Type “Bracketology” into a Google search engine and you’re returned with more than 1.8 million results.
It’s doubtful that there is someone following college basketball who doesn’t know the name Joe Lunardi.
He invented bracketology.
And bracketology is huge, with Lunardi’s bracket garnering more than 30 million clicks on ESPN.com while generating endless conversation and debate from fans, media and coaches.
Yes, you know Lunardi and you know bracketology.
But what you might not know is how it started.
Here’s the story behind the birth of bracketology.
A BLIZZARD, A BRACKET AND A BUCK
First, the starting point is a snowstorm of mammoth proportions in 1993. It is called the Storm of the Century. Those of us who were alive then remember snow piled everywhere for days and days and days. There was no WiFi, Netflix or Zoom, so Lunardi busied himself by studying some notes given to him by Saint Joseph’s athletic director Don DiJulia on how the NCAA committee seeds teams for the NCAA tournament.
“I can’t do anything so I get the brackets, and the Etch A Sketches, and the white boards, and the legal pads, and pencils and erasers,” Lunardi told Bracy Sports Media (entire interview on our podcast). “That is the first time I remember going through the document and documenting the process the way the committee members did. And off we go. And, I guess, the rest is history.”
Next, the story continues and takes a turn due to a little necessity.
Lunardi was writing for the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. In the mid ’90’s, he became part-owner of an 80-page NCAA Tournament special that contained previews, statistics, graphics and more of all 64 teams in the tournament. This was pre-Internet and the tricky part for Lunardi and his team was getting the publication to the printer and shipped to readers from the time the tournament field was announced on Sunday night until it began around noon on Thursday. In order to do this, they had to do advance previewing of nearly 100 teams to have them ready for the printer. This was time consuming and, more to the point, was expensive.
As a result, Lunardi was putting in a ton of work for little return.
“The first couple of years of doing that book I don’t want to say we lost our shirts, let’s just say we didn’t buy any new ones,” said Lunardi, who also is a longtime employee of his alma mater, Saint Joseph’s. “And it was because we were writing and editing. And I had an ‘Aaron Bracy’ at every conference tournament in the country filing stories on the teams from their respective areas of the country. We didn’t know who was going to make the tournament and who wasn’t, so people were writing, and we were editing, and we were doing graphics, and stats, and layout, and printing, and paper, and ink and all of that overhead.”
Lunardi knew he had to cut expenses in order to keep in business. So, going forward he began charting teams’ progress months before Selection Sunday. That way, he would only have to preview 70-to-75, or so, teams prior to the committee’s announcement.
It was a game-changer for Lunardi and the genesis of everything he does today.
Last four in and last four out helped him buy a new shirt in those days.
Today, last four in and last four out have made him famous.
“And that essentially is where the professional version of bracketology came to be,” Lunardi said. “I like to say we were lazy and wanted to do less work when in reality we couldn’t afford to keep going the way we were and it just streamlined the process.”
Then, Lunardi pitched ESPN on the idea of publishing his bracket on its then new website, ESPN SportsZone (now ESPN.com), in exchange for promoting Blue Ribbon. It wasn’t exactly a high-tech production as Lunardi remembers it.
“There was nothing fancy about it,” he said. “It was the equivalent of a typewritten HTML page. It didn’t have any design. I would type it up and email it and somebody maybe would spellcheck it and post it. And you had to drill down several layers of the site to find it.”
Even in archaic form, Lunardi’s bracket was popular with readers and viewers. It became so popular, so quickly that Lunardi sold his stake in Blue Ribbon to join the Worldwide Leader in Sports.
Finally, he was Joe Lunardi, resident ESPN Bracketologist.
The thought of one of Lunardi’s brackets being hard to find on ESPN’s site today is humorous. Not only does Lunardi have his own page for Bracketology, but he puts out brackets all year round. Did you know that Lunardi’s most recent bracket, which was posted May 12, has Villanova as a No. 1 seed in the East for 2021’s tournament?
Now, Lunardi is far from alone — although he’s still the biggest name in the field. There are hundreds of “bracketologists” who have followed in Lunardi’s footsteps, and there even is a website that is dedicated to ranking the performance of these bracketologists.
Bracketology, arguably, is the biggest talking point in college basketball. (Interestingly, the term “bracketology” first appeared in a story on Lunardi by Mike Jensen of the Philadelphia Inquirer.)
Although he might not have seen this coming during that snowstorm in 1993, it’s not entirely incomprehensible to Lunardi that this has happened.
“That fanaticism, that passion, that fun that goes into following college basketball is really truly unique to our sport,” he said. “We all have a team. If we didn’t go to school there, maybe our dad did, or brother, or Uncle Harry. As much as pro sports dominate the landscape, they are pretty much reserved for the major markets. Every state has minimally good old State U, and therefore we all have some skin in this game. We all want to be that person at gym, at church, in a meeting sticking our chest out with bragging rights.
“And I think that fanaticism, that passion, is really what has fueled the interest in bracketology. So when you apply that fast forward 20 years, maybe it’s no surprise that so many people are into it and so many people want to do it.”
A TARGET FOR CRITICISM
Check Lunardi’s Twitter feed (@ESPNLunardi), especially during February and March, and you know he’s a target for critics. That was no more evident than this past season when Indiana coach Archie Miller ranted about Lunardi during a postgame press conference, calling him Oscar the Grouch from Sesame Street and accusing Lunardi of having an agenda against Indiana. Essentially, Miller was saying Lunardi was using Indiana to help draw eyes to his ESPN brand and boost clicks and ratings.
Miller and Lunardi had been friendly over the years from Miller’s days coaching at St. Joe’s rival Dayton in the Atlantic 10 Conference. So, how did Lunardi feel about Miller lashing out at him?
“I just try to tell myself, ‘The amount of pressure these guys are under to make the tournament and then to have your livelihood depend on the random actions of 19 and 20 year olds …,’” Lunardi said. “These guys make a lot of money, way more than society would deem worthwhile probably, but with that comes pressures that I don’t have. I’m willing to give him a partial mulligan. He was wrong in his assessment of my assessment because I had them in. He just didn’t think I had them in far enough, which seems a little bit of a greedy kind of picture. They finished 8-10 in their league. They were going to make it. I hate to come across as that guy, but I know more about this than he does. And I wasn’t wrong. Let’s just leave it as that.”
Was there an agenda?
“I certainly didn’t have an agenda against Indiana, up until that moment,” he said. “I had to work extra hard afterward not to be hissy because we’re all human.”
Miller’s diatribe was the loudest and most noteworthy, but definitely not the funniest.
That has to be the time during the 2003-04 season when Lunardi had undefeated St. Joe’s as a No. 2 seed. He was doing a weekly chat on ESPN.com when some Hawks students questioned Lunardi’s knowledge of St. Joe’s and lumped him with other national analysts who were slow to warm to Phil Martelli’s squad.
Those students didn’t know that Lunardi was doing the chat from the other side of St. Joe’s campus.
“Some St. Joe’s student writes in,” Lunardi said. “He goes, ‘You’re just another one of those national guys who doesn’t know anything. You’ve probably never heard of St. Joe’s. You never heard of Jameer Nelson.’ Blah, blah, blah. Not knowing of course I’m sitting in an office on campus as the communications director for the University. So, I said, ‘Maybe you’re right. Why don’t you educate me? I’ll meet you in front of the library at 4 o’clock.’ I did go and meet the kid.”
Other criticisms have come from governors who questioned where Lunardi has their state schools ranked.
Lunardi told one particular governor he has bigger things to worry about … before adding that his state school should play a better nonconference schedule!
The nonconference schedule is part of formula Lunardi studied during the blizzard, fine-tuned in order to save money at Blue Ribbon and has mastered today at ESPN.
You know about bracketology.
You know Joe Lunardi.
And now, maybe, you know a little bit about how it all got started.