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.
The first is the coaches poll, begun by United Press International (UPI) in 1958 and run since 1991 by USA Today, which partnered with CNN, and then ESPN, before taking over sole responsibility in 2005. The second is the poll conducted by the Bowl Championship Series, which took control of college football's postseason in 1998 by aligning the commissioners of the major conferences and the big bowl committees, then packaging the games for its television partners.
The BCS originally blended the AP and coaches polls with a handful of computer rankings to determine its poll order, then matched the No. 1 and No. 2 teams at the end of the bowl season and awarded its version of the national championship to the winner. Since 1998, the final AP and BCS polls had different teams on the top line only once, in January 2004.
That year, a high-flying Southern California team loaded with future NFL draft choices and nosed out of second in the BCS final regular-season poll by Oklahoma, crushed Michigan in the Rose Bowl and won the final AP poll convincingly. Several days later, BCS No. 1 pick LSU narrowly outlasted the Sooners in a defensive tussle that resembled a tractor pull at the Sugar Bowl and took home the BCS trophy.
The split championship ignited an argument along the lines of "Who you going to believe, me or your lyin' eyes?" And it grew fiercer because an agreement with the BCS required coaches voting in the poll to make the winner of the BCS championship No. 1 on their final ballot. Most prominent among the many dissenters was Lloyd Carr, then coaching Michigan. After getting thumped by USC, Carr told sports writers at the postgame news conference that he wished, like them, he was free to put the Trojans at No. 1.
"They're very deserving," he chuckled. "You can make me an honorary member."
That December, concerned about possible conflicts of interest, the AP asked the BCS to drop its poll from the formula that determines the BCS rankings. Unlike the BCS, the AP also makes the ballots of its voters available to the public, a transparency that helps explains why its poll is often considered the most objective measure today.
"We are elated that the AP continues to be part of the fabric of college football," said Lou Ferrara, AP's managing editor for sports. "We love to be a part of the conversation — and the debate — about the best teams in the country each week. It's a responsibility we plan to continue for years to come."
As in the past, not everybody is wild about AP having that responsibility. Disagreements between polls down through the decades — and the lack of a playoff in football's top division, now called the FBS — is why the national championship was labeled "mythical" long ago. Pick a season, almost any season, and you'll have no trouble finding coaches and fans at one school or another still seething over polling results.
Holtz won his title at Notre Dame in 1988, but still insists the Irish should have been awarded a second one in 1989 or 1993 because the same criteria voters used to award those championships to Miami and Florida State — head-to-head victory in the first case; strength of schedule in the second — didn't get his teams the nod when the tables were turned.
Penn State coach Joe Paterno might have an even bigger beef. He won AP titles in 1982 and 1986, but wound up a bridesmaid three times — 1968, 1969 and 1994 — with unbeaten teams that polished off their seasons with victories in top-shelf bowl games. That may explain why a spokesman for the Nittany Lions said Paterno was too busy focusing on an upcoming game against Purdue late in the week to comment on the anniversary.
If Paterno does bear a grudge, he's at the end of a very long line. Every sports writer who's been with the AP for a while has more than one story to tell about the time he wound up on the end of a harangue about the poll and here's my personal favorite.
A month shy of 21 years ago, my older son Matt, 9 years old at the time, was hit by a car. I was at a Cubs game when I got the call and just before bolting the press box, I told my editor I was heading to the hospital.
An hour or so later, after it was apparent Matt's injuries weren't life threatening, I was watching a plastic surgeon calmly pick bits of asphalt out of a wound stretching the width of my son's forehead as he prepared to stitch it up. A nurse stuck her head into the room and said, "Are you the guy from the AP?" I nodded yes. "One of your editors called and wants to know if everything is OK?"
Before I could answer, the plastic surgeon looked up from my son and directly at me. He started yelling.1 comment on this story
"AP? You're with the AP? I went to Ohio State and you guys screwed us."
I shouted back: "Finish what you're doing! There's plenty of time to argue about it later."
Though almost everything else about that day is etched in my memory forever, I can't for the life of me remember what year he was so aggravated about.