Basketball's first programmer
Alumnus Donald Knuth’s programming talents helped reverse a basketball team’s fortunes
As our record-setting men’s basketball team prepares to play in the NCAA Division III Championship tournament tonight, we thought you might enjoy a clip of one of the program’s most renowned team managers: Donald Knuth (CIT ’60).
The author of the world’s definitive text on computer programming, Knuth is so revered in the field that in 2018 The New York Times dubbed him “The Yoda of Silicon Valley.”
But Knuth had already drawn national notice six decades earlier, when Newsweek and CBS News both highlighted his contributions to his Case Institute of Technology classmates’ success on the court.
After the team had gone 6-11 the previous season, Knuth developed a system to rank players based on scoring, lost balls, and other factors. He fed the data into an IBM 650 computer via punch cards, which in turn informed Coach Phil Heim’s strategy during games.
The result: an 11-3 record—and the league championship.
You can read more about the approach on pages 15-18 of this interview, or watch the brief video below.