A winning formula / Sagarin, Harrell make it all add up for football, basketball fans


For The Tribune


Though he grew up in New Rochelle, New York, Jeff Sagarin long felt a connection to Indiana high school basketball.

When he was in fourth grade, Sagarin read “Yea! Wildcats!” — a sports novel for young folks written by John R. Tunis in the 1940s about a small-town coach who overcomes several obstacles on the way to a winning season.

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From that point on, Sagarin says, he long imagined being a crew-cutted basketball star from the Hoosier State.

“I ended up as a guy on the chess team and real good at math,” he said. “But I always was mesmerized at the thought of Indiana and high school basketball.”

Sagarin has since carved out a place in Indiana’s sporting lore. He applies his famed computer rankings — which USA Today has been using for college and pro sports since 1985 — to Indiana high school football and basketball.

Those rankings now run on John Harrell’s websites for those sports, which serve as somewhat of a bible for many a fan from Evansville to Angola.

The holy alliance between Sagarin, an MIT graduate, and Harrell, a native of Huntington, came about quite by accident.

In the spring of 1977, when Sagarin was still living in Massachusetts, he visited his father in Minnesota and then toured the Midwest on the way home. He stopped in Bloomington and enjoyed it so much that he decided to move there in May of that year.

“I fell in love with the town while I was here,” Sagarin recalled, “and I wasn’t going to go back to Dorchester, so I decided I’d move here once (longtime Bloomington sports editor) Bob Hammel said, ‘Well, we can pay you $10 a week for your ratings.’”

Sagarin began doing statewide football ratings in 1977 for the Herald-Times (then known as the Herald-Telephone), but he quickly gave up on basketball because gathering scores was too difficult — at least until 1981, when longtime sportswriter Harrell offered to do the work of collecting scores for him.

At first, Sagarin was paying to do all of his ratings work on campus mainframe computers, both at MIT and Indiana University. He got his own personal computer in 1984, but putting the ratings together still required plenty of heavy lifting — for both he and Harrell — in the days before email.

Harrell used to drop a printout of each night’s scores outside Sagarin’s front door. Once Sagarin had his ratings done and printed them, Harrell recalled, “I would have to go to the newspaper and type them back all in.”

But that still beat what Sagarin had to go through in the late 1970s. He remembers having to bus and taxi his way to the IHSAA offices to collect all of the high school football schedules, paying 10 cents a sheet to photocopy each of them one by one.

He laughs recalling what he was told on the way out the door: “Don’t be calling us for scores each week; we don’t like to help people.”

Harrell started providing much of the necessary help, and that job has become significantly easier for him over the years as technology has advanced. In the past, Harrell says, he got approximately 85 percent of a given night’s scores from the The Associated Press before having to chase down the rest. Now he finds almost all of them on Twitter.

Not only has the Internet made tracking scores much simpler, but it has also made Harrell’s work accessible to many more people. The scores, and Sagarin’s ratings, can now be found on the websites that Harrell — who retired from the Herald-Times in 2011 — maintains for football and basketball; Sagarin started doing girls basketball ratings for that site in 2000.

The sites include a wealth of historical data, including several years of game scores (football and boys basketball go back to 1994, while girls basketball goes back to the 2000-01 season) as well as tournament histories, polls, coaching records and more. They’re a required reference for any high school sports fan.

And it’s a reference that no other state can match. Sagarin briefly did football ratings for Massachusetts several years ago, but those have long since been discontinued, and he toyed with the idea of doing them for Ohio and Texas football but never took the plunge.

“The older you get, you don’t look to things that are real hard to do,” Sagarin said.

For all of the advances, however, Sagarin and Harrell still keep things pretty basic. The look of the websites hasn’t changed much, if at all, since their inception, and Sagarin still does all of his work off of a DOS prompt on his home computer — using a formula that he hasn’t changed all that much since the 1970s.

“You could put all the mathematical whistles and bells in, and in terms of predictive accuracy for future games, you’re just getting marginal improvement,” Sagarin said. “So it’s the law of diminishing returns.

“Basically, who did you play, where did you play and what was the result, including the score.”

Sagarin’s ratings have held up well over time — but he cautions that no system is going to accurately predict the winner every time out.

“Real life is under no obligation to conform to mathematical models made by human beings,” he said. “Reality simply happens.”

Since the final score and margin of victory are such a key factor in Sagarin’s ratings, accuracy is key — one that’s not always guaranteed.

Harrell remembers once calling the Post-Tribune in Gary to find a game result, and the paper knew who won but didn’t have the final score. Harrell then called one of the coaches, who had the score but seemed to forget which end of it he was on.

“He gave (the score) to me and I said, ‘Who won?’ and he said, ‘We did,’” Harrell said. “I said, ‘But the newspaper said you lost,’ and he said, ‘Oh, that’s right; we did lose.’ He was trying to pull a fast one.”

Not all of the mistakes could be attributed to coaches. On one occasion, a wrongly inputted score wound up causing a rather large shakeup in the ratings.

“One time we had Cathedral (basketball), ranked No. 1 in the state, and they lost to Manual by 24,” Harrell remembered. “But we were typing it in and it carried it over to like 2,400 that they lost by. It dropped them from first in the state to last.”

The hardest part of the job for both Harrell and Sagarin these days is getting schedules collected and typed in before the season begins. Once that’s done, it’s usually not much more than a matter of inputting scores.

Harrell estimates that he has about 40 percent of the basketball schedules in hand before October, at which point tracking down the rest becomes a test of patience.

“You send out 100 (emails to athletic directors) in a week and you get 50 responses,” he said. “It’s tough to get them all. Sometimes I could start the season and not have everyone’s schedule.”

That labor is one of the main factors preventing the duo from expanding into other sports. Sagarin believes such sports as soccer and baseball would work well because the teams play enough games to make the ratings accurate, but getting scores would be a nightmare, especially when weather plays havoc with scheduling.

“Volleyball would be the easiest,” Harrell said, “because there would be no postponements.”

Harrell and Sagarin are sticking with the state’s two most popular sports for now — but they don’t seem ready to stop doing either of those anytime soon.

That’s welcome news for local high school fans.

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John Harrell has been maintaining websites for Indiana high school football and basketball since 2000, which include Sagarin ratings in each sport. Here’s where to find them:

Football: http://indianahsfootball.homestead.com/

Boys basketball: http://indianahsbasketball.homestead.com/boys.html

Girls basketball: http://indianagirlsbasketball.homestead.com/


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