Just Joe

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Sports -

PHIL­A­DEL­PHIA — The god­fa­ther of NCAA tour­na­ment pro­jec­tions is court­side, coolly check­ing the pings on his phone be­fore sad­dling up for his ESPN broad­cast du­ties.

He has just crafted his first in-sea­son men’s bas­ket­ball bracket pro­jec­tion on this Novem­ber evening, re­veal­ing to his le­gion of fol­low­ers which 68 teams he pre­dicts will fight it out for four tick­ets to Min­neapo­lis in April.

This is se­ri­ous stuff — “Who’s in?!” “Who’s out?!” — as sports de­bates go, but Joe Lu­nardi is stress­ing more about St. Joseph’s vs. Illi­nois-Chicago.

His lap­top is closed and his phone is on mute. ”Joey Brack­ets“right now is Ad­min­is­tra­tor Joe. Lu­nardi dou­bles as the St. Joseph’s di­rec­tor of market­ing for ath­let­ics. He bounces be­tween greet­ing Hawks fans and check­ing in on sev­eral pregame scenes. The gameday pro­duc­tion crew in­cludes his youngest daugh­ter, Eliz­a­beth, who trans­ferred from Hof­s­tra last year to be closer to her fa­ther.

Lu­nardi, the man be­hind brack­e­tol­ogy, may seem part ma­chine to sports fans — spit­ting out pro­jec­tions at high speed for mil­lions to scour and de­bate. The truth is he is a hus­band and fa­ther of two daugh­ters, a key univer­sity of­fi­cial, a me­dia per­son­al­ity, as well as an ar­chi­tect of brack­ets.

Away from Phil­a­del­phia and St. Joseph’s, the Lu­nardi name for nearly two decades has been at­tached to the process and de­bate around pre­dict­ing which teams will form March Madness. Fans and fol­low­ers anx­iously wait for his picks, of­ten with red pens in hand.

“I usu­ally tweet my bracket be­fore the game and don’t look at it for two hours,” said the 58-year-old Phil­a­del­phia na­tive. “Then, For­mer St. John’s coach Steve Lavin has a word with Joe Lu­nardi be­fore a game against Vil­lanova in 2011 in Phil­a­del­phia.

I get home and peo­ple tell me how much I screwed up.”

Be­fore they split for their pregame du­ties, Lu­nardi hugs Eliz­a­beth and gives her a pack­age at the scorer’s ta­ble. It’s an Ari­ana Grande T-shirt he or­dered for her, for an up­com­ing con­cert.

“Love you, Dad,” she says. “Have a good game.”

Lu­nardi’s pro­jected field gets up­dated daily on his lap­top, re­gard­less of whether it’s posted on­line.

His mas­ter Mi­crosoft Ex­cel spread­sheet re­sem­bles the tour­na­ment se­lec­tion com­mit­tee’s cheat sheets, com­plete with the new-for-2019 an­a­lyt­ics. Any time Lu­nardi peels off a fact for a tweet, it spreads across col­lege bas­ket­ball na­tion.

Long be­fore Twit­ter, ESPN knew it had some­thing with Lu­nardi’s first bracket page in 2002. It re­ceived hun­dreds of thou­sands of hits within an hour. He then made his on-air de­but. Lu­nardi knew his stuff but was clue­less how bracket talk would trans­late to TV, es­pe­cially from a small pro­duc­tion stu­dio in Phil­a­del­phia.

“I was just do­ing what­ever they told me in my ear,” he said. “I was try­ing not to blink, pick my nose or look in the wrong di­rec­tion.”

In 2008, Lu­nardi cor­rectly picked the en­tire

65-team field. It was a mo­ment that seemed to grow the al­ready wide gap be­tween Lu­nardi and the slew of other reg­u­lar bracket pro­jec­tors, a tribe of around

150.

“I don’t think most of the oth­ers out there are do­ing it ev­ery day from Novem­ber,” said Lu­nardi, who for four years taught an on­line brack­e­tol­ogy class at St. Joseph’s un­til 2014. “Not be­cause they’re in­fe­rior, but they don’t have to stay up.”

Three years ago, Lu­nardi did need help stay­ing up on the games. He was di­ag­nosed with mildly ag­gres­sive prostate can­cer. Doc­tors told him he could wait un­til the spring, after the sea­son, to have surgery, but ”there was no way I was wait­ing,“he said. Lu­nardi was out of com­mis­sion for less than two weeks and missed only a few games. He is can­cer-free now but gets screened an­nu­ally.

Lu­nardi has been a supporter for can­cer re­search and aware­ness for some time. About two years be­fore his di­ag­no­sis, mid­dle brother Richard died after a

16-month bat­tle with pan­cre­atic can­cer. Lu­nardi misses Richard’s send­ing him mes­sages about a ”lousy tie“after watch­ing him on TV. This fight is an­other of Lu­nardi’s many mis­sions.

“If there’s a story here to be told,” he said, “it is don’t be afraid to get checked.”

Brack­e­tol­ogy is born

Long be­fore “brack­e­tol­ogy” was added to the Ox­ford English Dic­tio­nary, as it was in 2017, Lu­nardi grew up in the Over­brook neigh­bor­hood in West Phil­a­del­phia, a mile from the St. Joseph’s cam­pus. Some of his ear­li­est bas­ket­ball mem­o­ries do not match the glam­orous Philly Big 5 scenes of the era, though.

“I used to ride my bike to watch my older brother’s in­tra­mu­ral games,” Lu­nardi said, chuck­ling. “I loved tag­ging along.”

The fam­ily moved to South­ern Cal­i­for­nia while Lu­nardi was in high school, but he re­turned to his roots and at­tended St. Joseph’s, like his fa­ther and two older brothers be­fore him. In 1981, No. 9 seed St. Joseph’s up­set No. 1 seed DePaul on the way to the Elite Eight. Lu­nardi wrote about the mag­i­cal run as an ed­i­tor at the stu­dent news­pa­per, the Hawk. An­other big vic­tory came that sea­son, too. Lu­nardi met his fu­ture wife, Pam, but their first date was de­layed from win­ter un­til April, after bas­ket­ball sea­son. Pam still jok­ingly calls him an ”April Fool“for wait­ing so long to take her out.

Lu­nardi be­gan a 30-year ca­reer with St. Joseph’s in 1987, first as the head of me­dia re­la­tions. On the side, his role as a con­trib­u­tor for Blue Rib­bon Col­lege Bas­ket­ball Year­book ex­panded, and he and Chris Dortch bought a stake in Blue Rib­bon in 1995.

“Ev­ery Sun­day at the crack of dawn, (for­mer St. Joseph’s AD) Don DiJu­lia would show up with cof­fee, dough­nuts and bagels,” Lu­nardi said. “He would say, ‘Who you got in? Who you got out? You got that wrong. What do you think of this?’ I don’t think we had slept at all.”

Soon Mike Jensen of the Phil­a­del­phia In­quirer was call­ing Lu­nardi an ex­pert in “brack­e­tol­ogy” — a tag that would stick as a new ca­reer launched.

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