|Lane Kiffin said he voted the Trojans No. 1 to show his players that he believed in them. (Getty Images)|
I stand before you today in praise of Lane Kiffin.
Yes, you read that right.
The Southern California head coach realized that his position was untenable and did the right thing. He stepped down as a voting member of the coaches poll.
To recap: In remarks to the media, Kiffin said that if he were a coach from outside of his program he would not vote USC No. 1 for a number of reasons concerning depth, schedule, yada, yada, yada.
But, as it turned out, when Kiffin submitted his ballot as a first-time voter in the poll he did, indeed, vote the Trojans No. 1. His rationalization, and I'm paraphrasing here, was that while he didn't think outsiders should vote USC No. 1, he wanted to show his players that he believed in them.
Yes, he really did say that.
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Now the rules for the poll are pretty clear. The ballots are secret until the last poll of the season, the one which helps to set the final BCS standings. The coaches poll is one of two human polls (the Harris Interactive Poll is the other) involved in creating those standings, with the top two teams going to the national championship game. So voting in this poll is a very big deal.
Coaches are under no obligation to talk about their votes but they are free to do so, said Grant Teaff, the executive director of the American Football Coaches Association. But if they do and if they mislead the public (which includes the media) even a teeny-weeny little bit, the coach is going to get called on it. USA Today is allowed check with coaches on ballot irregularities and, if necessary, explain them to the public. Teaff, the former head coach at Baylor and a member of the College Football Hall of Fame, sent a letter to Kiffin explaining the situation.
"Our coaches understand that if they choose to talk about their votes and that if there is any confusion, USA Today has the right to release the ballot to clear things up," said Teaff. "They monitor the ballots for any kind of irregularities. Everybody understands what the deal is."
Kiffin and his folks at USC were not happy to be outed in such a fashion and Kiffin chose to give up his ballot. Kiffin, in his mind, saw no contradiction in his public and private positions concerning his vote in the coaches poll.
And that, gentle readers, clearly defines the problem with the coaches poll when it is being used as part of the BCS formula.
Understand this: When the BCS was founded in 1998, SEC commissioner Roy Kramer -- the godfather of the current system -- reached out to the coaches and asked them to be part of the process. Teaff and the AFCA have put in a series of checks and balances to keep the voting on the up and up. They contacted the Gallup polling organization and asked them to analyze the poll for fairness, etc. To be fair, the people who run this poll have made a good-faith effort to make it the best it can be.
But no matter how conscientious the administrators of the poll may be, they can't overcome the reality that in this particular area coaches are very, very flawed participants.
We know all the old arguments about the validity of the coaches poll. Coaches just don't watch a lot of football that doesn't involve their team or their opponents. It's not their job. That's not going to change and it shouldn't. Everybody understands that.
But the fact is that head coaches in the 21st century live in two parallel universes: One is the real world of what is actually said and done in their programs. That world is closely guarded and is reserved for players, coaches and friends of the program.
The other is the alternate, make-believe world, the public face coaches put on themselves and their program. In order to maintain that public face and protect the program, coaches know they sometimes have to twist, hedge, obfuscate, understate, overstate, exaggerate, hide ... and, on occasion, lie.
Coaches, for the most part, do not understand the concept of transparency. And those who do understand it sure as hell don't believe in it. Coaches are paid a lot of money to win games and advance the best interests of the school that employs them.
And if I was a coach I would feel exactly the same way.
But when it comes to determining college football's national championship, the world and its expectations of the process have changed in the past 14 years. College football has now become the No. 2 sport in America behind the NFL. Its fans, thanks to social media and the availability of vast amounts of information on the Internet, are much more sophisticated and skeptical -- as they should be. With the explosive growth of college football in the past 20 years have come greater expectations from fans that the game and the people who run it become more transparent.
In short, the way the game is coached on the field has never been better. The coaches who work in the game today are more skilled than they ever have been.
But away from the field, in terms of what fans expect, the game has clearly outgrown the coaches. The concept that 59 coaches with 59 different agendas play a major role in who plays for the national championship is so 1998.
The good news -- and the coaches who vote in the poll are probably happy about this too -- is that the current agreement that uses the coaches poll has only two more years to run. Starting in 2014 there will be a four-team playoff decided by a selection committee that is charged with watching a lot of football and doing a lot of homework. That system will certainly have its own challenges but that is another discussion for another day.
In the meantime, it would be an extraordinary show of good faith for the AFCA to change its rules concerning secret ballots in the coaches poll for the next two years. I know all the arguments against that idea.
"We've talked to the Gallup people and they assured us that the least political voting process is the one that is done in secret," Teaff said. "Coaches are different in that they have to play against the other coaches they vote for or don't vote for. We are convinced that except for the last poll we get a better vote with a secret ballot."
That's the problem. It all comes back to what is best for the coaches. They would, if the ballots were public, get a lot of unwanted scrutiny and would be held accountable for their votes. The hassle factor would be substantial.
What's more important, allowing the coaches to protect their parallel universe or making the process of picking teams for the BCS championship as fair and as transparent as the public believes it should be? The reality is that the coaches poll only has two years left to be in this position. They hope to get through those two years without another Lane Kiffin moment.
"We understand the criticism of the process. No process is perfect and we accept that," Teaff said. "The BCS came to us and asked us to help and we've done the best we can. And when the time comes that they don't need us to be a part of the process we accept that as well."
The debut of The Tony Barnhart Show is Aug. 28 on The CBS Sports Network.