Mixing a Passion for Math and Sports

By Trey Wilson | November 28, 2011 | RSS

Mixing a Passion for Math and Sports
BC alumnus Kenneth Massey talks about how his love for math and sports made him an important part of the Bowl Championship Series.

With the 2011 college football season reaching its midway point, the Bowl Championship Series standings are becoming more important each week, and the work of Bluefield College alumnus Kenneth Massey is an integral part of deciding which two teams will square off at the Louisiana Superdome in January for this season’s championship.


Massey, who received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Bluefield in 1997, is the son of BC English professor Wayne Massey, now in his 24th year at the college, and former BC library director Ann Massey. He continued his education at Virginia Tech, where he received his master’s degree in mathematics in 1999.

Kenneth Massey


In a recent interview, Massey said he found a way to combine his passion for mathematics with his interest in sports when he was a student.


“I used to look at [Jeff] Sagarin's ratings in the USA Today, and thought I'd like to implement my own ratings system,” said Massey.


He found an opportunity at Bluefield in 1995.


“I needed an honors project topic and the Internet gave me access to the required data,” said Massey. “My math professors, especially Dr. [Alden] Starnes and Dr. [Stephen] Fast from the math department inspired me to learn about math and statistics.”


The result was, in an extremely simplified explanation, a system that uses game scores, margins, and schedule strength to rate teams.


After the completion of the honors project, Massey continued his work as a hobby through his website.


In 1999, the BCS was exploring expanding its computer rankings.


In a league with 120 teams and a playoff system not currently an option, NCAA Division I FBS football relies on the BCS system to determine who will play for the championship each season.


The BCS system combines human polls and computer rating systems to compile a list ranking college football teams. At the end of the season, the top two teams are chosen to play in the BCS National Championship Game.


“The BCS honchos used [my website] as a launch point for their research,” said Massey.


That spring, Massey received a phone call from Roy Kramer, who was then the commissioner of the Southeastern Conference and an official with the BCS. They chose to use Massey’s ratings based on “their demonstrated accuracy and conformance to the consensus, and my personal expertise in the field,” according to Massey’s website.


Since the 1999 season, an adjusted version of the Massey Ratings, omitting scores and margins to meet BCS compliance, is one of the six computer ratings systems used in the BCS.


“It's an honor to have been selected,” said Massey. “At first it was exciting, but now it's become routine. It's neat to see my name in the record books, despite never having played organized football myself.”


Because human bias can never be completely omitted, objective computer ratings like Massey’s are essential to determining where teams rank in a large sample.


“Since conference strengths vary so dramatically, looking at records alone is misleading,” said Massey. “No human being can watch enough games, or study the millions of paths connecting teams that don't play each other directly.


“Human voters are naturally biased, and the media encourages a herd mentality. A computer objectively studies the entire season and can see subtle connections between teams from different parts of the country.”


Outside of college football and the BCS, Massey’s system is used to rate teams in football, basketball, baseball, and lacrosse at highschoolsports.net, a website affiliated with the USA Today. He also does ratings for many other sports on his own website, masseyratings.com.


Massey is now continuing the family tradition of working in education as an assistant professor of mathematics at Carson-Newman College in Tennessee.


“I didn't really plan to teach until I got the opportunity to do so as a GTA in the math department at Virginia Tech,” said Massey. “Being in front of a class didn't come naturally at first, but I loved organizing and explaining the material so that students could appreciate its beauty and how it relates to other topics.”


Massey said the favorite part of his day is now teaching classes.


“I get a lot of satisfaction from seeing students think deeply about something for the first time and see how an abstract idea can be applied,” said Massey.