College football: A visit with the Oklahoma man inside the BCS machine

RICHARD BILLINGSLEY — With his days as a college football power broker waning, the Hugo man whose computer rankings are part of the BCS formula reflects on how he got inside the machine and what it's been like in there.
by Jenni Carlson Modified: November 27, 2013 at 10:00 am •  Published: November 26, 2013
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photo - Richard Billingsley poses for a photo in Hugo, Okla. on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013. For the last 15 years Billingsley's college football computer ranking system has been part of the formula to determine college football's Bowl Championship Series national champion. Photo by Chris Landsberger, The Oklahoman
Richard Billingsley poses for a photo in Hugo, Okla. on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013. For the last 15 years Billingsley's college football computer ranking system has been part of the formula to determine college football's Bowl Championship Series national champion. Photo by Chris Landsberger, The Oklahoman

HUGO — Richard Billingsley has been under a gag order for nearly 15 years. He's been threatened regularly with bodily harm. He's even received death threats.

Welcome to life as a BCS computer pollster.

Billingsley is one of the men overseeing the six computer polls that factor into college football's paramount rankings. But with the BCS on its way out and a playoff selection committee on its way in, Billingsley's days as a power broker are waning.

Only two polls left.

After that, the 62-year-old who does his rankings from the white frame house he shares with his elderly mother in Hugo won't be beholden to BCS rules that have barred him from talking about many aspects of the polls. He won't have to hear from disgruntled fans about what a horrible human being he is. He won't have the occasional fear for his safety.

But he will also lose the prestige and recognition that comes with having a hand in determining college football's national champion.

So, if you turned back the clock to 1999 and asked Billingsley again whether he wanted his rankings to be part of the BCS, would he agree?

Munching tortilla chips at a Mexican restaurant a few miles from his house, Billingsley looks across the colorful plastic tablecloth and nods.

“I would,” he says. “I wouldn't even hesitate.”

*

Richard Billingsley was 16 when he started scratching out a formula to rate college football teams.

He was a diehard college football fan, had been since he was 5 or 6 years old. He looked at the media polls and saw no logic. Head-to-head competition seemed unimportant. Tough scheduling wasn't rewarded. So, the 5-foot-7, 95-pound kid who didn't play football beyond the backyard spent two years working on a formula.

The Billingsley Report debuted in 1970 when he handed out copies to friends.

He dreamed that one day his rankings would be taken seriously by the college football world.

Nearly three decades later, that dream came true. Then-SEC commissioner and BCS king Roy Kramer heard about Billingsley from the NCAA, which received a rich cache of research from Billingsley some years earlier. Kramer called and invited Billingsley to be part of the rankings.

“You know, being part of the BCS has been amazing,” Billingsley says. “I mean, I really, really loved it.

“It took everything about my work to the highest level that it can go.”

Billingsley isn't shy about loving the attention.

“I've enjoyed the limelight.”

But then, there were the not-so-good things about being part of the BCS.

That gag order, for example. Like all of the computer pollsters, Billingsley could do media interviews and post commentary on his website, The College Football Research Center (www.cfrc.com). But there were many subjects that he couldn't touch.

“We can't talk about the rankings. Can't give the specifics. Can't talk about future rankings. Can't talk about game comparisons,” Billingsley says. “And that's really disappointing for me because, I'll tell you, I'm pretty well-versed and knowledgeable on college football. I feel like I have a lot to offer in terms of analysis.”

Told you he wasn't shy.

Gag orders and Richard Billingsley don't mix.

But Billingsley accepted the things he didn't like about the BCS because of what he did — having a say in who plays for a national championship.

His weekends will never be the same.

*

Saturdays are Richard Billingsley's fun days.

He wakes around 6 a.m. and eats breakfast, then takes care of his 83-year-old mother, Doris. Billingsley moved back to Hugo, a blue-collar, down-on-its-luck town in far southeastern Oklahoma, more than a decade ago to live with her. Once she gets breakfast and her meds, he heads to the living room.

By the time College GameDay starts on ESPN, he is planted in front of the TV. That's where he stays for the next 16 or 17 hours.

“Football all day along,” he says with a heavily accented drawl that comes from a lifetime of living in the South. “I really take my work seriously.”

That might read like a tongue-in-cheek joke, but he is as serious as a Nick Saban defense. Billingsley has all the different sports packages on cable, which gives him access to nearly 60 games. He catches bits and pieces of 25 or 30 each week, but he pays particular attention to the big games and the games involving teams that he's going to be interviewed about.

He talks to a dozen or more reporters and radio shows every week.

“If somebody asks me a question about what happened in the Auburn game if I'm talking to a Birmingham radio station, I want to know,” he says. “I want to be informed.”

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by Jenni Carlson
Columnist
Jenni Carlson, a sports columnist at The Oklahoman since 1999, came by her love of sports honestly. She grew up in a sports-loving family in Kansas. Her dad coached baseball and did color commentary on the radio for the high school football...
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