Charles Hollis: Still picking, grinning and winning

Thank you to Mark Mayfield and Meredith Cummings for inviting me to talk sports on the campus radio station, 90.7 The Capstone (WVUA-FM). On the taped show that aired Saturday, we talked about the state of sports journalism today, Jalen Hurts, California’s new economic freedoms for college athletes, and I tried to say as many mean and hurtful things as I could about the NCAA. Then I did my first public college football predictions since 1995. I ended up doing slightly better than a blindfolded monkey picking games by dart throws. (Note to self: Zero correlation between team uniform color and game result.)

 We used to do weekly “staff picks” at The Birmingham News. My first year as sports editor, when I knew nothing about the X’s and O’s of college football, I finished third in the department. The next year, when I thought I had learned something, I finished 11th. I promptly killed the staff picks. And ended up creating a legend.

 Charles Hollis is a sports journalism legend for other reasons, of course. He’s in the Alabama Sports Writer Hall of Fame. But he began doing a full column of weekly picks and analysis in 1996. He’s still doing it today. (And get this: This year he produced his 36th consecutive version of the very well-known Birmingham News Spring SEC Football Report, exactly half of its existence.) 

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Some fans think ability to correctly predict game outcomes is one measure of a good (or bad) sports writer. It isn’t. Picks are purely for entertainment (with “entertainment” broadly defined to include helping bettors decide where to place their illegal bets). Mere fun or not, I’ve been perpetually amazed at Charles’ career win percentage. He tells me it’s about 73 percent for regular-season games. That track record is not because he picks chalk. He predicts several upsets every week – did you nail Purdue over Ohio State last year? – and he includes games involving lower-division teams in the state for which there are far fewer scouting and injury reports floating around on the internet. He does not count losing teams that beat the spread as a victory, either.

He does so well because he understands the key to smart picks: Reporting. Along with voluminous online reading, Charles talks to team beat writers and has connections and a reputation that allow him to confidentially pick the brains of real football coaches. In January, Charles got a lot of flak for bucking the trend and picking Clemson over Alabama in the national title game (which is what happened). But he had talked to a member of the Clemson coaching staff, who made persuasive observations, such as Alabama’s likely inability to generate a pass rush and the height of Clemson receivers. That’s how you nail a pick. 

Forecasting college football games ain’t easy, because there’s no accounting for teenagers, emotions or idiot coaches. But everyone tries. Only a few, though, do it in front of a mass audience for 24 years. “I remain amazed that I’m still doing it,” he said of his “silly column.”

Alabama might have legal sports betting someday (Mississippi already does). Reliable picking would become an even more valuable service. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if Charles Hollis is still there to do it.