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.”
That means Billingsley stays up until the last game of the day is done after midnight.
Then, he's back up by 6 a.m. Sunday.
He has to have his rankings in to the BCS by 10 a.m., and he must input the scores and run the program that spits out his ranking. It doesn't take but a push of a button for the computer to calculate the rankings, but inputting the scores takes hours.
That's because Billingsley types each one in by hand.
He knows there are programs that can import scores from outside sources. In fact, as far as he knows, the rest of the computer pollsters use those programs.
But he doesn't trust them. He crosschecks scores using three different websites, and in doing so, he has found errors over the years. Scores have been wrong, and even worse, winners have been incorrect.
He doesn't want any errors.
He stresses over every detail so much that he's even got backup plans if the electricity or internet were to go down on a Sunday morning. He's got two out-of-town sources he can call for scores, for example.
After Billingsley inputs the scores, he checks his work. Once all that checking and rechecking is finally done, he finally hits the button that runs his program and spits out his ranking.
“I still get excited about it,” Billingsley says.
Most of the time, he has a pretty good idea how the rankings are going to turn out, though sometimes he's surprised.
And sometimes, he's mortified.
“I'm not always in a hundred percent agreement with my own rankings,” he says. “There are sometime when the numbers come out, I think, ‘Errrr, boy, geez, am I really going to make that public? I see a little bit of hate mail comin' from this.'”
Billingsley, after all, is no stranger to hate mail.
Richard Billingsley receives complaints and criticisms via email every week of the season. Some even come with threats of bodily harm. But as long as the email has no curse words — “If there's profanity in it, I will delete it,” Billingsley says — he replies to everyone. He provides as much information as he's allowed.
More than anything, though, he tries to soothe ruffled feathers.
“I can see that perspective,” he will say. “I know where you're coming from. But this is where I'm coming from.”
Kill ‘em with kindness.
Mostly, it works.
But there have been times when the masses couldn't be pacified. Never was that truer than 2008 when Oklahoma, Texas and Texas Tech finished in a three-way atop the Big 12 South.
The Sooners beat the Red Raiders who beat the Longhorns who beat the Sooners. Ultimately, the tiebreaker for who went to the Big 12 title game came down to BCS ranking, and the Sooners bested the Longhorns by .0128 of a point.
Texas fans went looking for what made the difference in a margin that small, and when they saw that Billingsley, a long avowed OU fan, had the Sooners two spots ahead of the Longhorns — all but one of the other computer polls had the Longhorns either one spot back or ahead of the Sooners — they attacked.
Billingsley's phone started ringing, and some of the voices on the other end threatened to kill him.
That was a first.
He quickly called the BCS and the Big 12, which then contacted Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds. The source of the death threats was a Texas fan website where someone had posted Billingsley's phone number along with the directive, “Richard Billingsley needs to pay for what he's done.”
The school contacted the website, and it was able to track down the fan, who was a Texas student.
Eventually, the young man used the number he'd posted on that website to call Billingsley and apologize.
Neither fear of violence nor threats of bodily harm has deterred Billingsley from doing his rankings.
The end of the BCS won't either.
Billingsley, a self-employed consultant who specializes in time and stress management, will do his rankings even after the BCS ceases to exist. Then again, he was doing them long before the BCS was ever created.
The difference, of course, is that now his ranking is known far and wide.
He plans to continue to do interviews with the media and provide commentary on his website — and he won't be under a BCS gag order.
“I really look forward to being able to say what I want to say, talk about the games, talk about my rankings, talk about whether I agree with or disagree with what the selection committee is doing,” he says. “I'm looking forward to all that.”
“Whether anybody will care or not is a different point,” he says, smiling. “I have no idea. But I have the opportunity to do it.”
Welcome to life as a soon-to-be former BCS computer pollster.
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at (405) 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.