By Tim Casey
Since Joe Lunardi first appeared on national television 12 years ago, during a low-profile segment on ESPNews, the 53-year-old Philadelphia native has made "bracketology" a familiar term to any college basketball fan. Coaches, athletic directors and conference commissioners often ask him about their schools' chances of making the NCAA tournament. Last year, he correctly predicted all 68 teams in the field.
Lunardi, whose primary job is as Saint Joseph's University's associate vice president of marketing and communications, once worked for ESPN.com for free in exchange for promoting his magazine. He is now a well-compensated ESPN regular, particularly this week heading into Selection Sunday. Lunardi's ascension from basketball junkie to expert/multimedia star with the nickname "Joey Brackets" wasn't part of some master plan. He always loved basketball and worked long hours for little (or no) pay for years before finally getting his big break. Still, he never had any intention of becoming so popular that he's now teaching an online, no-credit "bracketology" course at Saint Joseph's that costs $99 for eight weeks and includes 54 people of all ages, most of whom are not students at the school.
"This is not a very good negotiating position," Lunardi said in early February. "But for the next six weeks, I won't have a free minute, and I wouldn't trade it for anything. I would still do it for free."
Growing up in Philadelphia's Overbrook neighborhood, Lunardi became enamored with the sport by reading about, watching and attending games involving the city's Big 5 teams, Saint Joseph's, Villanova, La Salle, Penn and Temple. Although his family moved to California during Lunardi's high school years, he returned home and attended Saint Joseph's, where his father and two older brothers had earned their degrees. Lunardi became editor of the student newspaper and closely followed the 1981 team that upset top-ranked DePaul 49-48 on a buzzer-beater in the second round of the NCAA tournament and advanced to the Elite Eight. Lunardi's passion, intelligence and work ethic left an impression.
"He just had a unique ability to see things clearly," said Don DiJulia, Saint Joseph's athletic director from 1976 to 1981 and from 1988 until today. "For not being a player or a coach, he did have a unique ability to understand the game."
After graduating in 1982, Lunardi accepted a job in the school's admissions department but continued as a freelance sports writer. In 1989, when Lunardi was working as Saint Joseph's director of media relations, he began a part-time position covering the Ivy League for the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. Chris Wallace started the preseason magazine as a 22-year old college dropout in 1981 living in his parents' home in West Virginia and having had no articles published in anything other than his high school newspaper. Wallace had no distribution or advertising experience, either. Still, the 300-plus page publication, which went to press in November and included in-depth previews of most teams, soon became popular among influential basketball people.
Portland Trail Blazers executive Jon Spoelstra (father of current Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra) was such a fan of Blue Ribbon that he ordered more than 20 copies and hired Wallace as a part-time scout in 1986. With his new NBA duties, Wallace realized he needed more help with Blue Ribbon. Wallace never heard of Lunardi before hiring him, but Lunardi's role quickly expanded. He helped edit the magazine, introduced Wallace to writers and even had Wallace hire a couple from Philadelphia as typesetters.
"He became very important at what we were doing," said Wallace, who is now the Memphis Grizzlies' general manager. "My regrets from my time with Joe is number one, I should have signed him to some sort of lifetime contract where I got a piece of his earnings as I see what a megastar he's becoming. Two, I had no foresight. I should have trademarked the word bracketology. I'd be a very wealthy man today."
Lunardi never trademarked "bracketology," either, but he and fellow contributor Chris Dortch bought a significant stake in Blue Ribbon in 1994 from Wallace, who was then scouting for the Heat. A year later, they started an NCAA tournament guide that included previews of each team. To help prepare, Lunardi began projecting the field so that they didn't have to scramble at the last minute to gather information and write about too many unexpected participants. On Selection Sunday, Lunardi and Dortch worked all night putting together an 80-page issue and shipped several copies to employees at CBS and ESPN. Big-name media figures raved about the thoroughness of Lunardi's and Dortch's work.
"I joke that he's a sick person, but I'm equally sick," said Dortch, who is still Blue Ribbon's editor. "I like other things, don't get me wrong, but for me hoops is where it's at. He's the same way. … He's hoops through and through. He smells like an old gym."
Blue Ribbon created a partnership with ESPN.com in 1996, and after Lunardi sold his equity in Blue Ribbon, he still published NCAA tournament projections on ESPN.com. In the late 1990s, Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Mike Jensen was the first person to call Lunardi a "bracketologist." The nickname spawned a cottage industry. With the rise of the Internet and popularity of college basketball's signature event, Lunardi built a passionate audience and caught the attention of then-ESPNews senior coordinating producer Mike McQuade. Preparing for the 2002 NCAA tournament, McQuade mentioned to coordinating producer Mark Preisler that they should put Lunardi on the air.
"I was interested in the idea that someone was actually taking it one step further beyond who was going to be in the tournament," said McQuade, who is now ESPN's vice president of event production responsible for the company's baseball and golf coverage. "Now we were [projecting] where they would go, where they would be seeded. It just added a great deal more depth than what we had ever done before. Being on ESPNews, we were willing to try anything once."
Before his first appearance in early 2002, Lunardi was nervous, yet he had some public speaking experience. He had served as a Saint Joseph's spokesman for several years and as the school's basketball radio analyst since 1991. Lunardi remembers going to an uplink facility in Philadelphia and discussing Duke and Maryland, both of whom were projected as No. 1 seeds.
"He had the numbers and the facts," Preisler said. "We just had to work with him on the presentation. ... He's much more relaxed [now]. He's much more polished."
Lunardi credits the 2003-04 Saint Joseph's team that finished the regular season undefeated and advanced to the Elite Eight for raising his profile. Few people knew the program better, and he said reporters and radio stations often called him asking about that squad. ESPN eventually used Lunardi more on SportsCenter. He was articulate, poised and comfortable on air and was typically perfect or close to perfect at predicting the NCAA tournament field.
Even basketball Hall of Famers praise Lunardi's work. Wallace said he recently watched a Pac-12 conference game when ESPN analyst Bill Walton mentioned he had spoken with Lunardi and noted his accuracy.
"I'm sitting there laughing," Wallace said. "I said, 'Who would have ever thought when I first met him that Bill Walton would be bragging on national television about having access to talk to Joe Lunardi?'"
People are willing to even pay to learn Lunardi's secrets. During his "bracketology" class, Lunardi teaches the principles and procedures of the selection committee and assigns students to monitor certain conferences, just like the real committee members do. The final exam consists of students preparing reports on each league and voting for teams to include in their final mock bracket. They then compare the results with those of the actual bracket. They're usually pretty close.
"The average fan isn't lying awake at night thinking, 'How will they distinguish whether the 10th or 11th seed here goes to San Antonio?'," Lunardi said. "That's the kind of minutiae that we get into, and people really get into it. … These people are basically paying for an hour a week of whatever they think I bring to the table."
This is Lunardi's busiest week of the year. Turn on any of ESPN's networks, and he'll be featured prominently as he keeps up with how the latest conference tournament results affect the NCAA tournament field. On Friday, he will leave the company's headquarters in Bristol, Conn., and head to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn to call Saint Joseph's Atlantic 10 tournament game on radio. As long as the Hawks are playing, he will make the 110-mile, one-way commute between Connecticut and New York.
If they continue winning, Lunardi may face a conundrum. He is scheduled to appear on ESPN most of Sunday, the same day as the Atlantic 10 tournament final. He doesn't plan on missing that game, so perhaps he'll be on ESPN via remote instead of in the studio. He said that's an issue he'll gladly accept if it comes. It's also a situation he never thought he'd have to consider.
"I would do it for nothing, and for many years I did do it for nothing," Lunardi said. "I suspect my wife now appreciates the fact that I'm not doing it for nothing. At some point in time in the future, I'm just going to go back to being a fan with a bracket at the kitchen table. I won't be on TV and I won't be talking to reporters, and I'm still going to love the tournament just as much. The fact that ESPN and college basketball fans have let me into their world is beyond any dream that I ever had in getting involved in basketball."
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Tim Casey is a freelance sports writer and a former Sacramento Bee sports reporter. He works for HMP Communications, a health care/medical media company.