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The Retrodiction Question
Carl Banks
Todd Beck
Jeff Bihl
Richard Billingsley
Bill Born
Lee Burdorf
Warren Claassen
Tim Clavette
John Coffey
James Howell

An Interview with

Lee Burdorf
Lee Burdorf's Football Ratings
NFL and NCAA Football
2001

YL: You 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 today.

Lee: 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 disappeared.  
   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?

YL: At some point in your adventure you began to rate football teams. Did this just happen or were you influenced by someone else?

Lee: 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 prediction.
    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.

YL: 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 superior now?

Lee: 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.  

YL: 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 bureaucracy.
   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.

Lee: 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.

YL: 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 happen.
    If someone asked you what your profession was, how would you describe it?

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.

We would like to thank Mr. Burdorf for his interview. His web site can be seen at http://members.tripod.com/leburd/ .

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