March Madness Man: An Interview with Dr. Joseph Lunardi, NCAA Bracketology Master for ESPN

In a one-on-one interview with Dr. Joseph Lunardi, Resident Bracketologist for ESPN and color commentator for the St. Joseph University's Hawks, sports journalist Daniel Lewis listens to Lunardi as he reflects on his journey as a bracketologist.

Dan: "I know that when you started bracketology, you called yourself just ‘a fan with a bracket.’ Could you talk about how you became a bracketologist?"

Lunardi: "I am still just a fan with a bracket! I mean, the intent was never to develop a cottage industry, make it a second career, or obtain an additional source of income. The years I spent working for Blue Ribbon (College Basketball Yearbook) are what led to all of this. It was a labor of love. We made a little bit of money publishing Blue Ribbon, but it would not have even paid for a good vacation!" (laughs)

"As I reflect, it occurs to me how incredibly fortunate I have been. I did not play basketball at any competitive level. Dan, you have seen me in person, and you realize that I am not going to be the starting center of a basketball team anytime soon" (laughs). "In fact, in my one season coaching my daughter’s CYO team, I had the good fortune of coaching them to a perfect season…we were 0-15! And the only reason we were not 0-16…the last game got snowed out! And Dan, I also had no training in television; I did not go to school for broadcasting. So, I think about all of that, and I think about all of the people who have mentored me in basketball and television—the coaches, media, and athletic administrators—and I realize that I had the good fortune of being around Hall-of-Fame people, who shared their love of the game with me."

Dan: "Given that you started small, how did you make bracketology into what it is today?"

Lunardi: "I was kind of lucky enough to find this little niche. There was no way of knowing that it would become something popular. I think it was really, really, really nice of Al Gore to invent the Internet" (laughs). "That obviously took bracketology to a whole another level of exposure and interest. But it just reinforces to me, Dan, how passionate people really are about their teams and about their chances of entering the tournament, and if so, what seed and where…all that stuff that gets into the nuts and bolts of bracketology. On social media, I cannot possibly keep up with all the messages that I receive or come close to reading everything, particularly during the season with the number of followers that I have. About 20 years ago when I started, I would have thought that about ten people were interested in this kind of stuff. And I guess the biggest takeaway from all these years is that the number is a little higher than that!"

Dan: "Wow, that is a very refreshing to hear such words of humility. It is very rare to hear that from someone as big and accomplished as you."

Lunardi: "But I’m not! I have enough balance in my life to recognize that bracketology is not really a serious endeavor. I am not saving lives like you or making national policy. We are talking about basketball and whether or not teams are going to be the sixth seed versus the eighth seed. While I recognize that careers are involved for a lot of athletes, coaches, administrators, and the media, it is supposed to be fun. None of us have real jobs; we should be thankful to be doing this. You are going to grow up and go save lives someday as a doctor, but I do not think that I will ever do anything as important. And I think it is important to recognize that. I can take the effort that I put into it very seriously, but I do not have to take myself seriously—because it is not a serious endeavor. Like, this is the toy department of life."

Dan: "You are essentially the inventor of ‘bracketology.’ When did you come up with the term? Was there a unique story behind when you first used the term?"

Lunardi: "In the late ‘90s, Mike Jensen, a friend of mine who writes for The Philadelphia Inquirer, was doing a story. He was Temple basketball’s beat writer at the time, and he was doing a story about Temple’s tournament chances and their potential seed. I gave my analysis of their team that season. He replied, ‘Joe, I am going to call you a bracketologist. What do you think?’ And that is when the term was born. So we think that term ‘bracketologist’ came before the term ‘bracketology’ by maybe a few weeks during that season, back in either 1998 or 1999."

Dan: "Can you describe the feeling of being able to turn a hobby and simply being a fan with a bracket into being an ESPN analyst and being known by fans worldwide as ‘Joey Brackets?’"

Lunardi: "Well, I do not know if they are fans! I think many of them are fans, but I am sure some of them wildly disagree with my viewpoints—that is okay; that is part of the deal. I like to remember that the word ‘fan’ is short for ‘fanatic,’ which has both good and bad connotations. But I like being ‘Joey Brackets.’ If I am at a Phillies game or at the airport—and it does not happen a lot, but it happens enough—someone will be like, ‘Hey, it’s Joey Brackets!’ And I will give a thumbs up or go over and say hello, especially if it is the offseason when I am missing basketball a little bit. I have a lot of opinions, and I am not shy about expressing them. I’ll be like, "Who’s your team, and then either, ‘Man, they stink’ or ‘They are going to be good next year.’ And we have great conversations. Why not have fun with it, right?"

Dan: "Louisville coach Rick Pitino once stated, ‘That's all [Lunardi] does with his life,’ referring to bracketology. Could you talk about how crazy and hectic it must be for you appearing on ESPN and finalizing your predictions in advance of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament each year?"

Lunardi: "I remember one year, it was championship week, and I was up at ESPN—and I call it my bunker there. For nine or ten days, we produce all the content for the website and for television, and what a lot of people do not know is that while all of that is going on, we are also generating all of the content for the online tournament preview that goes up on ESPN Insider on Selection Sunday night. That preview is like a quarter-million words that we have assembled for a lot of people all over the country working with the editorial staff in Bristol. That may be the hardest thing that we do…getting the tournament guide ready to go by nine o’clock on Sunday night, and that is going on the whole week, while we are doing all the television and video production."

Dan: "How do you balance your hectic lifestyle as a bracketologist for ESPN with your role as an administrator at St. Joe’s and as a color commentator for the Hawks?"

Lunardi: "It helps that I have a seasonal job. When it is not tournament season—during the other nine or ten months of the year—I get to go back to simply having a job, a mortgage, and a family and being a dad and trying to break 90 at golf. I think if I did bracketology at this level of exposure and experienced the notoriety year-round, I would not be as happy. But that is me; some people need that all the time. And that is fine—some people like chocolate, and some people like vanilla. I love it when it starts, and I love it when it is over. I could not go at that pace all year long. Now that I am in my 50s and getting a little bit older, I look forward to the break and just having one job for much of the year. But I work on campus a lot, and so I am seeing a lot of the St. Joe’s players. They were just in my office the other day, and so I am really juiced up right now."

Dan: "Do you have any interesting stories from your experience working at ESPN?"

Lunardi: "There are some amusing anecdotes, and they happen pretty often. I remember how one year we were filming my segments, and I do not know how it happened, but somehow I actually had time for a dinner break. And so I decided that I wanted to have a real dinner, and like, actually eat some vegetables or something. Not too far from the studio, there is an Outback Steakhouse. I sat down at a table, halftime of a game comes on, and a segment that we had filmed about an hour or two earlier—the segment starts running on the television while I am having dinner. There is this guy sitting across from me, looking at the television, looking at me, and looking back at the television, and he puts two and two together. And I just said, ‘That is my twin brother Joe. He is really a jerk, and he is unbearable at this time of the year.’ So I had this guy going for a while, and I finally gave him my card, and I said jokingly, ‘Thanks for playing along.’ But that has happened at restaurants, airports, and a lot of other places. There are many times when I go somewhere, and then the TV comes on. And there I am."

Dan: "With principles of bracketology being used to determine the best movie, book, and other issues, how does it feel to know that you began something that has expanded to areas outside of sports?"

Lunardi: "I think that I should get some royalties" (laughs). "But it does not work that way, I have come to learn. The only thing that matters is that I get to use bracketology too. Everything else is just a reflection of what it has become; not because of me, but moreso because of the popularity of our sport and the tournament. I am sure they are going to talk about bracketology a lot this year with the college football playoffs coming up. They actually want me to do a radio segment every Saturday on my first four in and my first four out for football. But I do not really know anything about football. Well, I know more about it than an average fan, but I do not study it. But I will gladly share my opinion about it if someone is nice enough to ask."

Dan: Do you see yourself ever simply becoming a fan of brackets again in lieu of being a bracketologist?

Lunardi: "Absolutely! I will never view college basketball quite the same way as when I was a college student, when I was doing it for fun. Now I have seen the other side of it—the political side of it, the corporate side of it, and of course, all the great sides of it too. But do I think, at 56, that at 66 or 76 years old, that I am going to be spending selection weekend being awake for 50 hours straight providing up-to-the-minute information for ESPN or whomever? Probably not. Maybe I will have grandchildren by then, or maybe I will have finally broken 90 in golf. When I was 26, if you had told me that I would be doing this, I would have said, ‘you are nuts!’ I just take each year as it comes. I know that this coming year, I am still going to do bracketology. And I will do it for a while after that. But I am not going to do it until my last breath. When I stop feeling energized by it, then it will be somebody else’s turn to be the next bracketologist."