more validity if it's not protected, if it's open," Brooks told ESPN.com's Chris Low on Thursday at the Southeastern Conference spring meetings in Destin, Fla. "People have to think twice about what they're doing on their votes."

Steve Spurrier
Even Steve Spurrier seems puzzled by the decision not to release the final coaches' poll ballots.
Said Spurrier: "I sort of think we ought to stay public, you know. It keeps everybody pretty honest."

Now, the doomsday scenario many envision is not going to happen. Mack Brown, for instance, could not vote an 11-1 Oklahoma team 25th and his own 8-4 Texas team second without having to explain himself. Both USA Today, which collects and publishes the votes, and the AFCA can privately question an individual ballot that seems out of whack.

"If somebody's doing something that doesn't appear proper," Bell said, "he's going to get called on it."

But that doesn't mean Mack couldn't vote the Sooners, say, out of the top five if he feels so moved, and the world would never know. In a sham system already sagging under suspicions of bias and criticisms of inherent unfairness, this provides one more reason to doubt the BCS.

The bottom line is this: coaches are accustomed to hearing "yes, sir" a whole lot more than hearing questions. They don't like taking heat about anything, and especially not about their Top 25 votes. They don't want to hear it from fans of aggrieved schools, and they don't want to hand over bulletin-board material to opponents. They don't like being second-guessed about their ballots any more than they like being second-guessed about their play calling.

So they'd rather hide than stand up for their vote.

Some people today are theorizing that this is the AFCA's first step toward backing out of being part of the BCS formula. Bell denied it, and others in the know say they don't believe that either -- that coaches would rather have some input themselves than turn it over to another group of outsiders.

But they sure don't want anyone to know what their input is.

That's a pretty weak stance for a group of rich and powerful men who allegedly teach their players the value of accountability and toughness. And that's more than just coaches being coaches. It's coaches being cowards.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.