The Man Behind the Website You Visit Twice a Day

It is Saturday morning in September. At a home on the East Coast, three homes in in the Midwest, and another on the West Coast, several volunteers are scanning college volleyball websites, live stats, game tracker, stat master, stat broadcast, conference websites, and the NCAA volleyball website, for college volleyball scores. The person coordinating this enterprise is Rich Kern, a former civil engineer and avid birder, who has been gathering and sharing collegiate volleyball scores since 1995.

Initially Rich Kern began reporting Nebraska volleyball scores on a Nebraska state website that included information that the University of Nebraska sports information office provided him. After two years, the sports information office developed websites for each of the sports at Nebraska and Kern managed the volleyball website for two more years before he started his own website richkern.com. In the last twenty years richkern.com has emerged the “unofficial record” of women’s collegiate volleyball competition in the United States.

You might think that after two decades of providing this service, that with the technological advances that have moved us from cell phones larger than a brick to the current hand held computers we all carry, the gathering of college volleyball scores would be fully automated. You would be wrong. It is labor intensive. Kern and his colleagues will not finish searching for scores until at least 2:00 am on Sunday morning.

There are over 1,300 NCAA and NAIA women’s volleyball teams playing at least one and probably two matches on a Saturday morning in the preconference season. Kern’s team makes an effort to report each score within a minute or two of the end of the match. This means that on Saturday afternoon each of them may be tracking as many as a couple dozen matches at any given time on several different screens. When Rich described this process to me, the image that came to mind was that of an air traffic controller trying to watch a combination of passenger jets, FedEx, UPS and private planes circling an airport waiting to land, except that some of them never land.

If team members can’t find a score on the NCAA website, they search conference and school websites where they may or may not find the score. (Interestingly, there are a couple of prominent NCAA division 1 schools that are slow to post results on their volleyball website if their school loses.) Sometimes schools may not post the score until the next day and some Division III schools may not post their scores until Monday morning.

Two or three days before the fall season begins, Kern loads collegiate volleyball schedules compiled from the NCAA website into a data base so that he and his colleagues know what time a match begins and when it is likely to end. But if a college is playing a nonconference opponent with a common name, like St. Mary’s, and the location is not identified (St. Mary’s – Kansas) he may have to check out several websites before he can be sure which St. Mary’s is on the schedule.

To make things even more complicated, some of the people compiling scores have a home team they want to watch so they leave their computers while other people take up the slack. It is controlled chaos until the conference seasons begin in the third week of September when it becomes obvious who the St. Mary’s team is and teams aren’t playing two matches on one day.

The website also has some valuable and some quirky information on the won loss percentage of coaches at each institution and the average height of each roster. I would personally find it interesting if it listed which players on every roster had helicopter parents and which ones had fighter pilot parents. (A division I coach explained to me that fighter pilot parents don’t just hover over their child; they are willing to go to court if their child is uncomfortable.)

The other section of the website that many coaches frequent on richkern.com are the RKPI and Pablo rankings for Division I teams. RKPI is Kern’s effort to replicate the RPI (ratings percentage index) that the NCAA committee has used in all sports to determine at large bids and seeding for the NCAA tournament. When Kern developed the RKPI formula the NCAA did not release the rankings until the season was over. That has changed and the first RPI rankings are now published after there has been enough competition for them to make sense.

The RPI ranking system is based 25% on wins, 50% on your opponent wins, and 25% on your opponent’s opponent’s wins. It does not value whether or not you played at home or on the road or how much your team won or lost by.

Where a game is played is taken into account on the NCAA basketball RPI but not in volleyball which is unfortunate. Men’s basketball teams are flying to competitions, frequently on charter aircraft. Some women’s volleyball teams are still vanning to road matches which is much more fatiguing. When I asked Kern why he thought the NCAA did not factor in the value of winning on the road in women’s volleyball, he didn’t hesitate with his response: “It would take more time and money to do so, and the NCAA cares less about women’s volleyball than basketball.”

There is also the feeling that the RPI system can be gamed by playing teams that are going to have a positive win loss record but are from weaker conferences. Because there are more conferences on the East Coast than the West Coast, it is easier for teams in power conferences like the ACC and the SEC to schedule teams that fit this description. RPI doesn’t look at whether a team won 3-0 or 3-2 only whether or not you won or lost.

The Pablo ranking system was developed by a current university professor who wanted to overcome some deficiencies he saw in the RPI system. Pablo is points based. It doesn’t factor in sets won or lost but the total number of point differentiation in a match. Because of that it values a decisive victory more than it does a victory where there is very little difference in the total points scored. Pablo is also more predictive than RPI and in recent years the NCAA volleyball committee has used it as one of the tools beyond RPI to determine at large and seeding. Pablo does factor in whether the match was played at home, on the road, or at a neutral site. The majority of Division 1 coaches that I have talked with believe it is a much more accurate ranking system than RPI.

For several years richkern.com has been a subscription website. Coaches encouraged him to make it a subscription site because they recognized its value and they were afraid if Kern couldn’t cover the costs associated with the site it might disappear. There is a high percentage of Division I and II subscribers with fewer NAIA and Division III subscribers.

Rich Kern and his wife Jeanne are avid bird watchers. They have been to the Arctic Circle, India, Norway, Costa Rica and many other remote places looking to identify rare and not so rare birds that you and I are not likely to see. But none of those adventures can take place from August to December when Rich is in his basement tracking 30 matches on the internet, with ears cocked like a telegrapher in an old Western movie, trying to report what the volleyball world is telling him. He is doing it not because it is a profitable business model, but because he and his team see themselves as servants to the growth of the game.

–Terry Pettit

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