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P.S.R. Op-Ed

The Hall of Fame’s Puzzling Voting Criteria

According to the bylaws set in place by the National Football Foundation, a former player must meet four criteria for eligibility in order to be included on the ballot for the College Football Hall of Fame:

1. He must be selected as a first-team all-American by at least one of the national selectors utilized by the N.C.A.A. to comprise the list of consensus all-Americans. This includes The Associated Press, the Football Writers Association of America and the Walter Camp Football Foundation, among other selecting bodies.

2. He must be at least 10 years removed from his last season of college football. For this year, a player’s last season cannot have occurred after 2002.

3. He cannot be more than 50 years removed from his last season of college football. In short, an eligible player’s college career cannot have finished before 1962 or after 2002.

4. He cannot be currently playing professional football. For example, Charles Woodson and Peyton Manning, though shoo-ins for the Hall of Fame, will not become eligible until they retire from the N.F.L.

A coach must meet another four criteria for eligibility, with none sillier than the third:

1. He must have coached at least 10 years.

2. He must have coached at least 100 games.

3. He must have a career winning percentage of at least 60 percent.

4. He must be retired for at least three years, unless over the age of 70; if over 70, the National Football Foundation will waive the waiting period.

Putting the third criteria into writing is puzzling: the overwhelming majority of coaches who would even be considered for the Hall of Fame would reach that number, obviously, and having the rule in place prevents a wholly deserving coach with a winning percentage below 60 percent from being placed up for consideration.

The first such coach that comes to mind is Howard Schnellenberger, who just concluded his career with a winning percentage of 51.1 percent. Below the Foundation’s criteria, yes. But can anyone say that Schnellenberger, who built Miami (Fla.) into the most dominant program in football for a generation, isn’t deserving of a spot in the Hall of Fame?

Not that the other coach-centered criteria are perfect. The first rule, that a coach must have 10 years of experience, eliminates the great Erk Russell, who won 83 games and three national titles at Georgia Southern from 1982-89. His tenure lasted only eight years, but Russell achieved more in those eight years than any number of Hall of Fame coaches achieved in twice that time, if not more.

So how does the voting work? After a preliminary compiling phase — which helps narrow the ballot down to about 70 names, including a select few holdovers from the previous year’s list — the ballot is sent out to the roughly 12,000 members of the National Football Foundation. In addition, the Veterans Committee can recommend worthy players whose career ended more than 50 years ago. Commence the voting.

The voting results are then sent back to the Foundation, which in turn forwards the results to its Honors Court. This body uses the final voting merely as a reference; while the voting plays a role, the Honors Court has the final say on whether a player or coach is elected to the Hall of Fame.

There are four issues here that warrant further examination. The first is the voting process itself: If the Foundation isn’t going to count the voting tally as more than a reference for the Honors Court, then why not just skip that voting step altogether? It’s clear that there’s a disconnect between the voting results and the Honors Court — that’s why, somehow, players like Derrick Thomas and Tommie Frazier are still not in the Hall of Fame.

The election procedure is worse than the much-maligned process the N.F.L. uses to make its annual Hall of Fame selections. The N.F.L.’s committee doesn’t hide the fact that it cares little for public opinion; the National Football Foundation asks for votes, but the mailed-in voting ballots might as well be used as a paperweight.

If the Honors Court has total say in the matter, then simply skip the voting step. Again, I have total confidence in the belief that Frazier, Thomas and many others would be in the Hall of Fame should the Foundation merely go by the 12,000 ballots submitted by its members.

Secondly, the Foundation’s eligibility criteria should make the Veterans Committee obsolete. According to two of the four criteria, a player cannot have played more than 50 years ago or less than 10 years ago. If the Foundation is going to have such stringent criteria, why even have a Veterans Committee?

And as with Major League Baseball — and not including the great work that league does recognizing many former Negro League stars — a Veterans Committee often leads to undeserving candidates reaching the Hall of Fame ahead of more recent and more worthy potential selections.

The third and fourth issues revolve around the coaching criteria. If nothing else, the 60 percent threshold is redundant; in nearly every single case, a coach with a winning percentage below that number would not be qualified to reach the Hall of Fame. And the criteria is a relatively recent addition: it wasn’t in place as recently as 2003, for example, when Hayden Fry was elected with a career winning percentage of 56.4 percent.

And then there are the outliers this criteria, along with the 10-year rule, eliminates from consideration. Schnellenberger is a perfect example, as is Russell. The first made Miami into Miami; the latter rebuilt Georgia Southern — which hadn’t fielded a team over the 40 years prior to Russell’s arrival — into one of the elite programs on the F.C.S. level. Excluding these two coaches from even being eligible for the ballot places an asterisk beside the words Hall of Fame.

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