Inside USD

Students’ Math Model Picks Best College Coach

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Who is the greatest coach, male or female, in college sports in the last 100 years?

This question, if asked in sports fan circles, is ripe for debate coast-to-coast. One must consider Hall of Fame coaches, those who’ve won multiple championships and who got the most out of their talented players. Top coaches are often those whose attachment to a university’s program makes it nationally synonymous with success.

During a February weekend this semester, three University of San Diego students — sophomores Nicole Peterson and Jasmin Shores and junior Morgan Smith — tackled this question, as a team, in their own way. They researched it, came up with math equations and four specific factors to measure it and then submitted it to the Consortium for Mathematics and Applications’ (COMAP) annual International Mathematical Contest in Modeling.

“When I heard about the college coach option, I thought this was a problem that seemed interesting enough to keep my attention the whole weekend,” Peterson said. “It was a fun topic; Sports are fun, and I’ve played sports my whole life.”

So who emerged as the greatest coach? The students’ work, which impressively earned honorable mention recognition among more than 6,700 entries worldwide, gave University of Connecticut Women’s Basketball Coach, Geno Auriemma the nod.

Auriemma, who has won nine national titles at UConn, had an overall score of 7.3275 to edge the runner-up, Tennessee’s legendary women’s basketball coach Pat Summit (7.1795). The late Alabama football coach, Paul “Bear” Bryant (6.689), was third overall. All coach scores were based on four factors: a team’s ability to win; coach’s ability to build the program; longevity; and the number of national and conference titles won, with more weight given to national championship victories.

“There are so many factors that go into determining the best college coach of all time,” Smith said. “It took us awhile, but once we talked it out, we decided those four were the most important.”

They compiled a top five coaches list for each sport examined — football, baseball, men’s and women’s basketball. A vector was created for each coach and an equation was built for each component. Certain criteria was also employed: Only NCAA Division I coaches were eligible for consideration; a coach had to be at their school a minimum of 10 years; and only the school that the coach spent the majority of his or her time was used. The math model gave coaches an advantage in one area or two, but there was usually something else to balance it out.

“Our rationale was that we gave our points based on what we thought was most important and we covered our bases on what we thought were their strengths and weaknesses,” Shores said. “We tried to be as fair as possible, and I think it was a strength for our model.”

Peterson said Auriemma’s selection was so unique that she felt it might have contributed to receiving special recognition. Regardless, she continued, “we wanted our model to be accurate and as detailed as possible. We took into account a lot of different factors, but we took the sports we could find the most statistics on to calculate it. The sports we chose had a bigger general following.”

One possible indicator for Auriemma’s success is the history of women’s basketball. It wasn’t an official NCAA sport until 1982. Still today, UConn is among a small group of perennial elite programs that has won numerous conference and national titles and continues to attract top players to the program.

While the model’s findings can stir debate, what’s most important here is the process of learning experienced by all USD entrants, including the three USD Honors Program members.

Shores, biology major and a chemistry and German minor, earned her second straight year with an honorable mention. Smith, a math major and Spanish and Economics minor, also competed for a second time. Peterson, a math major and accounting minor, was new to the COMAP contest. The teammates said they had not met each other prior to this competition, but that they brought their respective strengths to the team and they worked efficiently. A deeper appreciation for math and self-awareness of their skill set also materialized.

“As a math major, I’m not sure what job field I’ll go into yet, but I believe doing something like this, having such an open-ended question and having to form a mathematical model, thinking about it mathematically, that’s what I take away,” Peterson said. “There are so many fields where it’s ‘Here’s the problem, now solve it for us.’ You have to compute things mathematically without having a math problem in front of you and apply it to real life.”

Smith and Shores credited previous COMAP experience for their successful approach this year.

“Math makes you think about things more abstractly and you apply variables which keeps everything generalized,” Smith said. “But in this competition, and thinking mathematically in general, you take a step back and compartmentalize things as variables and you think about how those variables interact.”

Shores teamed with Meredith Higa and Rennie Andrews last year. Their honorable mention recognition came after they devised a model for how to best store water in Saudi Arabia with growing demand for it. This year, Shores, who isn’t a sports fan, once again learned about math’s broad usefulness.

“I love how your brain can grow so many different ways, in so many areas you don’t even realize how much you’re growing,” she said. “I appreciate that there are so many variables to everything and I’m beginning to understand all those variables. I want to be a physician and I know math overlaps in the medical field. Hopefully, I’ll find a way to incorporate it into my job. I do enjoy math and how I can apply it to life. This competition makes me appreciate it even more.”

— Ryan T. Blystone

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