Book review: Bill Connelly’s Study Hall

When you boil it down, there are three reasons I can think of that people look at college football stats.  If you’re a casual fan, you’ll look at box scores and seasonal stats to get a general feel for how a game played out and why somebody’s name might be in the mix for the Heisman.  If you’re someone like a Georgia Tech fan, you do what Tech fans do with stats when reality comes up short.

But if you’re obsessed with this sport – and I’d say that blogging about college football and commenting about a college football blogger’s posts qualifies – then you’re looking at stats in the hope that they can shine some bright light on why and how teams win and lose.  (That doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get it right.)

Which brings me to Bill Connelly, who’s written a thoroughly enjoyable book that’s in part an expansion of much that he’s written at two stats-oriented blogs, Football Outsiders and Football Study HallThe book is entitled Study Hall: College Football, Its Stats and Its Stories, and it’s well worth your time to read.

If you’re a regular reader here, then you already know I’m a big fan of Bill’s work.  Compared to, say, the level of information to be gleaned from the current state of baseball stats, college football statistics are still a work in progress for several reasons.  But it’s been both informative and rewarding for me to read what people like Bill and Matt Hinton have done over the past few years to bring some meaning to what really matters in evaluating a program’s performance on the field.  (Given the way college football goes about making its selections for the national title game, that matters a helluva lot more, or, perhaps more accurately, should matter, than it does for other sports.)

But that’s not why I enjoyed Bill’s book so much.  After all, you’ll be a third of the way into the book before Bill starts getting into the statistical weeds, so to speak.  The book begins with an explanation of why he and we obsess about this wonderful sport – the first chapter is entitled “It’s Personal” – and then spends the last significant part exploring one of my favorite topics, the diverse strategies that coaches use to win.  If you believe this sport is special, Bill does a great job of getting to some of the reasons for that.

And if I can mention a couple of other quick points that I may find more interesting than perhaps you may… one, I’m not sure this book could have been written in the way Bill has ten or fifteen years ago.  Not because of the progress that’s been made with the research, but because the book has such a new media flavor to it.  There are plenty of quotes and observations from bloggers and from journalists who have adapted to the blogosphere, all given the same level of respect.  I recognized every name there, and indeed know several of them purely through electronic correspondence.  Bill’s higher profile makes for greater familiarity and it’s pretty cool to see how naturally it all comes off in the book.

Second… well, Jesus, I’m getting old.  As you know, Bill interviewed me to get a list of games that have had the greatest impact on my fandom and the fact is that I’m a generation ahead (behind?) every other party who furnished such a list.  (Bill was six when he watched the iconic Flutie pass that beat Miami in 1984.)  It’s not just that, though.  There’s a description of the early period when Sabermetrics took off, led by Bill James’ groundbreaking work.  Bill kinda looks back at James.  Me? I remember buying the Baseball Abstract in its infancy.  Sigh.  Anyway, if there are any college football bloggers out there who are older than fifty-seven, feel free to drop in here and cheer me up.

In the meantime, the rest of you should go get Bill’s book.

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23 Comments

Filed under College Football, Stats Geek!

23 responses to “Book review: Bill Connelly’s Study Hall

  1. The other Doug

    Sucks to get old!

    Thanks for writing the review. I’m not a stat junkie, but this sounds like something I would enjoy.

    • I hope so, Other Doug. It was intended to be a book book, not a math book. There are numbers in there to be sure, but it’s probably not at all what you think. It’s more just me talking about the cfb things I enjoy with other cfb people.

  2. gastr1

    I remember my dad’s first copy of Baseball Abstract. It looked like somebody’s proposal they submitted to the boss for review…it was typed on a typewriter and had, what, colored paper covers and the cheapest binding imaginable?

  3. 81Dog

    those of us who grew up reading the agate type in the Sunday AJC with the batting averages of every player with sufficient ABs to qualify for the batting title, or who followed the league leaders in HRs, RBI, ERA on a daily basis, or who anxiously waited for the new SI every week because it was really the only way to get a national perspective on players or teams outside Atlanta, understand exactly where you’re coming from, Senator.

    Today’s kids have so much information at their fingertips. Some of us had to thumb through (literally, kids) almanacs or encyclopedias, or microfiche copies of newspapers, or the bound periodicals in a public library, to find the answers to stuff a moderately bright 10 year old can find in under 30 seconds by doing a Google search on his cell phone.

    I guess this is how my grandfather felt about kids like me growing up with electricity and color tv (!) and telephones (rotary dial, of course) and interstate highways.

    It does suck to get old, but as my old friend (and now I mean that literally), the legendary Sergio Alvarez-Mena III told me back in law school, “You’re only young once, but you can be immature forever.” Thanks for the succinct philosophy, which I have adopted successfully as my lifelong mantra, Scourge! I recommend it to those of you who have not yet fallen prey to complete and unyielding adulthood, no matter what your chronological age.

  4. Comin' Down The Track

    Your appeal to all ages of college football fans belies your age, Senator. You wear it well.

  5. Chuck

    I am old enough to have had two Hank Aaron baseball cards in the same year the Milwaukee Braves won the NL. So there. ;)

    • I was at the Parade in Atlanta when we welcomed the Braves. A Shriner put me on his motor bike and I was so frightened I wrapped my legs around the motor and got a third degree burn on my thigh. My Poppy was livid.

  6. Ben

    And this whole time, I thought you were a hipster UGA 2L being “ironic” , . .

  7. Marshall

    I’ll definitely have to pick up a copy of that one. I always enjoy every time you post something of Connelly’s.

    I’m pushing 40 and I was a stats junkie as a kid (well before the internets), so I can definitely relate to some of the older crowd. I do remember a time when the AJC ran expanded stats on each MLB team every Sunday. I hate that they don’t do that anymore.

    To digress a bit, also from that era: There was a weekly newsletter that went out every week during football season back in the 80′s that my dad was subscribed to. I want to say it was called, “The Kick-Off,” or maybe “The Touchdown?” I think it hit mailboxes on Tuesday or Wednesday. It had pretty much all of the major 1-A teams listed complete with schedules and results. It also had some stats and few other nuggets of info, featured games, and a few other things. It was printed on this thick, cream-colored paper and the ink as mainly red, with a bit of blue and black. It had the greatest smell to it, also. Man, for the life of me, I can’t remember what it was called. It was a pretty big deal at the time and I couldn’t wait until it came in the mail. Anybody remember that?

    • Its still produced. We get it at the Macon TD Club every week. Its delivered by all things, bus. Its really pretty good. I think they have a web address.

      • Marshall

        Wow! Yeah, I found it on the web. Appreciate the info. I’m definitely planning on getting a subscription this year.

  8. Dawgfan Will

    Nothing wrong with being the elder statesman. This is the best sports blog on the web imho.

    • 81Dog

      what this blog needs is a semi-ironic soundtrack by Elmer Bernstein. Other than that, it’s dead solid perfect.

  9. Rugbydawg79

    Well Senator I am a 1953 model and my first memorable game was the 1965 opener “The Flea Flicker” it was very hot, Alabama players had 2 different types of helmets( crimson and white) and Bob Taylor flew down the sidelines right in front of me-3 years in the Army caused me to be Rugbydawg79 in stead of 76–although I remember that game against bama too ! GATA

  10. mp

    My copy of Study Hall arrived on Saturday. So, I’m not too far in yet, but I like what I’ve read of the book so far and love Bill’s work in general.

  11. Noonan

    Cool. I look forward to reading it. Football stats will never be as meaningful as baseball’s but they are still fun to analyze. MLB, with its huge sample size and the fact that only 2-3 players are involved in each play, is a statisticians wet dream. I wonder if people analyze Cricket stats?

  12. Russ

    I’m not a stat geek (that much), but the Senator’s recommendation carries a lot of weight, and Bill always seems to hold college football in the proper high regard. So, I’ll be adding it to my nook. Bill, can I get your electronic autograph on my ebook? :)

  13. Ed Kilgore

    Ah, Senator, I feel your pain. Reading Bill James when he was still a despised heretic basically ruined baseball for me, since I spent all my time arguing with other fans about basics like the irrelevance of batting averages and RBI and the existence of Park Effects. Now the old arguments are, well, old. At my political blog I recently veered from a post on Larry Summers into an extensive quote from James’ famous rant about Enos Cabell and “character,” and heard crickets in the comment thread.

    I welcome Connelly’s efforts: not just the statistical analysis, but the intelligent and accessible writing about it, which was ultimately what made James a Copernicus instead of some self-centered geek bitching to his small circle of friends.

  14. Nashville West

    I’m the same vintage as you are Senator but coming from the left coast I first fell in love with football watching the 1963 Rose Bowl between USC and Wisconsin, still one of the 2 best Rose Bowls. I later had the privilege of attending UGA and got to sit in the stands along with you and thousands of our fellow Dawgs for the best Tech game ever in 1978. Keep on passing the love of the greatest sport to the next generation.

    • +1 :). There are many of us here at GTP that are of the Senator’s vintage. Surely we cheered the DAWGS together back in the day. What a wonderful forum Bluto provides for us to reunite!

  15. bham dawg

    The most important thing I learned from Bill James is the idiocy of bunting with a runner on second and nobody out (a fact that managers continue to ignore) and the corresponding lunacy of “moving the runner over.” Case in point last night: Our league leading hitter “giving himself up” to move a runner from second to third so that Dan Uggla could strike out again.