Mathematicians Come To Aid Of ODU Football

March 31, 2008
By ODU Athletics
ODU Sports

March 31, 2008

The fledgling Old Dominion University NCAA football program may have found a secret weapon in the university's highly ranked Department of Mathematics and Statistics.

When the Monarch coaching staff wanted to design a complicated workout regime for their 100 tryout players earlier this year, they turned to ODU mathematicians for help.

The coaches' problem was this: They had divided their tryout candidates into eight groups and they had developed four different workout stations. To increase the effectiveness of the workout sessions, they wanted two groups to compete against each other at each workout station during each of four workout rounds. Furthermore, they wanted each group to compete at each station during the workout without ever competing against the same group twice.

Got that?

Andy Rondeau, the defensive coordinator and linebackers coach, admitted that the coaches were flummoxed. "We always end up with a conflict or with groups that compete against each other more than once," he wrote in an e-mail that began, "Dear Math Department, I am sorry to bother you, but we have a math problem."

As Rondeau's luck would have it, the note fell into the hands of Mark Dorrepaal, chair of the math department. He is internationally known for figuring out math puzzles without using a computer, and his true love is tackling Major League Baseball scheduling puzzles.

In 2006, Dorrepaal won media attention by holding the lead for a few weeks in an Internet contest that challenged mathematicians to come up with the most efficient round-robin schedule for 14 National League baseball teams. Although there are billions of possibilities, Dorrepaal came up with a schedule that required fewer travel miles than any of the previous submissions-most of which were the products of specially designed computer software.

So the challenge presented by the football coaches did not seem difficult at all to Dorrepaal. His solution was to divide the eight groups into two categories (X consisting of groups A, B, C, D and Y consisting of groups E, F, G, H). "Then in each of the four rounds, a group from category X is paired off with a group from category Y," he wrote to Rondeau.

He also attached a grid to show the complete solution. "You have my full permission to use it," he mused. "I am honored to be able to help the team."

"Well, sir, you have our gratitude and great respect," Rondeau responded. He said the coaches employed the solution, and it worked. Some of the coaches wanted to know more about the "formula" that Dorrepaal uses, and all of them "are wondering why we were not able to figure it out," Rondeau added.

For head coach Bobby Wilder, Dorrepaal's assist was more evidence of support on campus for the team, which is composed currently of walk-ons who are trying out. ODU, which last fielded a football team in 1940, will start intercollegiate competition in 2009. "So many people have done so much to help since we have been here," Wilder said. "The professor's solution worked perfectly and allowed us to run our workout in a timely manner."

Dorrepaal noted in an interview that another member of the department, Professor Dayanand Naik, saw the same request for help from the coaches and worked independently on a solution. "His solution was identical to mine, but he submitted it a few hours after I did, so he didn't get credit. He deserves credit, too."

Among math departments at the nation's public universities, ODU's department consistently ranks among the top 100 in research and development expenditures.