Inside the Legends Poll - How It Works
Posted Jan 29, 2013

Rich Cirminiello breaks down and gets inside the Legends Poll


Sometimes a solution rests just beneath the nose. The Legends Poll ought to be making the BCS sneeze.

The value of a subjective poll, regardless of the topic, is only as lofty as the individuals who comprise it. And in the arena of college football evaluation and rankings, you're just not going to locate a more qualified or dedicated collection of pollsters than those currently encompassing the Legends Poll.

A little more than seven years ago, Executive Director Andy Curtin along with partner Pete Wolek hatched the Master Coaches Survey, now the Legends Poll, with an eye toward assembling a panel of college football experts. The objective of Curtin and Wolek was rather simple and straightforward; attract a cross-section of some of the sport's most revered and respected retired head coaches, and direct them to do what they do best—evaluate football games.

Curtin painstakingly pieced together a staff of former head coaches, methodically spanning every major conference and every corner of the map to ensure geographic diversity.

At Legends Poll central, the SEC now falls under the auspices of Vince Dooley (Georgia), Pat Dye (Auburn), Gene Stallings (Alabama) and Frank Broyles (Arkansas). R.C. Slocum (Texas A&M) joined the conference a year ago when the Aggies did, yet he also keeps his finger on the pulse of football in the Big 12 and the state of Texas. The Big Ten is covered by John Cooper (Ohio State) and Bill Mallory (Indiana), while the ACC gets closely scrutinized by Bobby Bowden (Florida State), Bobby Ross (Georgia Tech) and George Welsh (Virginia). Former Big East coaches Dick MacPherson (Syracuse) and Don Nehlen (West Virginia) bring right coast experience, with the latter's school now in the Big 12 and the former's heading to the ACC. And the left coast is ably manned by John Robinson (USC), Terry Donahue (UCLA), Don James (Washington), LaVell Edwards (BYU) and Fisher DeBerry (Air Force).

In all, 17 college football experts make up the Legends Poll. Their collective resumes include 15 Hall of Fame inductions, nine national championships and more than 3,300 victories. Far beyond the numbers, though, lay an incalculable sum of experiences and contacts within the game. Too often it gets forgotten that every legendary coach is the trunk of a tree, with far-reaching branches. They may be out of the game, yet they remain intimately close to it.

"I've been able to maintain relationships with some of my former players and coaches, like Nick Saban, Gary Pinkel and Jim Mora," said James. "One thing about being a former coach is that you know your call will be answered, and you can get into a game if you need to. And when I don't see a particular game or read the local papers, I feel as if I did once I get a chance to speak with the other coaches on the poll."

The coaches are the undisputed figureheads of the Legends Poll; however, it's the process that makes it so effective and so worthy of emulation. This is not your granddaddy's rankings system.

Curtin's methodology for determining the nation's top teams, in order, has become a well-honed and time-tested one. Prior to the start of the season, each coach is assigned the games of select contenders, watching on television and even attending games when it's possible. James, for example, might draw USC, Stanford, and Oregon at the beginning of the season. As schools drop from contention, new ones are added to a voter's slate, creating greater coverage and a sense of cross-training throughout the panel. By November, when only a handful of bona fide national title wannabes remain, all eyes are firmly fixed on just those programs.

Preseason polls are never employed, because how can you possibly evaluate a team that's yet to play a snap? Plus, polls that come out in August tend to create biases and unearned edges that often take weeks or longer before they can be corrected, if at all. The Legends Poll also gets a leg up on its peers by exercising complete transparency throughout the season. Every week, each individual vote is listed on the poll's website,

Each coach gets equipped with an iPad, which provides easy access to the state-of-the-art HUDL app. On HUDL, the voters are able to download the broadcasts of games they missed, or go back and review footage of prior week's games before submitting a ballot on Sunday morning. They have the time, the expertise and the resources to accurately rank the country's premier programs. But wait, there's more. Much more.

For the Legends Poll, the process only begins when the votes are cast. It's on Monday morning that Curtin and his pantheon of retired coaches truly build separation on the current three components that make up the BCS rankings, the USA Today Coaches Poll, the Harris Poll and a composite of six computer models. For an hour, the voters deliberate on a conference call to discuss the prior weekend's games. Robinson can share what he saw from the Pac-12 slate with Stallings and Dye. Cooper will discuss the state of the Big Ten with the former ACC coaches. It's a 60-minute roundtable designed to educate and inform those in attendance.

"I really like to hear the perspective of other coaches, especially those who saw a game in person," offered Cooper. "There's something about the speed you see in person that doesn't show up on television. We're talking to other coaches who've done this their whole life. I just don't know how you can vote for someone you haven't seen play."

The conversations are informative and, at times, intense and spirited. As one of a very small handful of people ever invited to listen in on the call, I can attest to its penchant for inciting purposeful debate. Plus, a few selected coaches are asked to defend their top picks on their ballot. The information is invaluable, both in looking back and looking ahead to next week's key matchups. Operating outside of a vacuum, in an environment that spawns deliberation and a sharing of ideas? What a novel concept pertaining to a democratic process.

The weekly congregation provides the coaches with a forum to delve deep into subjects that no other poll is able to address in such meticulous fashion. They'll openly discuss strength of schedule and the difficulty of winning in certain hostile environments, such as Blacksburg or Eugene. The coaches are cognizant of the fact that schedule strength is a fluid process that will change dramatically from the preseason expectations of August to the realities of November. Just last year, Notre Dame's slate of games, which looked so thorny in the preseason, became downright manageable once the likes of Purdue, Michigan State, Miami, Oklahoma and USC got exposed as overrated.

The coaches are also skilled at assessing the appropriate meaning of a margin of victory. For instance, Wisconsin might run up the score on a middling foe, which doesn't prove anything in the estimation of the coaches if they feel the opponent was a weak one. On the contrary, there are times when a coach could have embarrassed an opponent, yet opted instead to take his foot off the gas in the second half. While other pollsters are prone to voting based solely on a colorless final score, the Legends Poll coaches evaluate results with a much keener eye to detail.

"I believe the Legends Poll is the best of the polls, because all of the intangibles get broken down by the coaches on Monday morning," said Nehlen. "We talk about overall schedule strength, margin of victory and where a game is being played. Heck, we'll even toss around the time of day a game is played since it's always tougher to win at night at schools like Virginia Tech and LSU. The coaches here evaluate all of the fine details, especially those that'll never show up on a scoreboard or in a box score."

Coaches see things on the field that others don't. They have a perspective that comes from many years of experience mentoring players, watching film and managing both games and seasons. This is their area of expertise. Even better, the Legends Poll voters are coaches who no longer coach. They still have the keen eye and instincts for the game, but unlike the participants of, say, the USA Today Coaches Poll, no longer have the responsibilities and time constraints that come with being a full-time coach.

"I know more now about college football than when I was a head coach," offered the late Bo Schembechler, a Legends Bowl voter prior to his passing. "I never watched the SEC because we never played them. I was only interested in the rest of the Big Ten or occasionally the Pac-10 if there was a team I thought we might face in the Rose Bowl."

One-time USC and UNLV head coach John Robinson echoed the sentiments of his long-time friend and rival from Michigan.

"No one has more tunnel vision from September to December than the college football coach," added Robinson. "The only things you're focused on are your team and next week's opponent. These days, people like me are in a far better position to take in all of the action and provide our analysis."

The singular focus of the Legends Poll committee is to get the rankings right once the games have been played. Using current head coaches to cobble together in-season rankings? Bizarre idea rife with the potential for controversy. Employing the skills of retired head coaches? Interesting idea flush with untapped possibilities.

Biases? Not here. These coaches are throwbacks, sticklers for details and for doing things the right way. Heck, some of the harshest critics of programs tend to come from those closest to them. Before his passing, Schembechler treated Michigan on Monday morning calls the way a hard-nosed dad handles the son he still coaches. He'd go to Wolverines' practices daily, and would cut them no slack if they weren't playing up to expectations.

Not unlike the days when they were prowling the sidelines, these old-timers still evaluate with a bar set high and a standard that is uncompromising … especially if the home team is the subject. One of the toughest jobs for the former coaches may be blocking out the media hype projected by the networks, the schools and the conference PR departments. Notre Dame in 2012 was a prime example of a program that enjoyed the benefits of a massive publicity crush. It was the Legend Poll's Edwards, however, who cautioned his fellow voters about the fallibility of the Irish after attending their narrow escape of his former BYU program on Oct. 20.

"I really like the way the process works at the Legends Poll," said Tom Osborne, the one-time Nebraska coach and Legends Poll voter. "It's the most valid poll that exists today, because these coaches break down the film before exchanging ideas with the other members of the committee. When I was there, I saw no provincialism, where one coach was trying to favor his team. They were certainly knowledgeable about their team, but there was absolutely no partisanship, which was refreshing."

Has the game passed these legends by? Heck no. Listen to Donahue on the air for a few minutes. Watch Stallings break a game down. Appreciate the passion in Slocum's voice when the topic is college football. Yeah, there's a little less bounce in their steps, but these coaches remain as sharp as ever, with an unmistakable drive and a dedication to remain as close to the game as possible. The fire still burns deep for the game that long has been synonymous with their identity.

For those who guffaw at the prospect of 70-somethings and octogenarians weighing in on the game in the 21st century, ponder these compelling nuggets: In early December of 2011, once all of the regular season games had been played, not a single poll on the planet had Alabama ranked ahead of LSU … except the Legends Poll. One month later, the Tide rolled the Tigers, 21-0. This past December, you'd have to have been nuts to rank anyone ahead of unbeaten Notre Dame, right? The Legends Poll had the audacity to place one-loss ‘Bama at No. 1, looking unmistakably wise on Jan. 7 after the Tide humiliated the Irish, 42-14, in Miami.

"Some of our greatest Presidents were older guys," contended Bowden. "Heck, where do you think wisdom comes from, youth"?

Unlike so many of their peers, these coaches are not averse to getting granular during the evaluation process. For them, it's more than simply a product of stats, records and media coverage, the superficial barometers that consume most other pollsters. Impressing these guys requires a passing of the eyeball test, through the lenses of men who've witnessed the evolution of football for well over a half-century.

Year-in and year-out, the Legends Poll has been spot-on with its rankings, yet largely gets overlooked by the public, the media and the BCS powers-that-be. Too bad, too, because at the same time, its contemporaries, such as the Coaches Poll and the various computer rankings, have been rife with major inconsistencies and embarrassing revelations over that same period of time.

As college football prepares to embark on a new era, the beginning of a four-team playoff in 2014, a selection committee will need to be formed by BCS executive director Bill Hancock. Tall order. Pivotal task. The Legends Poll would be a terrific place to start the discussion. Hancock might decide instead to anoint some amalgam of conference commissioners, athletic directors and administrators to handle the duty. If so, wouldn't that group of individuals invite many of the same concerns we have today, such as inherent league and regional predispositions and a task force already being pulled in a multitude of different directions during the season?

Here's a thought that ought to be strongly considered in the coming months as the new playoff process begins to take shape: If nothing else, how about using the Legends Poll as a go-to resource in 2014 and beyond? Its voters have a finger squarely on the pulse of the game, and that isn't about to change. Let some of the members of the committee sit it on the Monday morning calls to soak in as much knowledge as possible. Or better yet, have two or three Legends Poll coaches periodically brief the committee on a particular team or set of teams vying for a playoff spot.

It's time for the Legends Poll to finally be given an opportunity to step out of the college football rankings shadows. It's flush with top-notch evaluators. The infrastructure for ranking teams is not only firmly in place, but it has worked since 2005. There's an opening at the grown-up table, as the sport hurtles toward a four-team playoff. And the Legends Poll is poised to fill it.

Rich Cirminiello covers college football for College Football News, where he has worked for more than decade.