Forget Afghanistan and health care: Let's argue football

Fort Worth Star-TelegramDecember 5, 2009 

Unlike the other people running BCS computers, Richard Billingsley is not a professor. He doesn’t even have a degree. RICHARD BILLINGSLEY

FORT WORTH STAR-TELEGRAM

HUGO, Okla. — If you could program human emotion into Richard Billingsley's computer, there might be the heart of a Horned Frog beating in there.

The creator of one of the six Bowl Championship Series computer rankings used to help determine which teams will play for the national championship admits it straight up: He loves TCU.

But you can forget about that vote from the heart when Billingsley's rankings are released Sunday as one factor in the controversial BCS standings. It will only reflect the numbers churned out by the secret system he perfected in 1970 when he was 19 and crunching figures on a hand-cranked adding machine.

"My computer doesn’t know who I like," he says. "It doesn’t know if it is sitting in Hugo, Okla., or across the Red River in Texas. I put in the scores and it spits out the rankings."

Billingsley won’t divulge his formula for ranking teams, but he will tell you what could have pushed TCU into a national title game this year. Florida, Alabama and Texas hold down the top BCS slots ahead of No. 4 TCU and No. 5 Cincinnati.

"If two [Mountain West Conference] games had been different, they would probably be in there," he said. "If BYU had beaten Florida State and if Utah had beaten Oregon, it would have elevated TCU to No. 2."

It won’t count in the rankings, but Billingsley thinks TCU might be No. 1 in one category — best mascot.

"There’s nothing else like that Horned Frog," he says.

Last year, livid University of Texas fans were calling him an Oklahoma homer, and much worse, after his final ranking helped send the Sooners to the championship over the Longhorns.

But those UT fans might change their tune when they hear this:

"As a fan, I was hoping for a Texas-TCU national championship game this year," he said.

Living the game

A Denver sports columnist recently vented about the controversial BCS system and questioned how "six computer geeks" including "a football fan in Hugo, Okla." could possibly be entrusted with helping decide a national championship game.

Say what you will about the BCS, but calling Billingsley, 58, a mere fan is like calling a dinosaur a lizard.

He’s a fanatic.

"I live for college football," he said. "I guess it’s kind of pathetic if you think about it."

A 60-inch television dominates the living room in his modest 1,600-square-foot home in Hugo, a town of 6,000 about 180 miles northeast of Fort Worth.

He catches parts of 25 to 30 college games per weekend. And those aren’t highlights; he’s totally tuned in with satellite and cable connections as well as an ESPN GameDay subscription for streaming video.

But it’s just a party of two on game day in Hugo. His 79-year-old mother, who now lives with him in the house that was owned by his grandparents, is the only other fan allowed.

"I don’t let anyone else watch games with me," he said. "I get too wound up."

Bryce Nash, a mortgage loan officer for the Choctaw Nation in Hugo, says college football is his friend’s true calling.

"It’s just incredible what that guy knows about college football," Nash said. "He can tell you anything about the entire history of college football. I’ve heard stories about the day that Notre Dame broke the [47-game] winning streak for Bud Wilkinson’s Oklahoma Sooners [in 1957] and how it was like a funeral at his house."

You might say Billingsley’s knowledge is encyclopedic, literally.

His devotion to the game and his exacting research skills played a pivotal role in author Michael MacCambridge’s five-year effort in creating the ESPN College Football Encyclopedia: The Complete History of the Game, a 1,632-page guide published in 2005.

"What he does, he does very well," the St. Louis-based writer said. "Richard was indispensible in creating the book."

MacCambridge hates the BCS, but he admires Billingsley’s system.

"I don’t know what his hidden ingredient is," he said. "I don’t know what the secret sauce is in Richard’s formula. But whatever it is, it works very well and is very reliable. And that’s a credit to not his fandom but to his professionalism and his intellect."

'A little art’

Billingsley’s computer war room is probably not what die-hard fans envision as they parse the BCS rankings.

Inside his grandma’s old bedroom, where they once watched college games together, there are two PCs, a single monitor, a comfy chair and a massive 1980s console TV "that still works good."

Billingsley stands apart in the BCS’ small programming crowd, says Bill Hancock, the Kansas City, Mo.-based executive director of the BCS.

Unlike the others, he’s not a graduate of Princeton, Harvard or MIT, and he’s not a math or science professor. He doesn’t even have a degree.

"The other guys are computer guys," Hancock said. "They are geekier than Richard."

The computer rankings are "99 percent science," Hancock said. "They are all college football fans. But Richard may bring a little art to the table."

Billingsley comes by his art honestly.

"I was born in a football-crazy family. Oklahoma football was everything when I was kid growing up in Hugo," he said. When his parents moved to Houston when he was 12, he broadened his game to include the Southwest Conference.

He started tinkering with his ranking system when he was 16 and then finalized it in 1970. He’s only changed it three times since then, with the biggest alteration coming when the BCS eliminated margin of victory as a component in 2002.

'A blessed man’

Before he became a college football guru, he made his bread working in human resources. From 1986 to 2000, he worked in the country music field in Nashville for publishing and music management companies.

He got his college football break in 1996 when the NCAA published his research on the history of college football.

The NCAA’s recommendation got him added to the BCS system in 1999, when it expanded its computer rankings from three to six.

In 2000, Billingsley moved back to Hugo and made college football his full-time job from August to January. He also writes for sports Web sites and runs his own site, College Football Research Center.

When the season’s over, he does consulting work in time and stress management for corporate HR departments.

"We compensate the six computer rankings. But it’s not enough to live on," the BCS’ Hancock said.

But Billingsley can pull that off in Hugo.

"I couldn’t live on this in Dallas-Fort Worth," Billingsley said. "But here, my mortgage is $236 a month.

"I’m a blessed man. How many people get to do the job they love and do it at home?"

HOW HE PICKS 'EM

Richard Billingsley came up with his secret formula for ranking college football teams in 1970. Its key factors:

1. Starting position

2. Accumulating points

3. Strength of opponent

4. Deductions for losses

5. Site of the game

6. Head-to-head rules

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