The man behind the curtain of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association's new playoff-seeding system for football hasn't seen a single game this season.
He doesn't want to get the wrong impression.
"What if I see a team on their best day?" Bill Born said. "What if I see them when they have a clunker?
"I trust the numbers."
Born is a 77-year-old retired math teacher. He lives in Berkley Heights in Union County. He spends 60 hours a week crunching numbers for his Born Power Index, which ranks high school teams in New Jersey and Pennsylvania as well as college teams across the country.
He does all his calculating by hand, rising before 4:30 a.m. most Saturday and Sunday mornings to begin working on the weekly ratings, which appear on his website, bornpowerindex.com.
"I do use a hand calculator," Born said.
Born has emerged as a fascinating figure in New Jersey football this season because the state athletic association decided in the spring to use his rankings as part of a new system to seed teams for the state tournaments.
Under the new format, which has baffled many coaches and created some consternation because of the lack of transparency, a team's United Power Ranking (UPR) is a combination of the old traditional power-point system and Born's power index.
The UPR is created by a software program run by officials from the website Gridiron New Jersey that assigns 40 percent value to the power-point system and 60 percent value to Born's rankings. Teams will be seeded in the respective state group tournaments based on their UPR.
The proprietary nature of Born's formula, combined with the complication of combining it with the old system to create the UPR, has cloaked the weekly rankings in a bit of mystery and controversy. The cutoff for the state tournament is next weekend, with the playoffs set to begin on Nov. 2.
"I haven't heard much," NJSIAA associate director Jack DuBois, who oversees football, said of reaction around the state to Born's index. "Other than no one understands it."
Born said his system is built strictly on numbers, with a team's ranking based on margin of victory or defeat and caliber of competition.
Teams are rewarded for playing stronger teams and also for performing — in a strictly numerical sense — better than the index predicted based on the difference between their own ranking and that of their opponent.
For example, if a team has a ranking of 82.5 and loses by 10 points to a team with a ranking of 97.5, that's a positive performance, since the index indicated they should have lost by 15.
The same goes for beating a team by more than the index difference, although Born says he caps the value of margin of victory at 35 points – same as the differential the NJSIAA uses to institute a running clock – to discourage running up the score.
"There's no heart involved," Born said. "I don't care who wins. It's strictly by the numbers."
The system can seem counter-intuitive at times. For example, entering this weekend Haddonfield was 6-0 and had beaten West Deptford on the field, 27-21. But West Deptford had a higher Born Power Index ranking (94.7 to 92.2), mainly because the Eagles had beaten St. Joseph (93.6) by 51-0 while the Bulldawgs had beaten St. Joe, 22-15.
In addition, Paulsboro (82.8) had a higher ranking than Penns Grove (79.4) even though the Red Devils beat the Red Raiders, 19-6. Paulsboro's big edge was a victory over West Deptford, while Penns Grove hasn't played an opponent with close to the ranking of the Eagles.
"Playing stronger teams, that makes a big difference," Born said.
Born created a rudimentary version of his algorithm in the late 1960s, when he was a junior-varsity basketball coach at Scotch Plains High School. He was scouting other teams, recording as many scores as possible – which wasn't easy in those days – and worked out a system that indicated that his team should be a 17-point favorite over that day's opponent.
"I'm walking off the court, and I look up and, low and behold, we won by 17 points," Born said.
That was his "Eureka" moment. Born taught math at Scotch Plains for 37 years, retiring in 2007. But for most of that time, he was refining his power index, reaching out to contacts around the state for scores and using the system to rank football and basketball teams from Newton to Cape May.
"This is an oft-told story," Born said. "But when I was 10, I remember seeing my father at the kitchen table reading the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and trying to figure out how Pitt was going to do that day against Notre Dame.
"I asked him, 'How can you figure that out?"
"He told me, 'You can figure out a lot of things with math.' "
NJSIAA executive director Larry White, who played football at Penns Grove, said some coaches have been grumbling about Born's system because it's different, and difficult to decipher.
"It's fear of the unknown," White said.
Not all coaches are complaining. West Deptford's Jason Morrell thinks the Born system is a positive for the playoffs.
"We like it," Morrell said. "It rewards teams that play tough schedules and tough competition."
The NJSIAA is using Born's content, for free, on a one-year trial basis. The organization plans to evaluate the new playoff-seeding system — which includes another twist in that teams will be ranked as the top 16 in the state in each group in North and South and then broken into four eight-team sectional fields based on geography — after this season and decide whether to continue with the current set-up, return to the old formula, or try a new one.
Born said he's been doing the same thing for the better part of 40 years, getting up before the sun, sharpening his pencils, plugging scores into his mathematical formula and ranking teams across the state.
But he's never gotten this much attention.