Fans have right to know how coaches vote in Coaches Poll
Beginning in 2010, the post-conference championship game ballots will be secret
SI.com will file records requests with the 51 public school coaches who hold votes
Transparency matters, since the poll accounts for one-third of the BCS formula
In the Idaho Code, the law appears in sections 9-337 to 9-350. In the Florida Statutes, the law appears in sections 119.01 through 119.15. In the United States Code, the law is outlined in section 552, but most know that statute better as the Freedom of Information Act.
No matter the jurisdiction, laws exist to help us get a look at the information the American Football Coaches Association doesn't want us to see. When it decided to make the post-conference championship game USA Today Coaches Poll ballots secret beginning in the 2010 season, the AFCA ignored one glaring fact: Most of the coaches in the Football Bowl Subdivision work for public universities. That means everything those coaches do is subject to the open records law in their particular state. That includes each week's coaches poll ballot.
So beginning Tuesday, SI.com will file records requests with the employer of each of the 51 public school coaches who vote in the 2009 poll. If the schools comply with the law, we should get a look at every ballot. Legal action may be required if schools refuse to comply, but if a recent case involving Florida State and the NCAA is any indication, judges likely will support the people asking that highly paid public employees be held accountable for their actions. Every ballot we receive will be published.
Why are we doing this? Because, as South Carolina coach -- and public school poll voter -- Steve Spurrier so eloquently put it to CBSSports.com after learning the 2010 results would remain cloaked, the looming secrecy allows "a chance for some real hanky-panky." If the AFCA learns through this exercise it can't keep the ballots secret, it might choose instead to embrace transparency rather than risk damaging the integrity of the poll.
Remember, the coaches poll accounts for one-third of the BCS formula. It helps determine which two teams will play for the national title, and it also helps determine which teams will earn spots in BCS bowls that pay millions more to BCS schools and conferences than their non-BCS counterparts. Also, most coaches' jobs depend on how they fare in the polls, so each has a financial incentive to be biased.
Fortunately, most coaches poll voters are no more biased than their Associated Press Poll and Harris Interactive Poll counterparts. If the past few years of public December ballots are any indication, most coaches simply voted their conscience.
There were some exceptions, though. Ohio State coach Jim Tressel declined to fill out a ballot in 2006 when voters had to decide whether Michigan or Florida would face Ohio State in the BCS title game. In 2007, Oregon's Mike Bellotti, Florida Atlantic's Howard Schnellenberger, Clemson's Tommy Bowden and Florida State's Bobby Bowden all voted Missouri ahead of Oklahoma, even though the Sooners had beaten the Tigers twice head-to-head that season.
Imagine what kind of chicanery coaches would pull if they knew they couldn't get caught.
Of course, a fishy event prompted the AFCA's current level of transparency in the first place. In 2004, Texas went to the Rose Bowl instead of Cal after the Bears took a mystifying drop in the poll. Going into the season's final week, no coaches poll voter ranked Cal lower than sixth. Yet after a season-ending win at Southern Miss, four voters dropped Cal to No. 7 and two dropped the Bears to No. 8. A goal-line stand by eventual national champ USC was the only thing that kept Cal from going undefeated that season, but the Bears still wound up playing in the Holiday Bowl on Dec. 30. Cal coach Jeff Tedford lobbied hard for the final vote to be made public, and he got his wish.
Tedford will now receive a records request. So will Georgia coach Mark Richt, who said in May he would prefer to keep the final ballot public and the weekly ballots secret. So will Richt's former boss, Florida State's Bowden, whose school has been embroiled in a case that should set a handy precedent for this case.
Last week in Tallahassee, Leon County Circuit Judge John Cooper ruled documents relating to the NCAA's investigation into Florida State's recent academic fraud scandal are public records. The case was brought by The Associated Press and several other media organizations. FSU, originally a defendant, filed a cross suit that made clear it stood on the side of its state law and not on the side of the NCAA. Florida's attorney general also chimed in with an amicus brief supporting the media outlets. The NCAA has appealed the ruling, but won't likely win in a state where the open records law is so broad journalism professors joke if a public official blows his nose, the citizens have the right to inspect the tissue.
Florida State president T.K. Wetherell has cast himself as a champion of the public's right to know. "We understand that because this is a case of first impression there will most likely be further court actions," Wetherell said in a statement last week. "But we have at all times acted in good faith in attempting to comply with the Florida Public Records Act while adhering to NCAA bylaws." As dedicated as he is to upholding the law, Wetherell shouldn't mind giving the taxpayers a look at Bowden's ballot.
Florida isn't the only state with a broad law. In May, the Columbus Dispatch's fantastic investigation into athletic departments' sometimes fraudulent use of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act to hide records provided a wake-up call to schools in every state. In Ohio, the law seems pretty clear, at least as it is spelled out on the University of Cincinnati's public records policy: "In general, the Ohio Public Records Act requires that records that document the organization, functions, policies, decisions, operations or other activities of the university be made available to any member of the general public upon request."
Fortunately, Cinncinnati coach Brian Kelly believes the same thing. In a diary entry posted Monday on the Cincinnati Enquirer's Web site, Kelly discussed his ballot at length. He even revealed some of his choices (Pitt at No. 17, West Virginia at No. 22 and his own team at No. 25). Kelly also explained how he tracks and ranks teams. "If the coaches have a poll, and you're serious about it, there should be transparency," Kelly wrote. "If you're not, the coaches shouldn't have a poll. Just do away with it. But I'm in the minority."
The 51 requests will go to schools in 30 states, but two schools adhere to a different set of laws. The ballots of Air Force coach Troy Calhoun and Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo must be requested through the federal Freedom of Information Act. According to the FOIA page on the Naval Academy's Web site, the record should be available. It's perfectly understandable that the law exempts records "Properly and currently classified in the interest of national defense or foreign policy," but unless ranking TCU No. 12 is code for "station an aircraft carrier off the coast of Venezuela," Niumatalolo's ballot should be fairly harmless. It certainly isn't a security issue for Calhoun, who releases his ballot to The Colorado Springs Gazette.
We're expecting to hear excuses as to why the ballots can't be released. Some coaches may claim they file their ballot by phone, leaving no written record. Those who make that claim could be asked to recite their ballots, No. 1 through No. 25. If they can, they might be off the hook. But since we all know some coaches have sports information directors or operations directors fill out their ballots, chances are a written record exists for every ballot submission.
As the consumers who make college football the multibillion dollar business it is, you deserve to know how the sausage gets made. And since most of the coaches in the poll work for athletic departments at schools subsidized by your tax dollars, you have a right to know how they voted.
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