By Bomani Jones
Page 2

Richard Billingsley is unquestionably passionate about college football. With an Oklahoma accent, he discusses the game and its pageantry politely, affectionately and emotionally.

In other words, with love.

But he's best known for something completely heartless: a computer.

Billingsley is the man behind one of the five computers employed by the BCS, something that makes him more powerful than any single voter in the USA Today Coaches or Harris polls. He is also a significant contributor to the ESPN College Football Encyclopedia.

When he was a preteen, Billingsley, who is based in the southeastern Oklahoma town of Hugo, began compiling scrapbooks of college football scores, stats and records. Using those records, and with information he received from athletic departments across the country, he had enough data to analyze every college football season since that titanic Rutgers-Princeton clash in 1869. In 1970, he started the ranking system that would catch the attention of the BCS nearly two decades later.

With the BCS driving fans bonkers for the sixth season since 1998, Page 2 decided to speak with Billingsley and get his take on a few issues. What follows is a discussion -- edited for length -- of what it's like to be a wizard behind the curtain of the BCS, what's wrong with both computers and polls, his life as a football fan, and a new way he could put his experience as a stress-management consultant to use.

What led you to determine an algorithm to determine the best college football teams?

When personal computers first came out on the market, I purchased one, and it had a database on part of the computer program. And I started putting all the scores and statistics into the personal computer. Doing that just as a hobby is really what allowed me to move into the position I'm in today.

When I created my mathematical rankings system, I put that formula in the computer. In the '90s, for my own curiosity, I decided that I wanted to run the entire history of college football through that mathematical formula, simply because I wanted to know who would be my national champion in, say, 1912.

When did you start the research?

I started my ranking system in 1970, and I started doing the research on what I'll call my encyclopedia in 1994. That's when I pulled all the written information from my scrapbooks. Then I started contacting all 119 Division I-A schools to get information previous to the 1960s.

What are some of the major factors in your program?

First of all, one of my major differences is I have a starting point in my system. I also think Jeff Sagarin does, but we're the only ones that do. I don't believe in [not doing that], even though I can see from a mathematical standpoint that it's fair to start each team equal to start the season. But it's not logical. It's not logical to start Ohio State out the same as Buffalo. I don't care how much Buffalo improves or how much Ohio State falls, they're not going to be equal to start the season. If you start everyone out equal, it skews the strength of schedule right there. Every team keeps their ranking from one season to the next. Ohio State finishes No. 1, they start No. 1.

If a team makes a dramatic improvement from one season to the next by winning, all they have to do is win. How many times do we hear coaches say, "Winning takes care of everything?" For example, Rutgers may have started very low. But by the time they were 9-0 in November, they were No. 3.

The second difference is the way I calculate strength of schedule. It's different from everyone else. Even the NCAA uses strictly wins and losses to calculate a team's strength of schedule. I do not believe you can simply use wins and losses to determine the strength of a team.

Let's say, in the middle of a season, Nebraska is 5-3, and let's say Kent State is 5-3. The other five computers in the BCS and the NCAA, they're gonna give a team the same credit for playing Nebraska as they would for playing Kent State. That's outrageous. Until the NCAA and the BCS and everybody else recognizes that these strength-of-schedule numbers that they throw out are worthless, then we're never gonna know who played the strongest schedule.

Is it safe to say that strength of schedule is the most important variable in this equation?

Absolutely. The strength of schedule means everything because, if we don't have an accurate read on the schedule that a team is playing, then how can we really compare that to another team's won-loss record? An undefeated Louisiana-Lafayette at 12-0 is, to me, playing in the [Sun Belt] and playing the nonconference schedule they have played, there's no way you can tell me that they're as good as, probably, a 7-4 Kansas. The only way to determine that is to know a team's accurate strength of schedule.

What's the difference between your formula and the others?

My formula gives more weight to the most recent performance. Because of that, when I release my rankings, you can look at my rankings and then you can look at the most recent performance over the weekend, and a person could look at that and say, "I can see how that happens." You can look at the weekend's games and then look at my poll, it's like looking at the [polls]. I've always said my system was designed to be an improved Associated Press because it reacts the same way. A team loses, they drop. They win, and they go up. The other computers don't react that way because they treat all the games equal.

You'll see that my rankings correlate very well to the human polls. In order, even No. 1 through No. 25. The difference, of course, is my computer can do it without any regional biases or allegiances to a particular team. If you see a team moving up and down, you'll know it's doing it in an unbiased manner and not because a coach voted for a team in his conference.

Are there ever occasions when what the computer tells you differs from what your eyes tell you?

I can tell you a perfect example. My last regular-season poll has Tennessee ranked 16, which is right in line with everybody else. But I have Arkansas ranked 17. Both of them have three losses, but Arkansas handily beat Tennessee head-to-head. The computer ranks Tennessee ahead by eight-tenths of a point. But Arkansas, losing that last game to Florida, that happened by chance to put them right below Tennessee. But see, I don't like that. I don't like that at all. As long as they had the same number of losses, Arkansas should have been ahead.

I want to tell you right now: I'm not the kind of guy that'll sit here and tell you, "Man, this is the greatest gift God ever gave man. This is the best computer program in the world. The BCS should throw everybody out but me." I'm open enough to every point of view to recognize that one computer program is never going to satisfy everyone because there are too many different perspectives to look from. I'm not going to say computers should be the only source to rank college football teams. In fact, I'm adamantly opposed to that. I don't care how good a computer program is, it's never going to be as good as an informed, unbiased human voter. But the key to that point is informed and unbiased, if there is such a thing. To me, the key is the ability to combine those two.

Is there any variable a computer simply can't control when trying to separate teams?

There are several things. One of them is injuries. One of them is mistakes, penalties. Another is weather. Another is the pure, raw emotion of the game. The momentum of the game, the swing back and forth. A computer just cannot analyze those things, and that's another reason we have to have some human input. Let's face it: those things matter. Those things matter a lot.

What's Saturday afternoon like at your house?

Oh, Saturdays are so special for me. Because I am so passionate about football, and it's literally my life. I'm glued to the television on Thursday night. I'm glued to the TV on Friday night. But Saturdays are special. They're different. I have my breakfast, I'm sitting there in my recliner, watching "GameDay" when it comes on. I have a 6-foot TV with surround sound speakers. I have ESPN's GamePlan package, I have satellite TV and I also have cable. I have the sports package from [my satellite carrier]. I have probably 25 college football games every Saturday. So I get to see bits and pieces of almost half the games on a given Saturday. I wanna be as informed as I can possibly be, and not for my ranking system. For that, all I've got to do is put in the score. But the only time I get out of my recliner is to go to the bathroom!

Have fans ever come after you because they didn't like your rankings?

Well, I get a lot of hate mail. But I get a lot of praise from fans as well. My e-mail address is posted on my Web site right along with my rankings. If a fan disagrees with what I've done, they darn sure let me know it.

You've worked for over 20 years as a time- and stress-management consultant. Do you see the irony of a stress-management consultant working with the BCS?

I feel like I could give everyone in the BCS some real good tips. But they've never asked me. I do find that ironic.

Bomani Jones is a columnist for Page 2. Tell him how you feel at