SALT LAKE CITY — Voters, as we’re all learning, don’t have it easy these days. Even the President of the United States has something to say — OK, a lot to say — about the process.
That’s politics. In college football, there are 65 broadcasters and sports writers from across the nation casting ballots for something far less important — but perhaps just as passionate. The Associated Press Top 25 poll is often criticized and scrutinized by the people.
Each week, the electorate ranks college football teams from 1-25. Besides a preseason poll, they turn in ballots every Sunday throughout the season. It doesn’t matter if they were up late covering a game on Saturday. The compensation is low — as in zero — and individual ballots are posted for all the world to see. The only good thing, perhaps, is since 2004 the AP rankings don’t factor into college playoff consideration.
Even so, America loves the AP poll. It’s been part of the college football landscape since 1934.
Josh Furlong of KSL.com, who is the current AP voter from the Utah market, noted that it’s kind of funny. Those most invested, he said, should by the college sports information directors because many of their coaches have stipulations in their contracts based on AP rankings.
“To me, they should be the ones that care more than the fans. But I also understand like you want the prestige, you want the national respect,” Furlong said. “You want people to kind of take you seriously unless you’re like the Alabamas with the Clemsons and Ohio State that always get the perennial respect. Everybody wants that respect and to be judged like you’re great. So I get it.”
What people may not know, however, is just what it takes to rank the teams. There are 130 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
“It kind of opens up your perspective,” said Furlong, who covers the Utes and obviously knows a lot about them. “But with AP voting it kind of allows you to look at a lot of different teams and judge them in a way that you’re never really judged before.”
Furlong explained that as a sports writer you’re kind of used to distancing yourself from fandom and things like that.
“But this takes it to another level,” he said. “I’m not watching college football the same way that I used to. It kind of gives it a fun take to judge the teams and kind of evaluate them on each other.”
Radio and television sports personality Tony Parks, who preceded Furlong as the AP voter from Utah, took it to the extreme. He didn’t have a particular beat to cover locally, so his approach was quite different.
“I had it better than anyone. I had big advantages because I didn’t have a game to cover,” Parks said, “When you have a game to cover it is brutal. It has to be brutal to try and do that with your workday and then consume as much as you can everywhere else to put together a ballot.”
The routine Parks adopted involved getting the 10 a.m. games on his DVR. He would start watching a game until a commercial break and then move on to another, skipping huddles and things like that. Once back to live action, he’d move from game to game — spending about four hours to watch every play of the early contests.
Parks covered all of the early afternoon games the same way.
“I would watch as many snaps as I possibly could of all these different teams and so it was fun to be able to try and evaluate what was happening, right, what with quality of play.”
It took until midnight or so for Parks to finish watching games on Saturdays. That led to late nights putting together everything, evaluating each team, and putting together his ballot the best he could.
“Then I would wake up early and I would take it right down to the last minute,” Parks said. “I took every ounce of time I could to evaluate as much as I could before submitting.”
Such immersion, or so it would seem, would surely test the patience of a wife. Right? Wrong. Natalie Parks is a hairstylist and her Saturdays are packed.
“It really worked beautifully. She would work a lot and I worked a lot. We would have dinner together,” Parks said. “And then what was cool was the late night games would be on and people forget there’s not as many of them.”
The schedule allowed Parks to start on the late, late games around halftime and pretty much finish up on time or maybe 30 minutes later. There was always a gap after the prime time (6 p.m.) contests.
Parks enjoyed the work and took pride in voting for All-America teams, too. His tenure as an AP voter, though, came to an abrupt end. The organization adopted a new policy that participants must work for companies that subscribe to the wire service. The radio station that Parks worked for did not use AP. The television station, however, that employs Parks did.
The local correspondent that decided to no longer use Parks as a voter acknowledged not knowing that at the time. Even so, the decision was made — leaving Parks heartbroken about it because of his investment. He took pride in making the most educated decision possibly after gathering a depth of information.
“Because this was affecting a lot of lives — coaches, players, stuff like that,” Parks said. “This is a really, really big deal. So I really enjoyed the art of it even though it came with a lot of hate on Twitter, or it came with argument. It was fine. I loved the responsibility and I took that responsibility very seriously.”
Parks noted that it was fun and he “loved every bit of it.” The annual preseason poll, he acknowledged, was always ridiculously hard. The week-to-week rankings and All-America selections were something he really enjoyed doing.
“I just soaked it all up in a system that is flawed, you know, in college football,” Parks said. “I liked to try my best to contribute as positively in the most objective ways in something that is so insanely subjective.”
Is it territorial as well? With voters from every region of the country and four representing the national media, there’s opportunities for bias or favoritism. Both Parks and Furlong insist that BYU, Utah and Utah State haven’t received any extra consideration.
“I was the representative of Utah, but I was not the fan, advocate, campaign manager or anything like that for any of those teams,” Parks said. “If you performed at a level that was better than the other 105 FBS teams I put you in the top 25. I didn’t care where you were located on a map. I didn’t care what conference you belong to. I didn ‘t care what your fan base looked like. I didn ‘t care how much heat I was going to get if I voted positively for a team, or not for another team.”
Parks added that he did a great job of knowing he was going to make certain decisions. He went with his honest assessments.
Furlong has similar thoughts.
“I don’t really have the allegiance to the local teams as many would expect me to living in Utah. So it hasn’t been too difficult for me,” he said. “It’s just more along the lines of, really, just because we know these programs so much better it’s easier to rank them higher and it’s also easier to rank them lower simply because you know them a lot more.”
Then there’s the transparency of having ballots revealed publicly. Folks know exactly where the local voter, for example, ranked or didn’t rank the Aggies, Cougars and Utes.
Furlong admits it’s something that he goes back-and-forth about. He’s a big fan of transparency and the importance thereof.
“I think if you’re willing to put your name out there you should be willing to say who your picks are, so I’m not opposed to that,” he said. “But it does come with some territory where people freak out at you because they’re fans, right? They get really upset and try to get personal and different things like that.”
For the most part, Furlong doesn’t pay attention to it.
“I’m not getting paid for this. I’m not doing this for any prestige or anything like that,” he explained. “I’m literally doing it because I love college football. I was asked to do it. It’s fun.”
It’s truly a labor of love. So, too, is the nation’s infatuation with rankings that have no impact on anything other than bragging rights for fans.
“They love it because it comes out before the playoff. It’s their best reference point,” said Parks, who added that folks like to argue about it and use it as a barometer of sorts as to what to think about college football. It’s a starting point on many fronts.
“From the preseason poll on, people have really feasted on it and really glued themselves to it because everybody has such a unique opinion,” he continued.
Author Dirk Facer was an Associated Press Top 25 voter for two years during his tenure as a Utah beat writer for a Salt Lake City newspaper.