Joe Lunardi, Jerry Palm and the Birth of Bracketology

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Joe Lunardi, Jerry Palm and the Birth of Bracketology
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Midway through the 2003-04 season, Joe Lunardi of ESPN.com was one of the only Bracketologists that did not have Saint Joseph's as a No. 1 seed.

This hardly mattered in the big picture, because what Lunardi predicts has nothing to do with the actual bracket that is unveiled on Selection Sunday. But it peeved off some St. Joe’s students, who wrote in to Lunardi during an ESPN chat.

“Oh, you’re just one of those big conference guys," they said. "You’ve probably never heard of Jameer Nelson. You’ve never been to St. Joe’s.”

Lunardi is actually a St. Joseph’s grad. He works for the university as the assistant vice president for marketing communication and is the color commentator for its basketball games.

Lunardi responded to the St. Joe’s students: “Meet me in front of the library in a half hour.”

“So I meet these guys and I’m like, ‘Hello!’”

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Jump to Selection Sunday 2013: Kentucky's Big Blue Nation was not happy, as the defending national champions were left out in the cold. Tennessee fans also probably thought their Vols deserved a spot. The NCAA selection committee will hear their wrath for a day or two.

But that’s nothing compared to what Lunardi and CBSSports.com Bracketologist Jerry Palm deal with throughout the season. They have become as synonymous with the bracket as office pools and Cinderellas, only they’re the villains of March.

“Everybody thinks I hate their team,” Palm said. “And really I only hate Indiana, because I’m a Purdue guy.”

Why do we blame these men for the fate of our teams? Where did they come from, anyway? How does one become a Bracketologist?

 

"Necessity is the Mother of Invention"

The first bracket Lunardi remembers drafting was in the winter of 1993. He was stuck at home in Philly during a blizzard.

“I was sitting around with the Sagarin ratings and the RPI ratings trying to figure out how it would go, and that is the first time I actively remember having an advanced bracket sheet prior to the selections,” he said. “I was sitting there stranded trying to figure this out.” 

At the time, Lunardi was the managing editor at Blue Ribbon Yearbook, an annual guide to the college basketball season.

Blue Ribbon always put out a preseason guide, and in 1995, the magazine decided to publish a postseason edition prior to the NCAA tournament. The mission was nearly impossible. Lunardi and his staff would try to churn out an 80-page book in about 36 hours.

“In order to make it profitable, we had to do a better job of anticipating which teams would be in the field ahead of time,” he said. “Necessity is the mother of invention, and we had to figure out a way not to have 100 teams written and get it down to 70 to 75 so we’d have a puncher’s chance at getting this book out on time.”

And Bracketology was born.

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
Not even Joey Brackets could get St. Joe's in the field this season.

In 1996, Lunardi started projecting the brackets about a month out. ESPN.com, a relatively new site at the time, began running the brackets. In exchange for his projections, ESPN would plug Blue Ribbon’s postseason book.

“There was never an intention to become the Bracketologist or to have Bracketology be what it is now at ESPN or any place for that matter,” Lunardi said. “We were just trying to do the best 80-page book we could manage.”

Lunardi left Blue Ribbon in 1998, but he kept doing the brackets for ESPN, and they've become more popular every year.

Newspaper beat writers call him throughout the season to get his opinion on where their teams stack up, and it was Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Mike Jensen who he says first called him a “Bracketologist.”

As with anyone who becomes an expert, the doubters come from everywhere.

Lunardi’s favorite is a call he got from the lieutenant governor of a Midwestern state. The lieutenant governor told Lunardi that he, the governor and some other senior people in state government were wondering why their state university was not in his bracket.

“Not a lot of pressing business in the statehouse today, apparently,” Lunardi fired back. “As it turns out, the governor then gets on the phone and makes a case for State U, and I said, ‘Maybe you should tell State U to play better teams in the nonconference.’”  

Thick skin, apparently, is in the job requirement for Bracketologist. Lunardi just so happened to figure out a niche that the college basketball world would embrace.

“Somebody was going to do this,” he said. “I just happened to be probably the oldest and first.”

 

Curious at the Right Time

The timeline for Palm and Lunardi starting to make brackets is nearly identical. Neither one is splitting hairs over who was first, and they’re actually quite cordial.

Palm read about the RPI in the early 1990s, and during the 1993-94 season, he started posting RPI rankings on Newsgroups, the equivalent to message boards at the time.

“I thought nobody would ever be interested in this, and people were interested,” he said. “It just kind of evolved.”

David Banks-USA TODAY Sports
Jerry Palm does not root for anyone to get in the bracket, but if Purdue is in the mix, he's good with that.

Palm made his first projected bracket in 1994 and published one on his website (CollegeRPI.com) for the first time in 1996.

“At that point in my life, I had a computer and too much time on my hands,” Palm said.

Palm became the go-to man for both the RPI, which is the main metric used by the selection committee and for his brackets. First, it was David Jones at the Harrisburg Patriot-News who called to ask about Penn State. (Philly must love brackets as much as its cheesesteaks.)

“Within two years, everybody who covered college basketball knew who I was,” Palm said. “I don’t know if I could have stopped it without unplugging my phone or crawling under my desk.”

Eventually, CBSSports.com came calling for Palm’s brackets. Palm also does BCS projections, and he was so in demand that CBS hired him and he was able to quit his day job doing “technology stuff” for a law firm and a bank.

“I can’t say I dreamed it,” he said. “It’s something that more or less happened to me that I don’t know I could have stopped. It’s been nice to combine all my various passions and make a living at it.”

 

How Bracketologists Are So Accurate

The methodology for Palm and Lunardi is not that complicated.

Both know the RPI inside and out, and both study what the committee has done in the past. For instance, Palm believed that Middle Tennessee was not going to make the bracket this season because the Blue Raiders had only one Top 100 RPI win.

In the 20 years that Palm has studied the brackets, no team had ever gotten in with fewer than three wins against the RPI Top 100.

Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

"But you never know; they could always go outside their usual standards," he said. 

Obviously, the committee did just that, and Middle Tennessee was one of the final four in. That was the one team Palm got wrong this season. 

Still, more often than not, Palm's trust in the process has paid off. 

“One of the things I’d say is the secret to my success is I believe them when they say something is important or something is not,” Palm said. “When they say that the name on the front of the uniform doesn’t mean anything, I believe that. When they say that your conference record doesn’t really mean anything, I believe them. People get caught up in stuff like that.”

Lunardi and Palm’s job has been made easier in recent years with the NCAA's increased transparency about the process. It opened its doors to the media and has held mock selections in Indianapolis.

Both Palm and Lunardi have attended three mock selections.

“I’m kind of like Rain Man in that room,” Palm said.

Lunardi said he also has picked the brains of committee members in the offseason to try to get a better idea of how they operate.

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The process has changed through the years (read about it here), and the selections have almost become as much of a science as those who predict them.

“I think they’ve gotten a lot better at it, because the process itself is way more enhanced than it was 10 or 15 years ago,” Lunardi said. “There’s more data available. There’s more transparency by the NCAA and the committee. And frankly, the scrutiny of people like Jerry and I and many others has forced them to work harder and be more diligent.”

The other Bracketologists have also put the microscope on Lunardi and Palm as well. The Bracket Project tracks the success of Bracketologists, and it has become a competition to see who is most accurate.

Palm predicted 67 of the 68 teams in the field and had 33 teams seeded correctly. He was at least within one seed on 55 of the 68 teams. 

Lunardi won this round. He went a perfect 68 for 68 on the field this year. He had 34 teams seeded correctly, including the first two lines. Lunardi was off by more than one seed on only 10 teams. 

So are Palm and Lunardi rivals? Maybe even enemies?

“We’re friendly,” Palm said. “I was in Philadelphia one weekend in February and we hung out with Joe for a little bit—me and my friend.”

Well, that’s lame.  

We'll just have to settle for Lunardi and Palm being the hated men of March by college students and governors.

And if your team didn’t get in on Sunday, let them hear about it in the chat rooms. 

 

All quotes obtained firsthand, unless otherwise noted.

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