Jeff Sagarin: The Most Powerful Man In Sports

Stan Silliman@@stansillimanCorrespondent IIOctober 15, 2010

The Most Powerful Man in Sports

The most powerful man in sport toils alone in a dark room on a leafy street in Bloomington, Indiana.

He’s not a player, owner or a league commissioner. He’s Jeff Sagarin, an M.I.T. grad, math geek, whose rating systems determine where your teams end up in the big dance or which bowl they play in or what seeding they might get in lacrosse, hockey, volleyball or golf.

Clients, like USA Today, college and pro leagues and sometimes a few teams, pay Jeff for his calculations. He does these permutations extremely fast. To give you an idea, his rankings of golfers for GolfWeek magazine takes him four minutes a week.

The most powerful man in sports does all his work before breakfast, unshaven, in a ratty T-shirt and holey underwear. This was not the dress codes taught at the MIT algorithms class where most of the students expected to be working at insurance companies.

The most powerful man in sports reads a few e-mails (usually vitriolic tirades berating him for ranking certain teams too low) then buttons up his work day before heading off to 7:00 am breakfast.  

Here’s what you don’t know. You probably think the most powerful man in sports owns some type of Kray or Univac supercomputer to do all his intricate calculations. No. He does it on a TRS-80 or something just as primitive.

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He does his programming in Fortran. In Fortran, folks. That’s like Wolfgang Puck cooking with an Easy-Bake-Oven.

The most powerful man in sports can tell you that Charleston Southern is ranked 327th in the country, played the 203rd toughest schedule and has a Sagarin rating of 57.86.

The most powerful man in sports doesn’t play favorites. He puts in the facts and let’s the computer do all the ratings. His secret formulas have taken emotion out of the equation. The most powerful man in sports spends his day playing golf or basketball, while fans all across the country are cussing him.      

Most of the e-mails the most powerful man in sports receives can’t be printed in this paper. Since Jeff isn’t married he shares many of the e-mails with his computer. Of course, in most cases, his computer has seen them first.

About a few of them,  Jeff’s computer lets out a big whistle, especially the ones where fans suggest Jeff and his computer get a room and have unnatural relations with each other. It’s almost enough to make Jeff’s computer re-examine its software.

Jeff has been ranking teams since he was 11 years old. Only then he wasn’t being paid and nobody but him and a few friends read his rankings. Now readers of his information number in the millions.

Hardly anyone who follows a favorite team hasn’t mispronounced Jeff’s name.   Which shows you can be powerful and yet not be loved. And while millions of people know your name, hardly any of them know your face.

Jeff has shown you can be powerful and reclusive. And when you think of it what more could a former math student want? What more could a math grad want?  How about to be in control, to influence all kinds of lives and yet to be more or less invisible? 

Jeff Sagarin can walk down the street, pass dozens of people who cussed him over breakfast and then smile without them having any idea. That’s a math grad’s nirvana.

Even more of a math grad’s nirvana: knowing you’re controlling the fate of all these teams while wearing a ratty T-shirt and holey underpants. If there were such as thing as orgasms for math geeks, this is probably as close as it gets.