James Carville is a familiar name in the national political arena. As the 2008 Presidential election season progresses, he’ll become even more ubiquitous as an expert political commentator. Carville first rose to prominence as lead strategist for Bill Clinton’s 1992 winning campaign against George H. W. Bush. His memorable slogan “It’s the economy, stupid”, focused attention on the recession that ultimately undid the senior Bush’s bid for re-election. Carville was Karl Rove before Rove.
Known as the Ragin’ Cajun for his Louisiana roots and caustic style, Carville has enjoyed a spirited career as political advisor, college professor, author, film producer, actor, TV host, pundit and gadfly. In 2006, Carville co-hosted a sports show on satellite radio with Luke Russert, son of the late NBC journalist, Tim Russert. Ever the provocateur, Carville has taken on the college football establishment over what he considers inequities in the Bowl Championship Series (BCS), college football’s hackneyed scheme to acclaim a champion without a defining tournament.
Carville’s perceived college football slights go beyond the BCS. A maniacal fan of his beloved LSU Tigers -- winners, ironically, of two BCS championships that anointed them number one in college football for 2007 and 2003, Carville smugly trumpets the superiority of Southeastern Conference (SEC) football. Indeed, SEC member schools, including LSU, have experienced extraordinary success in the last 20 years. But not content to revel in the SEC’s spoils, Carville has found a foil in the Big 10 Conference, comprised of prominent national powers like Ohio State, Michigan, and Penn State, which has not enjoyed the SEC’s football success recently, even as it remains the apple of network television’s ratings eye.
Carville, it appears, takes every opportunity to flaunt the football success of the SEC and the putative mediocrity of the Big 10, constantly carping that the latter is overrated. Ohio State’s embarrassments in the last two championship games against SEC teams are certainly not dissuasive. Carville’s TV sports interview on the 2008 Rose Bowl matchup between Illinois of the Big 10 and USC of the Pac 10 is a hoot.1 His message was that Illinois was an undeserving opponent of USC, and that Georgia of the SEC was a much better matchup to the vaunted Trojans. He also lambasted the concept of the Rose Bowl, which, over the years, has matched the Big 10 against the Pac 10 as the “granddaddy” of bowl games, noting that such a fixed schedule is the only way the Big 10 could get the public to watch its “stinking teams”. Carville’s tirade was prophetic: after a pretty competitive start, USC ran roughshod over the inexperienced Fighting Illini. Somehow, I don’t believe he’ll be getting speaking invitations in Champaign-Urbana anytime soon.
A Wisconsin fan, I’ve struggled with the Big 10’s lack of football prowess on the national stage for some time. At this point, I simply acknowledge that, top to bottom, the SEC is the superior football conference. The SEC’s record in big postseason games in recent times, as well as the fact that there are more SEC players in the NFL than any other conference, is pretty compelling evidence for me. That five of Sports Illustrated’s top twelve preseason picks are from SEC (including Georgia at number one), while only two of the top twenty are from the Big 10, is icing on the cake. Just wait till next year….
Or find something else besides football to compare. August is back to school, and back to school means the latest editions of the insidious college ratings books and magazines. Much as I hate to admit it, I do often sneak peaks at the numbers, if only to confirm that when the authors change the formulae from year to year, the ratings numbers change as well. Go figure.
My internet meanderings led me to an interesting September, 2006 article by The Washington Monthly entitled “The Washington Monthy’s Annual College Guide”, designed as an alternative to the influential “America’s Best Colleges”, by U.S. News.2,3 The Washington Monthly guide uses different criteria than those related primarily to endowment size, and therefore levels the playing field, allowing better showings by state universities in contrast to wealthy private schools. And coincidentally, one section in this article specifically compares the Big 10 with the SEC, noting in terms of academic quality: “The Big 10 Slaughters the SEC. Of the 11 members of the Big 10 Conference….all 11 make our top 75. Of the 12 members of the Southeastern Conference….only Vanderbilt and the University of Florida even crack it. Football is fine for schools, as long as they’re Midwestern.”
Not entirely contented with the Washington Monthly analysis, I set out to put together a “dashboard” of charts showing how the two conferences compare on some academic measure. My source was the hot-off-the-press “Americas Best Colleges, 2009 Edition”3, which unfortunately has become somewhat of a bible for college search and comparison. For each SEC and Big 10 school, I noted the Peer assessment, a numeric rating in the range of 1 to 5, with 1 being lowest and 5 highest. Evidently this metric, summarized from survey responses by college presidents, provosts, and deans of admission, is an important indicator of school quality. At least that’s what U.S News tells us.
After assembling a small data set consisting of college name, conference, and Peer assessment, I used the R statistical platform to produce the graphics4. Figure 1 is a simple dotplot that shows ratings for each Big 10 and SEC school, with conferences denoted by blue (Big 10) and red (SEC) groupings. The mean of the Big 10 ratings is indicated by the blue vertical line; the SEC mean by the red. Figure 2 summarizes the ratings by conference in a histogram using R’s lattice graphics in which the separate panels share common x and y axes scales to allow for easy cross panel comparisons. Finally, Figure 3 is a densityplot that details the distribution of ratings by conference groupings of the Big 10 (blue) and SEC (red).
The academic equivalent of a football rout? Maybe the Big 10 should just give up football and stick to education? I wonder what James Carville would say?
- James Carville. “James Carville on the BCS”. YouTube. December 6, 2007. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W_LrYBBDTIs
- The Editors. “The Washington Monthly’s Annual College Guide”. The Washington Monthly. September 2006. http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2006/0609.collegeguide.html
- “America’s Best Colleges, 2009 Edition”. U.S. News & World Report. August, 2009.
- Deepayan Sarkar. Lattice : Multivariate Data Visualization with R. Springer: 2008.
About the Author
Steve Miller is President of OpenBI, LLC, a Chicago-based services firm focused on delivering business intelligence solutions with open source software. A statistician/quantitative analyst by education, Steve has 30 years BI experience. His charter – and OpenBI's – is to help customers manage performance through optimal deployment of analytics. Steve is a columnist for DMReview and writes also for BIReview and the B-Eye-Network. In addition to R, OpenBI specializes in the Pentaho and JasperSoft open source BI platforms and Weka data mining. Steve can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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