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Norman Chad’s football betting column has little to do with football and less to do with betting. And he’s the best tout out there.
The numbers say Chad has every right to call himself “the Man,” and so he does, several times per week. Picking every game against the spread and in print, the D.C. native and University of Maryland grad (class of ’81) has ended up with more wins than losses every year he’s done the column, which appears locally in the Washington Post on Fridays during the football season. You can look it up.
Assuming the oddsmakers in Nevada know their business—and the amount of construction on the Strip in Las Vegas says they do—the odds of picking a winner in any particular game while giving or taking the points dictated by the official line are akin to those of flipping a coin, or 50-50. About those same odds would apply to picking more winners than losers over an entire season—meaning you have roughly a 1-in-512 chance of going nine consecutive years on the plus side. Chad, therefore, is a 1-in-512 kind of guy. Roughly.
No other pigskin prophet as public as Chad can claim to have gone without a losing season in the ’90s. But away from the keyboard, he doesn’t claim to have special prognosticating skills or boast of poring through stacks of Street & Smith’s guides or phoning head trainers for inside dope. In fact, he’ll tell anybody who asks the secret to his success.
“I flip a coin,” says Chad from his L.A. home. “That’s it. I just flip a coin.”
He swears he’s not joking. In fact, he says the whole point of the column when it started in 1990 in the now-defunct National Sports Daily was to show how ludicrous the earnest betting columns really were.
“I thought we could just make fun of the so-called experts, and I went to my editors and said, ‘I bet I could do just as well as anybody flipping a coin,’” he says.
He did better, in fact, going 115-103-3 that first season. The National wasn’t so lucky, folding after its first year. So Chad took his column to the Post, where he’d previously worked as a copy editor and sports television critic. He also took his flipping coin, a 1984 Philadelphia-minted half-dollar. (In case you’re wondering: Yep, he got it in a casino.) And he came out ahead again, posting a 117-99-7 record his second year. And he’s kept the column and the streak going, and going, and going, through marriages, a divorce, a move to the West Coast, and a shift to syndication. His work now appears in 23 cities, 21 weeks a year.
Though he’s a paid cog in the gambling machine that powers the NFL and all professional sports, Chad himself no longer wagers, legally or otherwise, on football or any other athletic event. He still finds his way into a casino now and again, but he swore off sports gambling 15 years ago after one horrendous week of baseball betting.
“As I was handing over the envelope to my bookie to settle things,” he says, “I just said, ‘I can’t do it any more.’”
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His contempt for serious football bettors is implied in every column. Chad makes no attempt to impart information that any gambler with a brain would deem useful. Instead, the former stand-up comic merely lists the games of the week and the latest betting line, then makes you laugh, usually by ripping into a member or the coach of either team, or, well, anybody he feels like ripping into. For example, while divulging his choice in the 1997 Redskins-Ravens match-up, Chad wrote, “Mayor Marion Barry snaps to attention when the Redskins come with the dime package. Pick: Redskins.”
Or for last year’s Redskins-Cardinals game: “Redskins defensive tackle Dana Stubblefield injured his other knee Tuesday jumping to a conclusion. Pick: Cardinals.”
Along with Chad’s ex-wife and Sam Wyche, the Cowboys, whom Chad began hating while growing up in Wheaton, take more than their share of hits in the column. Because he’s now syndicated to the Dallas Morning News, he’s tried to cut back on his cuts on America’s Team. But he’s still got a way to go: “Cowboys (-1) at Steelers: Cowboys just announced new Tuesday routine: game film in morning, surveillance video in afternoon….Pick: Steelers.”
Chad’s not always just mean; sometimes he’s just irreverent. As he was with the Giants-Jaguars game two years ago: “After throwing seven passes in his first two NFL seasons, Rob Johnson was 20-of-24 for 294 yards Sunday, reminiscent of Burt Reynolds, who barely spoke a line for three seasons on Gunsmoke before starring in Dan August. Pick: Jaguars.”
Or the Cowboys-Cardinals contest that same week: “So Deion’s found God. Geez, I didn’t even know he was looking. Pick: Cardinals.”
Essentially all the feedback Chad gets is hate mail. Most comes from fans of teams stung by his asides. He also, however, hears from readers who use his column as a betting tool.
“What kind of bettor would take what I say seriously?” Chad sneers. “Every week I get mail from somebody who says they picked against me and did well or they lost because of my pick. That amazes me.”
Chad briefly got back into the sports media criticism game a few years ago, long enough to tear into retired NBA center and SLA sympathizer Bill Walton’s commentating on NBC. “Bill Walton speaks two languages: English and outlandish,” wrote Chad. When not flipping a coin or coining one-liners these days, Chad is probably partaking in the official pastime of Los Angeles: working on screenplays or sitcom scripts. He’s sold two episodes each of Coach and Arliss. And just last week, he launched a Web site (accidentalcynic.com) on which he and a host of like minds rage against the machine, or whatever else comes up. Initial targets include talk-show hosts Craig Kilborn (“The former ESPN anchor-turned-late-night-host doesn’t need a sidekick, he needs a kick in his side. If he were any more pleased with himself, he’d create Sunday as a day of rest for himself” ) and Charlie Rose (“If he interviewed Jesus, it would still be all about Charlie”).
But for now, he says, the column is the steadiest work he gets. Which is why friends and family are trying to talk him out of quitting after this year, as he’s threatened lately.
“Creatively, it makes sense to walk away now,” Chad says. “It’s not just flipping a coin and making picks. Coming up with 250 one-liners per season has gotten very, very hard for me. I’ve been doing it for so long now, I can’t remember any of the jokes. And I fear becoming a self-plagiarizer. Every now and then I’ll get a call from an editor, and I’ll say, ‘What? I used the metal-detector-in-the-huddle line again? Oh, God!’ But, well, everybody I’ve mentioned quitting to says I’d be out of my mind to give it up. Not because of the quality, but because they know I don’t have anything else to do. But, if I finish out the decade over .500, then I could go out on top, just walk away, like Jim Brown.”
For Week 1 of his 10th year, Chad went 5-10. But he’ll be back. You can bet on it. —Dave McKenna