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RPI: The NCAA Responds

by John Manuel
March 15, 2004

College basketball's pervasive influence on today's sports scene shows up when Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi--a former high school basketball coach --says the competition in the American League East should at least ensure all the division's members a "good RPI."

It's a good line because sports fans instantly know what Ricciardi means--or do they? In the time I have covered college baseball for Baseball America, I've found very few fans know what the RPI (Ratings Percentage Index) means, and the coaches whose teams are measured by the RPI aren't too different.

That became evident in BA's 2004 College Preview issue. Editor Allan Simpson, who has covered college baseball since founding the magazine in 1981, sought the opinions of Division I coaches on what they thought the RPI meant for college baseball.

Coaches' responses were published in that issue, as were BA's suggestions for how to tweak the system. It wasn't the first time we've tried to tackle the RPI issue, and it may not be the last. As long as the RPI remains a significant part of the selection process for the 64-team NCAA tournament field, and as long as its formula remains secret, it will remain a major topic of discussion in the sport.

The package caught the attention of the NCAA, leading to more discussion of the RPI between myself, Dennis Poppe and Jim Wright.

Poppe is the NCAA's director of baseball and football operations. While not a member of the D-I baseball committee that deliberates decisions come tourney time, Poppe sits in on the meetings and knows what the RPI is supposed to do (and what it cannot do).

Wright, of the NCAA's statistics service, has compiled the RPI ever since the NCAA started using it in 1988. He knows the formula, which the NCAA won't give out, and he's the one who distributes RPI rankings to members of the baseball committee when they meet in May.

No one knows more about the RPI as it is used for baseball than Wright and Poppe. And in a conference call they attempted to rebut many of the charges made against the RPI by the coaches in BA's story.

Remember The Maine!

Poppe and Wright disputed the overall tone of the responses. In essence, Poppe argued, the coaches confuse the RPI with the entire selection process.

"We've always said, the RPI is just one tool in the selection process," Poppe said. "There are a lot of complaints the coaches seem to have that are not related to the RPI; they are related to the selection process."

For example, Poppe and Wright said the RPI does include a home-road breakdown of team records, as well as the dates of those games; it's just not built into the formula. It's up to the committee members to process the information. The NCAA does not want to penalize teams for scheduling an excessive number of home games; it's up to committee members to realize which schools take advantage of baseball's weather-related issues to play more home games than others.

Several other complaints were rules that coaches have the power to change if they want to. That includes BA's proposal to divide the country into four geographic regions and lock in at-large bids on a geographic basis. It was recommended that Northern schools be allotted four bids, double the number they traditionally get.

"First, the goal of the NCAA tournament is not to allow for fair regional representation, as the article stated," Poppe said. "That's what the (30) automatic bids are for. The at-large bids are supposed to go to the best 34 teams in the country that did not earn automatic bids."

The tournament field and regional hosts were chosen on a geographic basis prior to 1988 (remember when Maine and Michigan went to Omaha regularly in the mid-1980s?), and geography was an overriding concern in the seeding process in 2002 due to post-Sept. 11 travel issues. The 2002 tournament was widely panned (including in this space) for creating unbalanced regionals, and Wright believes the majority of coaches prefer the current system.

"If they don't, they can try to change the system, but I have a hard time imagining a return to the system we had in the mid-1980s," he said.

One comment, by New Mexico State coach Rocky Ward, drew Poppe's specific rebuke. Ward said, "Teams are clearly being selected in some cases based purely on travel costs."

Poppe vehemently denied the charge.

"That's totally false, and more than that, it assaults the integrity of the process," Poppe said. "Travel costs went up last year, and the tournament still turned a profit of more than $1 million. So that comment is just baseless."

If It Ain't Broke . . .

Poppe and Wright acknowledged the RPI isn't a perfect measure of the strength of a team, but they were upset the coaches merely vented their complaints. While BA gave its own solutions to fix the system--which Poppe and Wright insist is not broken--the rank-and-file coaches have not.

As a magazine, Baseball America can bring up issues, but it has no real power with the NCAA. The coaches, through the American Baseball Coaches Association, can affect NCAA policy. Poppe and Wright suggest that if they want to change the RPI or the way it is used, they should petition to do so through the ABCA.

"The beauty of the RPI is it puts the history of a team's season right in front of you," Poppe said. "But it gets too much credit when teams get into the tournament and too much blame when they don't.

"I think coaches have a lot of concerns about the selection process that came out in their comments. But climate, economic issues of college baseball, geography--those are things the RPI can't change."

Coaches and the NCAA aren't on the same page with regard to the RPI; that much is clear. Instead of talking to each other through Baseball America, they clearly need to discuss some of these issues in an open forum. We suggest next year's ABCA convention in Nashville.

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