Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Statistically Minded Penn State Coach Russ Rose Featured in New York Times

Yesterday's New York Times had an article on Penn State women's volleyball coach Russ Rose and his longtime fascination with volleyball statistics. His team currently would have to be considered the nation's most dominant college program in any sport -- with 98 straight matches won and in pursuit of a third straight NCAA national title. The following stretch of paragraphs in the article describes Rose's background in statistics and how he augments the traditional statistics reported by the NCAA:

Rose thought he would be a gym teacher, maybe a basketball coach. But at George Williams College, he began playing volleyball under Jim Coleman, a former Olympic team coach and a future volleyball Hall of Famer. Coleman is credited with creating the modern volleyball statistics system, among other innovations.

Rose then spent two years at Nebraska, where his master’s thesis examined the skills most associated with winning. (“Passing predicts the level of play,” Rose said of his conclusion. “Hitting and blocking are most correlated with winning.”)

Official statistics have always bothered him. Most sports tally what the player did, not what he or she failed to do. He sees that as only half the equation. What about the rebound the basketball player should have had? Or the ground ball the shortstop did not reach? Or the dig that the volleyball player blew?

“On that sheet,” Rose said, pointing to a match’s official N.C.A.A score sheet, “if you don’t hit the ball, you don’t get a statistic. On mine, you do. You didn’t hit the ball.”

Most of his scribbles in the notebook reflect missed opportunities, what his players call “error control.” Rose grades each play, too, on a scale — not just whether the serve was in, for example, but how good the serve was.

The degree to which Rose's use of statistics in his coaching plays a causal role in the team's success is probably unknowable. I suspect, though, that when everything else is equal (which it usually is not) between Penn State and its opponent in terms of talent, experience, and so forth, Rose's stat-based strategizing may help the Nittany Lions get a few extra points here and there.

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