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When Miami Herald sportswriter Gary Long picked the University of Washington over the hometown Hurricanes as the number one football team in the land, he catapulted himself to public enemy number one in Miami. Long, who contributes South Florida's only opinion to the highly respected Associated Press rankings, had the unmitigated gall to spurn the hallowed orange and green. "I've gotten a lot of pretty hostile calls at work," he says. "One guy wanted me dipped in maggots, hung, and castrated. Another guy said I shit in my hat.
Two days after the annual New Year's Bowl-a-Thon, climaxed by the Hurricanes' 22-0 defeat of the University of Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, Long confirmed his vote in a sports-page column, beneath the headline, "A close vote for the Huskies - no apologies."
"I knew it wouldn't be popular," he says, "but it didn't sway me from what I thought. I wished one of those two teams played themselves out of it so it was an easy call, but they didn't." Indeed, the Huskies' Rose Bowl victory over a highly regarded University of Michigan team was enough to secure first place in the USA Today/CNN poll of NCAA coaches. The Hurricanes eked out the AP title by the closest margin in that poll's 56-year history. (United Press International, which polls former players, coaches, and administrators, as well as journalists, ranked the University of Washington number one. The New York Times computer rankings gave UM the edge.)
The day Long went public with his stance, he received eighteen messages on his answering machine. Still more messages were taken by clerks, fellow writers, and editors in the Herald's sports department. "There wasn't a positive one in the bunch," Long says. (Unless you count the call from a pair of Seattle radio DJs who telephoned to congratulate him on his honesty and integrity and to say the check was in the mail.) Long also says he heard some people had canceled their subscriptions in response to his decision, and that one of the paper's advertisers (he doesn't know which) was pulling its account. In his own column, fellow Herald writer Bob Rubin jokingly referred to his colleague as "the dirty traitor."
As a guest on several local call-in radio and television programs, Long defended his stance, each time pointing out that although both teams finished the season with perfect 12-0 records, Washington faced a tougher schedule. He also felt that the Huskies' Rose Bowl victory was more impressive than Miami's Orange Bowl shutout because the Hurricanes were playing at home. The callers weren't swayed. "I just want to know why you bother working for the Miami Herald," one irate viewer blasted during Long's visit to Channel 33's Sunday Night Sports Rap. "You really should go to Washington. Being a Miami man, you should be for Miami."
No doubt much of the clamor stems from the popular belief that the hometown newspaper owes its allegiance to the hometown team, and that the sports section is the traditional venue for detailing every aspect of that team's success. An understandable belief - especially given the vast amount of newsprint devoted to sports coverage - but not an entirely accurate one.
Disturbing as the post-vote flak may be, however, it won't elicit the backlash from Long that some might expect. "It disappoints me," he admits. "People don't understand. They think you're supposed to be a homer. They think you're supposed to write like a homer. You can't help covering [a team] and having a feeling because they're somebody you know," he explains. "But it doesn't affect how I do my job. It doesn't affect how I write."
And it doesn't affect how he votes. One of only 60 AP voters in the nation - and one of just two in Florida - Long takes his position seriously. The votes are distributed proportionally throughout the nation according to the number of major college football teams in each region. Sportswriters and broadcasters are chosen as voters based on their knowledge of the game and their coverage of a major college football program. Long, who has been with the Herald for 26 years, has cast an AP vote for the past twelve. Florida's other representative in the poll is David Alfonso of the Tampa Tribune. He voted Miami number one.
A poll ranking can mean more than a simple statistic. The prestige and media exposure that accompany a number-one ranking certainly don't hurt a school's enrollment or endowment. "Winning is easier to sell than losing," notes Larry Siddons, an AP deputy sports editor who helps oversee the poll. "These guys are under a lot of pressure from local fans. To do what Gary did takes a good amount of bravery. I take my hat off to him."
"The easiest thing in the world is to jump on the home team," concurs Jim Mandich, host of Sports Rap. "The right thing to do is what you have to do as a journalist. I think he made a very well-reasoned decision. If that poll comprises guys like Gary Long, who really care and do the research, then I've got a lot of faith in the AP poll."