The man who found a new way to look at high school basketball rankings

By Eric Burgher

For Charlie Essig, it has always been about the numbers.

After working 42 years as an engineer, he transferred his mathematical expertise to his passion project, the Essig Report, a computer program he devised measuring the comparative strength of high school teams in Illinois based on game performances versus strength of schedule.

Now after 27 years, he will release his last report at the conclusion of the 2016-17 basketball season.

“I’m a numbers guy,” said Essig, 86, now living in Yorkville, Ill. “I figured out there’s got to be a way to do this. How well it can be done, I don’t know. But certainly, we had to figure out a way. So, I developed a way after a lot of work, a lot of practice.”

The endeavor began when Essig, captain and leading scorer of the 1948 West Aurora basketball team that won the school’s first ever conference championship, and his oldest sons, James and John, saw a problem with the way high school teams were ranked and seeded. They failed to consider the quality of wins and losses or strength of schedule.

“Back around the time he started, each of the Chicago papers had a prep writer that would give his ratings and there was no real rhyme or reason to it that we could tell,” said James, still a West Aurora basketball season-ticket holder. “It was just his opinion.”

So in 1990, using his brand new Apple IIe computer, Charlie developed The Essig Report.

In the early days, he woke up at 5:00 a.m. on Saturday mornings, driving 20 minutes to the Aurora Beacon News to retrieve high school basketball scores from the previous night. Then he’d print up hard copies of the report and personally hand them out to coaches at their games.

“My wife thought I was crazy to set the alarm for five,” he said. “But I felt if you were going to do something, do it right. That’s always been my feeling on things. If you’re not going to do it right, don’t bother to do it.”

Later, with the help of his friend Bob Schmidt, he moved the report to the web, charging $10 per subscription. And despite one season in which he received around 100 paid users, that model didn’t catch on in the long term. They decided to ask for donations instead before finally offering the service for free.

“I talked to people and I would present it to schools. I had a plan that I never really put forth, to provide a program for their athletic events showing the records of the teams and their ratings and other teams in their conference,” Essig said.

While there has been some interest from coaches in using the Essig Report to determine tournament seeding, the Illinois High School Association asks that coaches only consider head to head victories, record against common opponents, total win-loss record and a team evaluation based on narratives provided by the coaches. But coaches who have used the Essig Report in their determinations call it a more accurate ranking of the teams than one based on win-loss record alone.

“You’ve got to rate 22 teams in the sectional and a lot of those teams we didn’t see,” said Gordie Kerkman, former head basketball coach at West Aurora high school, who retired in 2015 as the fifth winningest coach in Illinois high school basketball history. “I think that the program Charlie developed was pretty doggone accurate most of the time.”

Essig, a celebrated baseball and basketball player in Aurora, is a member of the West Aurora High School Hall of Fame, the Illinois Softball Hall of Fame and the Illinois Basketball Hall of Fame.

While he says this will be his last year doing the reports, Kerkman has his doubts.

“He’s said that before but I think he’s become addicted to this program,” Kerkman said.

Whenever Essig does step aside, his hope is that someone will take it over, promote it and continue to make it worthwhile. But until then he’ll continue to enter scores into his Apple iMac, an upgrade from the machine he started on nearly three decades ago.

“I’ll miss it,” Essig said, reflecting on the last 27 years. “I’ve met some good people, I got to know some good coaches and athletic directors, all of whom have been supportive.”

Photo at top: Charlie Essig found a way to combine his love for sports and numbers. (Eric Burgher/MEDILL)