Moneyball ‘Cats

Navy Seals surprise summer training visits. Practices at Great Lakes Naval Base. Military tribute uniforms. Lockerroom pregame speeches honoring military. Early morning workouts. Wounded Warrior partnerships honoring soldiers at every game. Everywhere you look Pat Fitzgerald has tapped in to military themes in developing the Wildcat football brand.

When it comes to brand integrity, it is pretty hard to argue against borrowing the best characteristics of the brave folks who honor our country. Military analogies with football are so ingrained in the sport you sometimes can forget where the terminology began. From “winning the trenches” to being “loaded with offensive weapons” the belicose nature of the rough sport make for natural ties, especially when it comes to linguistics.

Fitz has borrowed the best of the brand equity of the military theme. Heck, he’s had it plastered on the back of uniforms on game day – honor, courage, integrity. You get the gist. Who doesn’t want to aspire to those ideals?

Yet, when it comes to Northwestern football, I’d suggest there is a better brand that ties directly in to the essence of what has helped Pat Fitzgerald elevate recruiting to a whole new level.

Fitz has done a masterful job of attracting a much higher level of athlete by embracing the perceived limits of Northwestern – the academic restrictions – and flipping it as the school’s differentiator. You won’t find a recruit who after committing doesn’t at some point mention the version of the phrase “it’s more than a 4-year decision, it is one that will help me for the next 40 years.” The message from NU’s staff is consistent and their care for the whole person, not just the athlete portion on Saturdays is authentic.

Just this week, thanks to the LTP eulogy tour, I’ve heard from former players and parents of former players echoing this sentiment. Sure, they’re as pissed off as you and I are about the on-field results in 2013 and 2014, but to a person they talk about how grateful they are for the experience and how Fitz in particular was true to that recruiting pitch all the way through.

However, I believe the Northwestern football brand should be the Moneyball brand of college football. An intentional branding effort that leverages the very key differentiation NU has against all but a few of its competitors – smart players. Before you lash out with a “I’d rather have less smarts and more wins” guffaw, hear me out.

I’m assuming most of you are familiar with the concept. Moneyball was a popular film starring Brad Pitt in 2011 based on a 2003 Michael Lewis book of the same name. It  chronicled Oakland A’s general manager, Billy Beane, and his radical approach to using hard core statistical analysis, better known as saberemetrics, to take the under-resourced small budget team to the MLB playoffs. The sabermetrics explosion is what has made non-baseball playing nerds the most valuable assets to teams. It is how Theo Epstein ended the drought in Boston and why so many people are banking on the Cubs brass to do the same. In the “Big Data” era we’re now in, sports has been one of the first industries to totally embrace this as a part of their brand.

And Northwestern is right in the epicenter of this movement. Look to the NBA and there is Houston Rockets GM, Daryl Morey (NU, ’94) held up as the new world order of basketball success – using statistical analysis to lead the way. Morey was a career statistical analyst who loved sports and took a road less traveled that is becoming mold for today’s major sports brass path.

The face of NBA's Moneyball movement, NU alum Daryl Morey. -photo courtesy of Northwestern Magazine
The face of NBA’s Moneyball movement, NU alum Daryl Morey. -photo courtesy of Northwestern Magazine

You look at the New England Patriots and the mystery man and secret sauce behind their success? Ernie Adams, a Northwestern grad who many believe is the black box behind the Pats success. The former Wildcat football manager and “Director of Research” for the Pats is so behind the scenes, he’s granted all of two interviews in his time with the Pats – with one being to Northwestern’s alumni magazine because of his love for the ‘Cats. I’m not exactly sure what level of statistical analysis he uses for the Pats, but let’s hazard a guess that Bill Belichick’s seemingly aggressive, borderline gambler mentality go-for-it moves aren’t spontaneous.

You look at the most revolutionary move in collegiate sports ticket pricing since schools adopted the resale market (instead of fighting it) – real time adaptable ticket pricing based on marketplace demand and NU is at the center of it. Two NU professors were leaned on by Northwestern Athletics marketing to solve an age-old problem of market fluctuation and an outdated one price cures all system. The result? Jeff Ely and Sandeep Baliga, two brainiac NU profs created Purple Pricing which has become the model in the industry.

Heck, the father of current basketball star, Tre Demps, is even in on this movement. Dell Demps, the GM of the New Orleans Pelicans has created the first known data-driven analysis of injury archetypes so he can try to find the best undervalued free agent players to compete (ex – better chance of player “X” recovering from ACL vs player “Y” recovering from ankle injury “X”). Oh by the way, the doc in charge of this project – an NU graduate circa 1995.

So, if NU-related folks are solving problems using statistical analysis in other sports at the highest level and in the very stands to maximize revenue for the football program, why wouldn’t we go all-in on a Morey-like approach on the field? Just imagine the possibilities. Here’s a fictitious game call in future years with this in place:

“Well Jim, it’s 4th and 4 for Northwestern at the Michigan State 43 and you and I don’t have to even guess whether or not Fitz will decide to go for it. We know he is.

That’s right Bob, as the graphic shows, the ‘Cats know the probability in this situation is that they’re 62% more likely to get a first down than to hold the opposing team to a scoreless ensuing drive. You wonder how much of a psychological toll this takes on opposing coaches knowing that NU is using math on there side.

Well, it sure makes sense for this program which goes out of its way to find that balance between big time athletics and being true to the academic mission.

(Forced laugh) Ha, ha Bob. Let’s not kid ourselves. The 48 points per game average and the go-for-it mentality to a 17-year-0ld watching on TV are a lot more likely to be the reason to don the purple.”

Can’t you just see it? I’d be going all-in if I were Northwestern. Hire full-time staff dedicated to analytics. Embrace it, run with it and permeate it throughout the entire organization. You can still honor the military and leverage all sorts of tools for motivation, but this approach will have measurable results on the field.

There is one major flaw with this approach. The successful pioneers have been in pro sports where players are the commodity and the source of underutilized value.  Obviously, in college, you can’t drop players and trade for other ones or pick up players on the free agent market (yet?). I still believe adopting an in-game statistical model. Several of you have pointed out to the Kansas high school football coach who never punts (Kevin Kelly) and used statistical analysis to his benefit to turnaround a losing program. It’s based on research done by a Cal economist who posits that NFL teams should not punt – ever – on 4th and 4 or less. There is all kind of data out there to support going all-in on some of things, and not one college team has fully embraced it. Why not us?

It is important to note that the Northwestern football brand and leadership style of Fitz are two different things. Fitz relates to players, but is admittedly old school. He’s a tough it out, and let’s outwork people. He embodies and leads by example when it comes to character, personal development and all the things that you’ve read and love about him as the positive brand ambassador. But, he’s also very conservative when it comes to on-field decisions as is his staff. This change in philosophy may not be core to who he is, but it wouldn’t preclude him from doing every other thing he’s done successfully to co-exist. Put another way, Daryl Morey isn’t coaching the Rockets, he’s just set the framework for the Houston Rockets “way”. This would be on other to-be-hired Wildcat administrators to create the system for Fitz to use.

Of course, there are no guarantees the Moneyball approach would work, but necessity is the mother of all invention. Just ask Northwestern marketing how they’re feeling after exploring the Purple Pricing. It’s rocked their world adding millions of dollars and while still not solving the too-much-opposing-school-presence problem, it has put a dent towards solving the problem while maximizing revenue.

Good for them for trying and experimenting.  I’d love for Daryl Morey to run point on convening a forum at NU pulling in his MIT (Sloan is truly the epicenter of sports statistical nerds) posse and helping to lay the tracks for the Moneyball ‘Cats. Heck, he’s on my “regret list” for LTP as we’ve exchanged emails to setup a Purple Mafia Profile to talk about this very topic.

Northwestern football rides that delicate rail between trying to be #1 in APR and GPA rankings and compete for the College Football Playoff, seemingly in that order. While Fitz and company aren’t prone to making excuses about shortcomings there is always this underlying crutch among fans that “at least we’re doing it the right way and not compromising the program.” I’m pretty sure most of you believe one of the things that makes NU different is the earnest quest to do both.

My favorite quote on this comes from my good buddy Mike Falk who always says “Let’s be elite, not elitist.” It’s not about flaunting smarts. That part of the NU stereotype that still exists in the Chicago marketplace from non-alums is still there. I hate that. It’s why I think “state school” is the dumbest chant of all-time and if I hear it come from the student section I personally STILL go out of my way to shut them up. I have countless friends who are a hell of a lot smarter than I am who went to state schools. I was blessed to have my parents go all-in on my education and find a way to pay for most of my school. Chanting something that flaunts that opportunity is a joke. That’s being elitist.

This approach is about using something that could give you an on-field advantage based on bottom line results AND makes sense for the brand. It all fits together like a perfect puzzle in my mind.

I look forward to your feedback.

 

  • Loretta8

    While we’re at it, can we get Chris Collins to follow the Rockets blueprint and have his teams stop chucking up long two-pointers, aka the most inefficient shot in basketball?
    I turned off the Wisconsin game in disgust during the second half when I watched NU run a set play for Vic Law (a poor jump shooter so far in his young career) where Law came around a screen and fired up a 16 foot jumper with about 28 on the shot clock. To have a chance to beat better teams, NU is going to have to be smarter than them (or at least, not dumber), and calling plays that are going to lead to, at best, 0.8 points per possession is not at all smart. The Alex Olah pick and pop 15 footer is another frequently used terrible play.
    I certainly don’t want Carmody back, Collins has made huge strides on defense, recruiting, and being a public face of the program, but the offense has taken a step back. Per the KenPom rankings, Collins’ two NU offenses rank worse than the last ELEVEN Carmody teams..you have to go all the way back to 2002 to find a Carmody offense that was less efficient on offense than what Collins has put out there.

  • PurpleHayes

    Great suggestion LTP, and it overlaps with a long-held opinion of mine that I’ll get to in a moment. Meanwhile, though, directly on your point, the best attribute of a good brand is that it really fits your product, and that it differentiates you. Military values are a great aspiration, but they do not differentiate NU; anybody can claim that turf. But played correctly, the “brain-iac” role could be our ticket. The GPA’s are already in place, the sabermetrics approach to the FB field can be developed, and one more piece please (this is what I have been espousing for a long time). If we have the smartest players, why don’t we have the most complex and intricate schemes, for offense and defense? Take advantage of their intelligence. In the early 2000’s, we sort of did that by running everything so FAST, and it seemed we used our smarts to dial up the speed, surprising people. Now that’s commonplace, and oddly we’ve slowed down somewhat. Our offensive and defensive schemes are vanilla, and on offense, stale vanilla at that. Why shouldn’t the “smartest guys on the field” be the most innovative? I agree Mick McCall may seem about as far removed from “innovation” as humanly possible, but if Fitz began to identify this brand, then McCall’s weakness would be exposed, and he’d have to step up or step aside. Based on personnel, strengths/weaknesses, opponent tendencies, dial up some specific plays to deliver success. I believe play-calling could definitely support this brand, which overall I think is an excellent idea. And I guarantee you if the sabermetrician puts “Struggling OL” and “immobile QB” into his computer, you’re not going to see “7-step dropback” and the resulting sack nearly as often.

    • Bela Barner

      Well put. In general, I am weary of the military metaphors in private sector and feel that are actually insulting to service men and women. Enough.

      Re “Moneyball”, it’s not really about bringing sabermetrics to CFB recruiting and gaining some type of advantage from that. As Major League Baseball has shown, statistical techniques are easily replicated as sabermetricians move from one organization to another.

      The real story of “Moneyball”, and most of Michael Lewis’ books, is about an idea from one person that changed an industry. The A’s discovered that the ability to not not make outs as a hitter was undervalued in baseball, and they exploited this advantage. Lately, sabermetrics have focused on defense and baserunning in new efforts to find undervalued skills in players.

      For NU, comparative advantage won’t accrue from Moneyball techniques in recruiting. We had a strategic advantage by being among the first major programs to adopt the uptempo spread offense, and recruiting to that scheme. That advantage has dissipated. We need to innovate something schematically that fits our recruiting advantages.

      • lakingltp

        And yet the 95, 96 Cats, and Stanford won playing physical football.

        Randy Walker, god rest his soul, was a novelty act for a few years. And never achieved what Gary did.

  • DepressedCat

    Great post – will really miss you LTP.

    Maybe let’s start with the small things? Like hire an analyst to figure out how to make it through halftime with hot dogs at the concession stands. Or figure out some revolutionary way to address the car size pot holes in the parking lots (I hear some people have great luck with a process called “repaving”).

    I mean really, it’s a true pipe dream to think they’ll hire people to do things like you mention when they don’t care to address the above. I would love to see it though and agree it makes sense – been talking about this for years. Would like nothing better than to be proven wrong, but unfortunately, I just don’t see it. Stats are for losers as far as NU football is concerned. There would have to be a lot of changes for this approach to happen.

    • Bob Parkman

      They did repave portions of the west lot for the real paying customers – parents at graduation, though it was months after football season.

      • Pikepole

        Welcome to Northwestern-let me count the ways why we cannot re-pave:

        The City won’t let us do it .

        We can’t afford it.

        Mustards may park there if we re-pave.

        Etc etc

  • NU’06er

    Re: The state school chant — it’s at least funny when we do it to Michigan though, right?

  • cece

    Love your idea. Maybe they can make some retrospective analyses to see why things have gone so wrong and use that info to right the ship, on the field and off. but, here’s the problem with it from the Admin perspective….the military stuff has the mass appeal that they believe they need to get the crowds in. But since that’s not working, why not embrace NU reality and be authentic and go the LTP way? It’s way past time that NU admin realizes that the school is not a military school, or a country club program, but a place where really smart kids study hard and become very smart people in the real world. Embrace that as the image!

  • Cletown Joe

    Love the idea of NU embracing sabermetrics but the one thing you danced around in the post is that this would require a change in the Head Coach. Fitz has made it clear that when given the option between statistical analysis and his gut to make decisions, he will always prefer to go with his ultra-conservative gut. He might be the last coach in D1 football to accept the benefits of statistical analysis.

    Regarding the military theme, let’s bury it please! Remember 10 years ago when Kellen Winslow got ripped apart for his “I’m a soldier” locker room rant. Yes, there was slightly different context to his words, but we have players literally in military uniform now. How things have changed.

    • Bob Parkman

      Going with the gut is probably not best characterized as conservative. Sticking to the numbers would be.

  • Bob Parkman

    Interesting idea, and we should think hard in addition to working hard. While some statistics is used, there are a couple of things working against you.

    First, the law of large numbers. Any statistical insight depends on enough equivalent events on which to perform calculations. Baseball has 33 spring training games, 162 regular season games, plus the post-season. College football has 12 games in the regular season.

    Second, complexity. There are more players on the field for each play and the permutations of these 22 multiply enormously via substitution, not to mention all the formations and plays. This further complicates the ability to find equivalent events to group into a population from which to calculate statistics. Baseball is a much simpler game (“You hit the ball. You throw the ball. You catch the ball” and no clock).

    Still there are benefits to be gained from pursuing this path, but more than raw statistics supplied to the coach in real-time, football would be a game where machine learning would be better applied.

  • mkasa

    Great idea LTP! I thought NU was already headed down this path two years ago when the “cat nap” story broke.

  • This is so true. Northwestern should be looking for intellectual advantages anywhere they can. Like I saw in their bowl game that Stanford had a professor and football coach work together to develop a virtual simulator that lets quarterbacks practice reading defenses and making play calls without needing an actual defense in front of them.

    • bandcat

      I have got to believe that NU must do psychological evaluations on perspective scholarship players..there must be some type of indicators to give you an idea of the size of the fight in the dog..was it Lord Nelson that coined the phrase “it is not the size of the dog in the fight, it is the size of the fight in the dog.”? Size wise we are there, not like years ago when my wife and I used to sit in the South endzone and she would remark…’those guys are a helmet taller than all of our guys”‘. We need to exploit all intellectual and psychological advantages to compete under the rules of the day.

      • Icehockeycat

        Herb Brooks was famous for administering personality and psych tests to his players. Beat the Russians…

  • VACat

    This is great stuff and a great idea. I wonder whether Fitz is innovative enough to think about and do something along these lines….

    Makes ton of sense. Even in applying statistical analysis to recruiting high school players, when you think about it.

  • Woody6

    LTP, as to your inquiry regarding Chancellor Arnold Weber’s role in hiring Gary Barnett, in December 1991, he and I corresponded over a 10 day period or so regarding the hiring. I was one of those who felt sorry for Francis Peay. I felt he had not been given sufficient support and tools to do his job.

    But Chancellor Weber with overwhelming, well-reasoned persuasion convinced me that letting Peay go and getting new blood just had to be done. And, of course, he was absolutely right, sooooooo right as history has proven.

    For this reason, as I said in my original comment in yesterday’s thread, which prompted your inquiry, I think Arnold Weber deserves enormous credit for the greatest turnaround in college football history. He saw the need for change and picked the guy who “done did it,” Gary Barnett.

    • LTP

      Can you, LakingLTP and others share why you have blocked emails?

      • NicBacCat

        Uh. Woody6 told you in response to the same unsupported accusation that he has not “blocked emails.” He said: “Sorry LTP, but the email address I have in connection with Disqus is not fake. It is a working email address that is aligned with comment log-in. When someone replies to one of my comments, Disqus notifies me, such as it did for your above reply to me.”

        • LTP

          Indeed he did. The email bounced back as it does with LakingLTP and several others. In the past, when i’ve blocked certain people’s comments, their emails bounced back. Trying to figure out why.

          • binky

            Some how my sign in went screwy when I try my pass word and I’ve been signing in as guest.. Annoying as I have no idea if a response came.

  • lakingltp

    Unless there is real change in coaching and recruiting your “brand” is losing football. And here’s not enough lipstick in the world to sell that pig.

    And if NU is going to have any hope of recruiting the kind of tough kid we won with in 95, it’s not going to do it trying to sell them on “nerdball”

    With apologies to all the nerds who relate to this idea

    • LTP

      Really? You don’t think the current talent level can tackle Carlos Hyde? Sure, we’ve lost more than we’ve won in the past two seasons, but the same “nerds” have had several winning seasons in the Fitz era. The notion that smart players are only undersized wimps is kind of ludicrous.

      • lakingltp

        Really? We couldn’t in 2012.

        And I was being gentle since this is your victory lap, but since you brought it up, sticking any football team, much less a losing team with the “nerd ball” moniker will kill recruiting for.a.decade. And the point remains, you can do whatever statistical analysis you want but if you can’t move the guy who lines up against you on 4th and 1, all the stats in the world aren’t going to help you.

        So there’s that.

        Here’s wishing you and yours a good life.

        • LTP

          You wouldn’t brand it literal nerd ball, although Stanford has embraced the Nerd brand – literally, and that seems to be working just fine thank you very much.

          • binky

            Posted yesterday that it was going to be a bumpy ride to.the end . Love your general thought of the day . The problem I see is to get every smart kid in the nation to play at NU. That’s to say not the kids with pumped up GPAs cause they got a pass . ND gets those. So much to.say so little time

          • Cletown Joe

            You don’t go out and say “Our coaches get advice from NU Team Nerd”. The coaches just make decisions based off of the nerds analytics.
            By Embracing the Nerd (see what I did there), our brand becomes a program that doesn’t follow conventional rules on in game decisions (less punting, more decisions that other have mistakenly labeled as high risk). To the average 17 year old, this is an exciting program mentality to play for. And if the analytics are based off of good data, the field results improve which feeds into recruiting even more.
            It is not like Billy Beane went out there saying the A’s played nerd ball….oh, actually he kinda did, and then everyone copied him.

  • HB

    It is interesting to note but understandable that most NU graduates are unaware of NU’s strong tie to the Navy for almost a century. In 1926, NU was one of six NROTC units established by the Navy – others included Harvard, Yale, Ga Tech, Cal Berkeley and U. Wash. In WW II the Navy established a Midshipmen Training School at the NU Chicago campus which produced 26,000 Naval Officers. The school known as the “Annapolis by the Lake” was one of three set up in the nation. During the Viet Nam war, Students for a Democratic Society and supporters smashed windows and vandalized NROTC classes and offices in Swift Hall and verbally attacked NU midshipmen. NU faculty like those at Harvard and Stanford voted to eliminate the program by Professor Leopold, a well respected faculty member and former Naval Officer, brokered a compromise in which the NU program was moved to Dyche Stadium and uniforms were not allowed on campus. As such the presence of NU NROTC program was much less on campus without Midshipmen in uniform going to class and the battalion drilling each week on Deering Meadow. At the time, my NROTC classmates were serving in combat aboard naval ships and river boats, flying combat missions and leading Marine units in fierce battles. Until recent times, the Navy was the only service that provided 4 year scholarships to ROTC university participants – as such those interested in regular versus reserve commissions had four choices: Annapolis, West Point, AF Academy and the NROTC program. Today there are 73 NROTC units including almost all of the Big Ten. NU is unique in that is a “plank owner” of the program (i.e. one of the first six units). For the thousands of NU midshipmen who have gone on to serve in the Navy and Marine Corps and those still coming through the program, the football team’s association with the Navy at Great Lakes is not viewed as irrelevant or degrading to those in uniform. NU graduates should be knowledgeable about and celebrate the school’s strong historical association with the Navy.

    • lakingltp

      Thank you all

    • LTP

      Thanks for the insights. I’m very aware of the NROTC program at NU and should have acknowledged so in my post. I have several friends from undergrad who were in the program. However, as you pointed out by the fact that while we were a leader in this, nearly every B1G school has one, it isn’t a differentiator for NU.

    • binky

      Thanks for the input. I thought Texas A&M back in the day had a program that led to.regular army commission along with VMI and the Citadel. Though fairly familiar with Aggie land I may be mistaken. My son is a ROTC army cadet in the Chicagoland area. So nice to hear about NU service connection.

  • Thank you for bringing this up. I’ve hoped this would happen.

    There are a *lot* of people who love Northwestern who could help the team by doing this. I’d be willing to donate some money to help fund such an effort.

  • NUBobby95

    Awesome post. Every sport could use the newly created department. It could be a cool opportunity the get students experience as well. If you were worried about costs, you could staff it with a few lead people and the rest students working on a co-op basis like in engineering.