Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Time to punt, Bill

Time to punt, Bill (Keith Olbermann)

SECAUCUS — For those of you familiar with the kids’ football challenge, “Punt, Pass, and Kick,” we long ago saw Bill O’Reilly’s passing (ask Andrea Mackris). Sunday we learned about his punting (in a rather exaggerated essay in the official Super Bowl program). And now we’re seeing him kick.

Typical to the commemorative programs for the big sporting events, O’Reilly was asked to write the ‘end piece’ to the Super Bowl 39 edition. Dan Rather penned one for Super Bowl 38, and even I’ve done them for Baseball’s All-Star Game Program and annual official “yearbooks.” But only O’Reilly could turn one of these brief “Why I Love This Sport” venues into a means of shameless self-promotion.

He waxed poetic about the inspiration provided by his own football career at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York, observing that he learned much from having one of his punts land behind his own line of scrimmage (one could argue that what he learned was to see everything backwards). He added, “I won the national punting title for my division as a senior,” and concluded, “I guess you could say the end zone was the beginning of the no-spin zone.”

Ah, but in recounting his collegiate football experience, Mr. O’Reilly has done a little spinning of his own.

The phrase in question is “I won the national punting title for my division as a senior.” For the unfamiliar, college football is and has been divided not merely into regional conferences (Atlantic Coast Conference, Pac Ten, etc.) and leagues (Ivy, Patriot, etc.), but also national divisions, based on the size of a school’s student body and the relative strength of its commitment to a particular sport. The National Collegiate Athletic Association has Division 1 (the big schools, and actually known as Division 1-A), Division 1-AA, Division 2, and Division 3. Another collegiate group, the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, currently has all its football teams in one Division, but maintains Division 1 and Division 2 for basketball.

The key word here is “division.” In college sports, it implies organization, national recognition, big athletic budgets, careful scheduling and record-keeping — and scholarships and varying degrees of those charming professional touches that all too often turn college sports into mere way stations for future NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL players.

In short, “division” means big time.

And herein lies the problem with Mr. O’Reilly’s boast. A very nice man named Juwan Jackson, an assistant coach and the recruiting coordinator for the Marist football program, told me the other day that the school didn’t start playing varsity football until 1978. That year, it launched its “program” with an inauspicious record of one win and eight losses, in the NCAA Division 3 Metropolitan Conference. In 1993, Marist made the big jump to Division 1-AA, the second highest division, and the next year won its conference championship.

But Bill O’Reilly graduated from Marist in 1971. Certainly he played football there — there’s a New York Times clipping in front of me showing him kicking the points-after for two of Marist’s final-game loss to St. John’s on November 27, 1970 (he missed the third point-after). But if Marist dates the start of its divisional football history to 1978, exactly what kind of “division” did O’Reilly play in?

It turns out when O’Reilly was at Marist, football was a so-called “club sport.” The school lent its name to the team — and nothing else. Players paid all their own expenses, were led not by a coach but a president (usually a student, even an active player, sometimes an ex-player), and organization was, at best, loose. “Club sports” were still widespread in my time at Cornell — rugby was the big one in the late ‘70s — but even their own members would grudgingly acknowledge that they were barely a notch above intramural teams which simply competed with rivals on their own campuses.

Some time in the ‘60s, the football “club teams” at some of the bigger non-division schools organized the National Club Football Association. The “national” part was not to be taken too literally. In O’Reilly’s senior year, 1970, a disproportionate number of the schools were in the New York metropolitan area. Marist’s football media guide notes that the 1970 squad for which O’Reilly kicked “advanced to the national championship game.” But that Times account of the game — versus St. John’s University of Queens, New York — calls it “the third annual Metropolitan Club Football Bowl,” and it was played in a ramshackle stadium in Mount Vernon, New York (a park I well remember from my childhood as the site of some lackluster kid baseball clinics usually attended by the least popular members of the then-equally lackluster New York Yankees).

I pointed this out — in considerably less detail — on Monday’s edition of Countdown. The point was not that O’Reilly wasn’t a punter/placekicker for a college football team (he was), nor that he wasn’t a good one (he was; he averaged 41.4 yards per punt in 1970) — just that he’d once again conveyed an illusion of grandeur about his accomplishments. There was no “division” for him to win “the national punting title” in while with Marist’s club team in 1970.

His claim was a little less egregious than the assertion that he won a Peabody Award while on the show “Inside Edition” (it was a Polk Award, and the show got it after he left). But the venue — the back page of the Super Bowl program — elevated to a similar level of ridiculousness.

Apparently I struck one of Mr. O’Reilly’s many nerves.

Tuesday, I got one of the damnedest e-mails I’ve ever received, anonymous other than for its return address and the signature “J., Chicago, IL.” Whoever wrote it seems to have been the club football equivalent of Deep Throat: “A long time friend of mine (and long time NFL scout) once told me that Bill O’Reilly could have dominated in the NFL as a punter if he had chosen that career path,” he began. “And a cousin of mine…” — maybe the best comparison to this guy isn’t Deep Throat but Forrest Gump — “a cousin of mine, who was the official statistician during that time period said that O’Reilly in fact did lead in punting net average…”

My anonymous correspondent then turned television critic. “So after using your O’Reilly ‘story’ as a tease for your entire hour, knowing that would be the only way to keep anyone watching your worthless show, you flat out got the facts WRONG, as you usually do.”

But wait. How could this viewer have known about our ‘teases’ and story if he hadn’t watched it? Ah, he had his answer prepared: “And before you get your snide remark ready, I only glanced over your show thanks to TiVo, since there’s no way I would be watching your show live instead of the Factor, you chump.”

My reply was brief — that an anonymous e-mailer quoting two anonymous sources had a lot of nerve calling anybody else a chump, and that as O’Reilly’s theoretical dominance of the annals of National Football League punting, perhaps we should leave him to trying to dominate the likes of Andrea Mackris and other employees, past and present.

Remarkably, this storm in a teacup got bigger still. The anonymous e-mailer’s subject line read simply “punting stats.” Lo and behold, on the same day, what shows up on Bill O’Reilly’s own website, but what appears to be an ancient, typed, either photocopied or mimeographed, list of the top ten performers in various statistical categories for the National Club Football Association for the 1970 season - including O’Reilly’s punting stats.

There’s an interesting coincidence.

I haven’t studied the typefaces carefully enough, nor called in any of the bloggers who got so much joy out of CBS’s dubious “Killian Memos,” but the thing looks legitimate. And there he is, at the top of the punting list at an average of 41.4 yards per kick: “O’Reilly, Marist.”

Now, of course there are a few facts about these statistics that would make the sports-savvy cringe. The runner-up, a punter from New Haven named Potter, averaged only 40.7 yards per kick. But he punted 36 times to O’Reilly’s 23 — thus exposing his average to the vagaries of sport more than 50% more often than O’Reilly did. In fact, of the other nine punters on the list, only two had fewer punts than did O’Reilly, and their average number of punts was 32 (some poor fellow named Ruth from Niagara had to make 48 punts that season).

From the dawn of sports figure filberts, leaders in all statistical average categories have had to exceed a minimum basis of attempts. Bob Hazle of the Milwaukee Braves hit an astonishing .403 in 1957, but he wasn’t considered the National League’s batting champion — he only came to bat 134 times (to blur the mind of the sports-hating reader still further, Stan Musial won the batting championship that year; he hit .351 - coming to bat 502 times).

The “National Club Football Association” stat sheet offers no minimum number of punts required to be eligible for the championship average for O’Reilly’s senior year. There may have been such an established standard and O’Reilly may have legitimately cleared it. But a sports statistician looking at these numbers would say that Mr. Potter of New Haven (36 punts, 40.7 average) and Mr. Primerano of St. John’s (40 punts, 38.1 average), got jobbed.

The point of all this is, like much of Mr. O’Reilly’s assertions about himself (and others), there’s a lot less than meets the eye in the statement “I won the national punting title for my division as a senior.” There was no division, the outfit was semi-national at best, and the title might have been statistically dubious.

So, writing in the official Super Bowl Program that you won the “punting title” in your “division” would be like me writing in one of those baseball program articles that I led the nation’s high school baseball players in on-base percentage in 1973 (I did, too — in a manner of speaking — my on-base percentage was a perfect one thousand: I came to bat once, and got hit in the ass with a pitch).

I guess we’re just lucky Bill didn’t claim he’d won a Peabody Award for his punting at Marist.

originally published February 9, 2005 | 7:01 p.m. ET