By Greg Johnson
Bracketology is so big in Joe Lunardi’s world that he now teaches an online class on the subject through St. Joseph’s University, his alma mater.
Joe Lunardi participates in the mock selection process in February at the Conrad Hotel in Indianapolis.
The class, which isn’t for academic credit and runs from January to March, has 31 students ranging from a U.S. Naval officer based in Spain to a high school basketball coach in Zurich, Mont., to a man who lives in Anchorage, Alaska.
Lunardi, the ESPN bracketologist whose day job is being the assistant vice president of marketing communications at St. Joseph’s, says it shows the passion people have for college basketball.
“The biggest challenge is finding when they can all be online at the same time because of the time zones,” said Lunardi, who was in Indianapolis taking part in the mock selection, seeding and bracketing exercise for the media that took place last Thursday and Friday. “They are learning all of the things we are going over in the mock selections.”
In his class, Lunardi goes over the history of the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship, the history of the selections and seeding process, and how expansion has affected the tournament. He got the idea after attending the mock selection exercise in 2008. He has the students act as conference monitors just as the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Committee members do.
“I thought an average fan would love to go through something like this,” said Lunardi, who has done radio analysis for St. Joseph’s men’s basketball games the last 20 years. “Let’s face it. We represent a lot of people who would love to be able to do this. People are pretty opinionated about the selection process. The class is an opportunity to transfer that passion for the tournament.”
Bracketology dates back to the mid 1990s when Lunardi was co-owner of the Blue Ribbon Yearbook. In those days, a postseason version of the publication would be mailed to subscribers after the real bracket was released on CBS.
“We produced a book that had thousands of words on each team,” Lunardi said. “We printed overnight after selections, and people got it in time before the tournament started.”
That was early in the Internet boom, so many people didn’t have the options that are available today. Lunardi said they sold 10,000 to 20,000 of the 80-page books per year.
To gain exposure for the publication, he began making predictions on the tournament field on the early version of ESPN.com.
In 2002, Lunardi began making appearances on ESPNews, and Bracketology was given its own page on ESPN.com. In the first 90 minutes, the web page received about 250,000 hits.
“We looked at each other and went ‘Hmmm, perhaps there is something to this whole bracketology thing,’ ” Lunardi said. “I had no business plan for this. Maybe ESPN had one, but I didn’t.”
Lunardi grew up in Philadelphia, where he attended Big Five games between St. Joseph’s, Temple, Villanova, La Salle and Penn. His passion for the sport grew.
When he was in 10th grade, he attended the Final Four at the Spectrum in Philadelphia where he saw an undefeated Indiana team win the national championship in 1976. Five years later, he saw the 1981 Hoosiers return to Philadelphia to win another NCAA title.
That time, it was more personal to Lunardi, since St. Joseph’s lost to Indiana in the Elite Eight.
“I was the sports editor of the school paper, and we were a game away from playing in the Final Four in Philly,” Lunardi said. “Indiana had Isiah Thomas, and we played in Bloomington. In those days, teams were allowed to play on their home courts. We could have played that game 100 times, and we would have lost 99 times. All I knew then was this is the biggest thing ever.”
The Men’s Basketball Committee began seeding teams in the tournament in 1979, and that’s when Lunardi started wondering how the process worked.
“If a 13-seed beat a 4, you started to think about what that meant,” said Lunardi, who has a marketing degree from St. Joseph’s. “I wanted to understand how the committee made each pairing.”
Today, he computes his own version of the RPI (Rating Percentage Index) and updates the bracketology regularly. Sometimes he takes Friday nights off.
“There aren’t many games on that night, plus I have a wife, children, mortgage, job and pets to neglect,” he joked.
This is the time of year when he becomes a regular on ESPN.
“People would kill to have this opportunity,” Lunardi said. “I’m just a fan who understands this particular process from observation and study. Anyone can do this if they are willing to put in the time. We’re not splitting the atom here.”