Tracking athletic talent from every angle
College sports teams now use complex and pricey computer video systems to help learn opponents’ weaknesses and overcome their own.
Bobby Perry loves watching himself play basketball. After every game, the University of Kentucky forward spends hours, often alone, reviewing old clips on a computer, enjoying his every assist, reveling in his three-pointers.
It's not a narcissistic thing. His coaches want him to do it; they want everyone on the team to do it. "It's good practice," explains Mr. Perry. "Watching film, I get to see what I did right and spot all those opportunities I missed. This way, next time I'm on the court, I won't get fooled again."
Reviewing old games is nothing new for college sports. Teams have been screening past matches for decades. But Perry is part of the first class to enjoy the university's new video library of customized clips, tailored by a computer to show athletes and coaches only the plays they want – whether they're highlights from the season, a rival's favorite tricks, or, for Perry, how he performed in the last game.
Thanks to ever-improving technology, the most sought-after trainers in college sports right now are these computer video systems – networks flush with hundreds of hours of game-time video that have been captured, catalogued, and critiqued by teams in hopes of learning an opponent's weaknesses and overcoming their own. "Coaches have always been obsessing over finding 'the opening,' that little advantage that their opponents missed," says David Carter, a University of Southern California sports business professor. "For the past few years, pretty much every coach has thought these high-tech, high-end computer systems are the way to seize that advantage."
As coaches grasp for their new "opening," a turnover brews behind the scenes of NCAA sports. Early-adopter schools are hungry for the new wave of HD technology, and smaller colleges are finally trading in their tape decks for desktops.
Last year, Amherst College, a Massachusetts school with about 1,600 students, installed the same football video system as the NFL's Pittsburgh Steelers.
"It's just a matter of scale," says E.J. Mills, Amherst's head football coach. "The Steelers have a whole department of video editors. We just have a few guys. But the tools are all the same."
And the results are the same: After two decades of creeping through videotapes with the rewind and fast-forward buttons, coach Mills says his new digital setup saves him hours of editing time. Now he can cut segments on his laptop, catalog plays for easy review, and even e-mail clips to players so they can watch plays in their dorm rooms. "Film is really the best way to teach players – well, other than doing it on the field," says Mills. "And the less time we spend editing out the filler, the more time we can coach."
Even with computers, feeding a coach's appetite for video is a full-time job. Just ask Dan McDermott. As an undergraduate assistant, he edited digital footage for Boston College's top-tier basketball team. Right before he graduated two years ago, BC created a permanent video czar position for him.
"It's not a glamorous job," admits Mr. McDermott, who uses the word "tedious" in describing his daily routine. "But I need to have everything the coaches could want at their fingertips."
His office, a new video suite that he helped design last summer, is flanked on one side by a wall of hundreds of tapes chronicling BC's past seasons, and on the other by three large monitors, two of which were tuned to the Master's golf tournament ("Hey, it's the off-season," he jokes).
On the main screen, McDermott scrolls through a long list of archived games. The catalog has been growing quickly, he says, especially since February, when the coaches decided to keep tabs on even the most unlikely of NCAA opponents by taping every men's college basketball game on TV.
McDermott eventually calls up BC's final game of the season, a second-round March Madness loss against Georgetown. The video is divided into 160 short segments, one for each play. Next to the clips stand columns of identifying tags, such as whether BC is on offense or defense.
Once everything is catalogued, coaches can run any video in the player's lounge, a screening room filled with plush leather chairs clustered around a 60-in. TV.
But even BC's facility is small-time compared with the one at the University of Kentucky.
In January, UK's basketball program moved into its new home at the Joe Craft Center. At the heart of this $32-million practice hall is a 6,800-gigabyte server crammed with men's and women's games stretching back several seasons. This digital library links to coaches' offices, video kiosks for players, and projectors with "telestration" tools that rival the local weatherman's tricks.
"To me, these are just the latest and greatest toys," says Tim Asher, UK's video director. "But the coaches see all this as really powerful tools that they rely on."
Mr. Asher estimates that UK coaches analyze 45 to 50 hours of video a week during basketball season – in addition to working with students on the field.
The idea behind these systems is an old one: Show, don't tell. Athletes, especially today's college crop, absorb more when the games are playing out in front of them, says Coach Mills. So trainers set up 16mm projectors in the '60s, reviewed plays on VCRs in the '80s, turned to digital video in the '90s, and, next season, UK will tape each of their games in 1080i HD and experiment with clips for cellphones and iPods.
Now that Mills is no longer confined to a whiteboard of tiny Xs and Os, he's considering throwing out the Amherst playbook. "We don't need those 2-in.-thick binders anymore," he says. "All I'll need is my laptop. Our plays will be digital."
For the University of Arizona, even the training field has turned digital. In August, the Wildcats became the first college football team to run drills in virtual reality. Players can strap on sensors and perform in front of 3-D cameras that track the speed and angle of their every move.
"We can look at the computer models and see if your foot is at the wrong angle for punting or if your throwing technique is a little off," say Erick Harper, Arizona's director of football operations. "This stuff is the future. We just want to make sure we're always on the cutting edge."
It's a big step from those dusty tape decks that many thought coaches would never give up.