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Rocking the Vote : Some Members of the Media Don’t Want to Decide Who Wins the National Championship

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was after the third weekend in November that Loren Tate decided he had had enough--enough of the controversy, of the anguish, of the self-doubt.

“That was when I said, ‘To hell with it,’ ” he said.

There would be no turning back. He would no longer serve as a voter in the Associated Press’ weekly college football poll.

“It got to be too heavy for me,” said Tate, columnist and executive sports editor for the Champaign (Ill.) News-Gazette.

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How “heavy” a task could picking the top 25 college football teams in the nation be?

For some members of the media, caught in the middle of an increasingly difficult situation, the burden is not a small one.

The only NCAA sport without a playoff to determine its national champion, Division I-A football has long been driven by the results of media and coaches’ polls.

The sport underwent a major overhaul last year, when representatives of all the major bowls except the Rose formed a coalition designed to match teams with opponents based on their final regular-season rankings, increasing the likelihood of the national title being decided on the field New Year’s Day.

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A year ago, the coalition relied on the rankings of the AP (media) poll. This year’s matchups will be based on a coalition poll--a combination of the votes from the AP and USA Today-CNN (coaches) polls.

Either way, the media is involved--dangerously, some say--in a matter it is supposed to be covering.

“It’s really a problem, having sports writers playing such a pivotal role in this process,” said Rick Pullen, who teaches a class in journalism ethics at Cal State Fullerton. “You’re talking big bucks (in schools’ bowl revenue). It would be nice if the writers could get out (of the process), but I don’t see a better system.”

Tate, for one, said he bailed out on the AP poll after nearly two decades of voting because he felt “tremendous pressure,” some of which, he said, came from an executive at his newspaper.

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“A Notre Dame guy,” he said. “I think he considered (his comments) playful. I didn’t appreciate them.

“Mainly, though, I just kind of felt like there were too many things coming at me from too many different directions, and I didn’t want to be picking the teams that would play for the national championship.”

Corky Simpson of the Tucson Citizen, who bucked conventional wisdom by picking Alabama No. 1 throughout the 1992 season, recalls receiving “vicious” phone calls from University of Miami supporters.

“They were just screaming at me,” he said. “After you hear enough of that, you become thoroughly disgusted. The whole thing was absurd. (Ranking the teams) took no skill. It was like pulling a ticket out of your hat.”

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Last June, Simpson wrote AP executives, requesting that he not be included in future polls.

The wrath of the Miami faithful apparently is nothing, however, compared to the current outpouring of feeling from West Virginia, where seemingly the entire state is up in arms over AP voters’ treatment of the Mountaineers.

West Virginia is 11-0 and ranked second behind undefeated Nebraska in the coaches’ poll. However, the Mountaineers apparently have been locked out of the national championship picture because they are third behind once-beaten Florida State and Nebraska in the AP poll--numbers that put them third in the coalition rankings as well.

“West Virginia has been kicked and maligned for years--the old dumb hillbilly portrayal,” said George Manahan, president of a Charleston, W. Va., public relations firm and former press secretary for West Virginia Gov. Gaston Caperton. “Here’s an opportunity for something positive on a national level, and the opportunity is taken away before we get the chance to take advantage of it.”

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Manahan’s firm is one of seven prominent West Virginia companies that two weeks ago paid for and distributed 30,000 “Why Not West Virginia?” postcards addressed to the 62 AP voters.

“I got a call from a friend in North Carolina who said a TV guy down there held up 69 postcards on the air,” Manahan said.

The public relations executive believes the postcards are a positive way of touting the Mountaineer football program.

“If you look at the postcard, we tried to fill up all the space so people wouldn’t write nasty notes,” he said.

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A less subtle approach was taken by the university’s student newspaper, the Daily Athenaeum. Tuesday, the paper listed the names and phone numbers of AP voters who ranked West Virginia fourth or lower this week and urged readers to contact them.

The Times’ Gene Wojciechowski, who had the Mountaineers fifth on his ballot this week, received several phone messages laced with obscenities from unidentified callers who apparently were West Virginia followers.

Steve Phillips, sports director of WKRN television in Nashville, Tenn., said so many people called his station’s newsroom to question his decision to rank the Mountaineers fourth that his work was disrupted for a day.

“I have no problem with fans voicing their complaints,” he said. “My problem is with the student newspaper printing those names and numbers. (The students) obviously haven’t learned anything about ethics.”

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According to Dave Krakoff, associate sports editor for the Daily Athenaeum, the voters’ phone numbers had been “circulating” throughout the West Virginia campus before the paper published them.

“Students were walking around just passing them out,” he said. “It’s a wild atmosphere here.”

Whatever the case, Phillips, who is voting in the AP poll for the first time this season, said he will not participate next year unless the AP changes its policy of making voters’ names, affiliations and ballots available to member news organizations for publication.

“If I’m going to continue to vote, (the AP) will have to change,” he said. “And if they don’t change, they’ll wind up only with (voters) who enjoy controversy.

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“The ironic thing is, these people have been trying to sway my ranking of West Virginia in the poll. If I really listened to them, I think I’d be swayed to drop them to 15th.”

Terry Taylor, AP sports editor, said her organization is unlikely to change its policy of publicizing poll participants and their ballots.

“We just couldn’t do it,” she said. “Accountability is tied directly to the credibility of that poll. We don’t believe it should be a secret ballot.”

USA Today and CNN do not reveal the names of the 62 coaches who vote in their poll.

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As for the bowl coalition, representatives from its bowls will meet in February to study the pros and cons of the system’s second year. The way the coalition was set up in 1992, it can be disbanded after its third year.

“I think everyone right now is committed to (keeping the coalition),” said Rick Baker, executive director of the Cotton Bowl and chairman of the coalition. “But I think everyone also feels there’s some fine-tuning that could make it better.”

Prominent in such a discussion, he said, would be the coalition’s use of the polls to determine its matchups.

“I think the poll we have this year, with 124 (voters) versus 62, brings more balance,” he said. “I know some of my colleagues may not agree, but personally I think it was a better poll for us to use.

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“Now that’s not saying this (format) should be the final thing. I think we should continue to look at it and see if there’s a better way we can come up with a selection process in a poll situation.”

One possible alternative comes from Mike Tranghese, commissioner of the Big East Conference, who has spoken of a plan that would rank the teams only once, at the end of the regular season.

Of course, no matter what direction the coalition representatives go, they will not have Loren Tate of the Champaign News-Gazette along for the ride.

“The writers’ poll, the coaches’ poll--the whole thing is a joke,” he said. “I don’t have an answer. But I know what we’re doing is not right.”

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