For 75 years, AP football poll has stirred the pot

By Jim Litke

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, Oct. 15 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

FILE - In this Jan. 5, 2004 file photo, Southern California players Matt Leinart, left, Shaun Cody, second from right, and Marcell Allmond, right, celebrate after being awarded the Associated Press' national college football trophy during ceremonies on the steps of Heritage Hall on the Los Angeles campus. It is the school's first national title in 25 years, but one they share with Bowl Championship Series winner LSU.

Ric Francis, File, Associated Press

It began back before bowl games mattered and has riled fans coast to coast ever since. It's been analyzed in dissertations and villainized in letters no newspaper would print. Instead of simply surviving, it's thrived.

So say "Happy 75th Anniversary" to The Associated Press' college football poll. Lou Holtz just did — and like more than a few other members of the coaching fraternity, he's been nursing a grudge against the poll for years.

"Players coaches and fans look at it. It definitely helps to build interest. And if you're No. 1," he said, "It's definitely a big deal."

But like fans of the Irish and just about everybody else, the former Notre Dame coach and current ESPN analyst said the rankings often left him scratching his head.

"I think the criteria changed from year (to year)," Holtz said. And he still believes some voters punished the Irish after they signed an exclusive TV deal with NBC. "Those are things I can't control," he added. "But I definitely still think about the ones that got away."

Of course, not everyone has been quite so magnanimous about it.

"My husband and I think that it is stupid and sad that the AP poll doesn't know its job well enough to know that Alabama is and always will be No. 1," a disgruntled fan wrote after the Crimson Tide slipped behind Ohio State in the final 1979 regular-season poll. "What does AP really stand for, Always Prejudiced?"

The story of how the AP poll originated is well known. The year was 1935, the college game was taking off, and AP General Sports Editor Alan J. Gould was looking for a way to spice up sports sections — "something to keep the pot boiling," was how he put it — in the middle of the week. Gould hit on the idea of ranking the Top 10 teams himself, after talking to a few colleagues and friends.

It didn't take long for the pot to boil over.

Shortly after he ranked Minnesota, Princeton and Southern Methodist as co-No. 1s at the end of that season, Gopher fans hanged Gould in effigy.

"It created a storm in the Big Ten in general," Gould, who died in 1993, recalled on the 50th anniversary, "and Minneapolis-St. Paul, in particular."

It also provided the impetus for Gould to begin extending voting privileges the following year to sports writers across the land.

The first true poll appeared on Oct. 19, 1936, and over time, grew to become the Top 25. The panel has 60 voters today. It's been balanced to offset regional biases and vetted to avoid conflicts of interest. A few panelists have been removed along the way, including a voter in Alabama who turned up in a Crimson Tide parade. The AP selects the voters, collects their ballots, tabulates them and releases the results weekly beginning in the preseason, then delivers a trophy to the team atop the poll at the conclusion of the bowl games.

The AP's sports writers don't vote, a twist that has caused some confusion over the years. When Hayden Fry, who made his mark at Iowa, was on his way up the coaching ladder at North Texas State in the mid-1970s, he rarely ran into AP Dallas sports writer Denne Freeman without lobbying him for a vote. No matter how many times Freeman told Fry that he didn't have one, the coach's response was the same.

"He'd say, 'Yeah, but we're playing pretty well. You really should vote for us,'" Freeman said.

The question of "Who's No. 1?" has been around almost as long as the game itself.

The NCAA Division I record book recognizes national champions dating back to 1869, and more than a few popular college rankings took hold in the sporting public's imagination before the AP's. But only two have gained traction since.

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