The Retrodiction Question
An Interview with
NFL and NCAA Football
have been involved in sports for quite some time. I'm just a fan but you have
been in the thick of it. In fact, you were the first national sports talk show
host. That and being a play-by-play announcer for several sports teams - and not
just football - leads me to believe you know quite a bit about sports. Does
sport per se ever get old? Do you occasionally say: Okay, no sports
Sports does get old. It is just like any other job. After you have
been at it for 40 hours a week, or much more than that in many sports journalist
positions, you have had enough. When I was in television, and to a lesser
extent, in radio, everywhere I would go, people wanted only to talk about sports
with me. I would jump at the chance to talk about something else.
Often I found myself dreading having to go cover a sports
event. I would have to shake myself to the reality of what I was doing.
It would help to remind myself of someone who really performed a daily
drudgery in his/her job. Construction workers, plumbers, those who really
toiled must have faced a much more dreaded task than dragging oneself to a press
box on a nightly basis.
Minor league baseball was especially a wearing occupation.
You work about 80 hours a week, 7 days and nights a week during the
season. Especially the play-by-play announcer. You are
required to be at the office at 8 every morning and work all day until game
time. Everyone is required to sell advertising and tickets in minor league
ball, not matter what your specialty. Then you would work the game that
night and your job and the day would not be finished until well after midnight
on most nights. That's 8 in the morning until after midnight. Every
night. Because the teams play 7 days a week. The rest of the office
staff got the weekend off when the team was on the road. But not the
play-by-play announcer. And road trips usually start about 4 am and bus
trips can be long and agonizing, although bussing is a lot less a factor in
minor league baseball than it used to be. And, you want to get rich in
minor league baseball? I worked Class AA for three years. I was paid
about $12,000 a year plus a small sales commission. I don't think it's
much different today.
I find sports, in general, a lot of things less
appealing these days. I think it is mostly the attitude of the players and
fans towards the game. Call me an old-timer, if you will, but I grew up in the
50's when sportsmanship was stressed to all youngsters. I expect respect
for your opponent and modesty on the field. And that just doesn't happen
in sports anymore. I hate the posturing, taunting, trash talking that
seems to be taking over every sport. And the fans' attitude has changed along
with the players. It is accepted practice to hate the opponent and taunt
them when you win.
And everyone can't wait to boo and yell insults at even their own
teams. I would prefer fans give positive support and respect the other team's
efforts. It used to be nice to hear the home team give a round of applause
to a gallant effort by a visiting pitcher or team. That has all but
There's way too much hype and the best in each sport (Tiger
Woods, Michael Jordan, etc.) get the praise of saints. When really
all they are exceptional athletes who happen to play a game well.
Does all this sound too negative? Probably. I
still greatly enjoy a close game in almost any sport. I don't like to go
to games in person. I spent most of my life in press boxes where cheering
is not allowed and you are permitted to quietly appreciate what's happening
without interference or interruptions. I can't bear to sit in a crowd with
loud mouthed guys who want to show the world how much they know. That
always ruins the event for me.
My favorite sports these days? I love NASCAR racing and
the attitude of the drivers and their respect for their opponents. Golf
still has room for gentlemanly behavior. And I'll love baseball till I
die. I don't even care what the score is. I just love to watch the
game. It's so beautiful. College sports are always more fun
than the pros. The pro athletes always have too much self-importance and
lack of enthusiasm. Especially in the NBA.
Do those guys ever smile?
At some point in your adventure you began to rate football teams. Did this just
happen or were you influenced by someone else?
I really don't remember what started me rating football teams. It started
when I was about 20, a long time ago. I remember a rating system that used
to appear in the local papers and I have tried for years to remember the man's
name who did them. It was a funny name and I think it started with Mc.
But I found it fascinating and it always seemed so much more
righteous than the polls which always seemed to be popularity contests. I
had always had a leaning toward mathematics and I decided that you could assign
a numeric value to a team's strength. And that if you based it on point
differential than you could compare the team's numbers and come up with a game
I have fiddled with the system for years, changing the
formula every year to make it more accurate. Such systems can never be foolproof
because football is not an exact science. The ball is a funny shape. And a
funny bounce here or there can change a game by 10 to 20 points. But I
have satisfied myself that I have it as close as I can get it. And I truly
believe that my system is as accurate as any going. And I really think the
best system in the country is the one used by the Las Vegas spread people.
And they do use a ratings system. Because their system
comes up with outcomes very similar to mine on a regular basis means they are
using something. I'd like to know whose and how it works, because I've
never found anyone better.
If anyone doesn't think the bowl games are screwy, they should take a look at
how the odds makers did at predicting the winners on Todd Beck's site. They're
near the bottom. That should tell people never to gamble on bowl games. And,
actually, I have started tracking the odds on NFL and NCAA Football on my
regular ratings pages. I can tell you that they don't like change. Sometimes
they won't downgrade a team for a couple of weeks when the team is doing badly.
The first ratings I ever saw when I was a teenager were by
someone named Harmon. Unfortunately, I can't tell you whether or not it was the
Harmon Forecast everyone is familiar with. It was a local newspaper.
I agree that the polls are tainted, but I think computer
ratings in general have not actually passed them yet. I will be there when they
do because I support and promote computer ratings. Do you think that computer
ratings will surpass the polls, and, if so, when? Or do you think they are
Ray, before I answer you question I really have to comment about something that
has been in the news this week. Grant Teaff, one of the "brains"
behind the BCS has decided that computer ratings must promise not to use point
spreads higher than 21 points that determine their rankings. That, he
believes, will stop teams from running up the score to improve their computer
ratings in the BCS.
First, any good computer rating already has a ceiling built
into it to avoid high blowouts. But blowouts must be taken into account in
an accurate computer ranking. Does anyone really believe that a team that
beats another 50-0 is the equal of one that beats the same team 28-7? That
is really an absurd assumption. Also, it is not just the computer rankings
that take into account high point differentials. I have to believe
pollsters do as well. What pollster in his right mind would rank the 28-7 winner
ahead of the 50-0 team?
Mr. Teaff trying to decide how the power rankings compute
their formula is insulting. It is the same as a computer power ranker
telling a coach how to coach his team. If I was a BCS power ranker I would
withdraw my ratings from their system in protest. I have fine-tuned my
formula for years to make it as accurate as possible. To have an old
football coach tell me to change my formula is nuts.
The assumption that teams run up the score to help their
ratings is something I haven't quite bought into anyway. I think most
coaches try not to run up the score. Or they don't do it purposely. I
am a Kansas State fan and they usually have some 65-0 games early in the season.
Those games are usually 40-0 at halftime. They take out the first
team and the second and third units continue to score in the second half, even
though they've quit throwing the ball. And Bill Snyder usually apologizes
to the other coach for the results. There are only a few coaches who I feel
really run up the score and I couldn't even name one.
As far as your question is concerned. I am sure that
power rankings are more accurate than polls or I wouldn't do them in the first
place. Polls have become simply a ranking of teams with the best records.
All the teams with no losses go on top. The teams with one loss next and
so on. If a team loses, they go to down to the next strata and every one
moves up one. How accurate or scientific is that? Most
pollsters only see, at the most, three or four games a week. And there is
no way the human mind can digest the games of 115 teams a week. Much less
how all those teams have done for the entire season. That's the beauty of the
computer rankings. They can. How many pollsters could tell you how
Georgia Tech against Boise State should turn out? Most good computer
rankings can come within 10 points easily. I know I could!
Computer rankings are totally objective. They are not
influenced by publicity. Notre Dame and Ohio State, etc. are always
overrated in the polls. Southern Mississippi, East Carolina, etc. are
always underrated. Not so by the power ratings. Polls will never be
the equal of good power ratings.
Your comparison of the bowls results isn't really a valid one.
The bowl season is a strange animal in itself. I have never been
able to pick bowl games well. They don't turn out logically. Usually,
the team that has the most to gain from the bowl game wins. Not the best
team. Emotions play a much larger part in bowl games which are really just
exhibition games. I compare them to the NFL exhibition season. And
would advise all betters to lay off during bowl season.
Yes, I have seen many rating systems explain how they have a cap on the point
difference. I agree it is an insult. If this is a concern, why didn't they
consider that when they chose the rating systems? Sounds like a typical
It's true my comparison of bowl results isn't a valid one for the
regular season. That's why I pointed out how badly the Vegas odds makers did in
predicting them. The objective, however, of taking on the BCS was to have a
better way of choosing the teams who play each other. After three years I don't
think I've found it. But that brings up another point: Should any of the bowl
games besides the official BCS ones be considered in determining the final
rankings of the teams?
I think there should be a coalition of computer rating systems to
carry on a continuing discussion with the BCS as to what would be a better
system for determining bowl teams. One suggestion I have is to go back to the
whole concept of having conferences in the first place. All the teams play each
other once. The team that wins the most games is the representative of the
conference. The winners of all the conferences should be the only ones
considered for the BCS.
What do you think would be a better method? Is there one to be
found? Or how about something like David Wilson's system ( http://www.cae.wisc.edu/~dwilson/CRating.html
) which is nice and simple and gives a great summation of how each team did
during the year? From such a system the highest rated team in each conference
would qualify for a bowl or playoff spot. At least it is a tangible method.
I don't know if you've read my essay on a playoff system on my website but it is
similar to your views. My playoff system would qualify the regular season
conference champion in each conference for the playoffs plus 5 at large teams.
That way the playoff contenders are decided on the field and it gives much
more meaning to the conference and regular season play. Most playoff
advocates seem to be against a 16 team playoff however. I don't understand
that because every other division in NCAA along with the NAIA and Junior College
all have 16 team playoffs. And I truly believe that if we do get a 4 or 8
team playoff, it will eventually be expanded to 16 teams for economic reasons.
Look at the basketball tourney. It started with just conference
champs, increased to 32 teams, then became the 64 team monster it now is.
I love your idea of a committee of power rating
people talking to the BCS. They just don't seem to understand what a power
rating is and how it is conceived. The whole BCS thing is being decided by
people who have no concept of a power rating.
I wouldn't hesitate to think there are some power freaks there, too. If there is
ever a power rating committee that the BCS listens to, it will have to be led by
heavyweights like Kenneth Massey. It's my opinion, though, that it will never
If someone asked you what your profession was, how would you
Lee: I am a
computer programmer now. After working in broadcasting for over 30 years,
I've soured of it. My degree is in Information Processing and I worked in that
business for about four years in the 80's. I took some classes to update my
skills and have returned to programming.
YL: What are the
most important factors in rating team strength?
Lee: The most
important factor when I rate teams is the point differential. My
system is predictive in that it's original purpose was, and remains, to
predict the results of games.
YL: What interests
do you have other than programming and ratings?
Lee: I am deeply
involved in jazz music. I have it playing most of the time and have a huge
collection. I think I have about 4,000 LP's and CD's, most of it jazz.
I am also a devoted golfer. I get cranky if I don't get to play golf
at least once a week. And I read constantly. I usually have 2 books
going at once. And my TV usually stays off unless there is a sports event
I want to watch or some kind of special event. My best friends are two
cats. Zombie, a black shorthair and Dizzy, a black and white shorthair.
would like to thank Mr. Burdorf for his interview. His web site can be seen at http://members.tripod.com/leburd/
Here are some other
places you will want to visit: