20for20: Patrick Matthews

Patrick Matthews

A founding member and NAQT’s first president, Patrick Matthews graduated from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. When not at a quiz bowl tournament, Patrick can be found schooling others on Microsoft Excel or quoting Hamilton.

How did you get involved with quiz bowl?
I always loved knowledge-based contests, including trivia games. When Trivial Pursuit became in vogue I was all over it. There was no such thing as a quiz bowl circuit in Connecticut when I was a kid. A local PBS station did a High School Bowl tournament once a year, and for my senior year the teacher who sponsored our school’s entry recruited me. We played a grand total of two matches (it was single elimination.)
I didn’t arrive at Penn looking for “College Bowl” per se, but when I saw a flyer for an intramural tournament I talked a few guys from my freshman floor into being on my team. I did well enough to get a call back from the guy who organized it, inviting me to try out for the varsity team. I stuck with it, and by my senior year I was running Penn’s club, including overseeing Penn Bowl, which during my tenure was the largest-ever college invitational. We drew teams from as far away as California and Florida, heady stuff!
Which topic(s) are your favorite?
Economics/finance, of which there is never enough. History. Current events. I used to enjoy the trash when I was a player, but now I’m mostly too old to get the pop culture stuff. I know they are unpopular with some people but I think computation questions have a place in the game. The science questions have generally become too hard for me.
Who were your fiercest opponents when you played?
Penn had a huge rivalry with Princeton. All four years as an undergrad, Penn beat Princeton at the ACUI regionals, and back then only one team per region was guaranteed to go to the CBI NCT. But we were mostly friendly rivals; they came to our tournament, we went to theirs, and we played at most of the same invitationals. We also had a big rivalry with Maryland.
You could almost always count on schools like MIT, Harvard, Chicago, Stanford, and Virginia to field excellent teams. Plus some of the greatest players up to that time were winding down their careers as mine was starting, guys like Chip Hunter, Jim Dendy, and Tom Waters.
What was the collegiate circuit like then?
At the time there were two camps in college quiz bowl: College Bowl Company, Inc. (CBI) and the Academic Competition Foundation (ACF, now the Academic Competition Federation). CBI owned the rights to the old College Bowl TV show, and even after they went off the air they had an arrangement with ACUI to run a college program. They charged a lot of money, and their question quality was pretty uneven. They also claimed intellectual property rights to just about any buzzer game, and tried to demand royalties from tournament host—even hosts that didn’t use their questions.
ACF was founded as an independent alternative, with more academically rigorous questions, an assumption that students would run everything, and that no one owed CBI anything. I had a lot of sympathy for what ACF was trying to do, but there were some personality clashes, and I thought they took way too puritan a view of the game.
Why create NAQT?
We thought we could put out a better product than any of the incumbents out there. NAQT formed mainly from people who were fed up with CBI’s antics, but who also weren’t fully on board with ACF’s insistence on academic purity. We wanted to do some things differently to spice up the game and have some similarities between college quiz bowl and high school quiz bowl: timed rounds, some trash and current events, and so forth.
David Frazee was the main organizing force. He recruited people he thought would be like-minded, and had strong reputations in the college circuit. A lot of the early recruits David picked up from Stanford (where he did his undergrad) and Michigan (where he was in law school).
Were the first sets just aimed at colleges, rather than high schools?
The first NAQT events were aimed at colleges because that is where our immediate contacts were, but we always knew the market we wanted to be in was the high school market. Even before we tried to stage a HSNCT, we tried marketing invitational questions to high schools. Our success there was decidedly mixed at first. One of our members, Tom Waters, basically quit his teaching job to become a full-time question writer, with the idea that we would market those to high schools. Early on we had very few takers.
Is there anything you wish you did differently?
The big thing I wish we did differently: I should not have been the first president. I brought a lot of enthusiasm to the job, but to be totally honest I was out of my depth. I had no idea how to run a company, let alone do that while also trying to keep my head above water in my paid job. I made an awful mess of it, and that almost certainly hampered NAQT’s ability to get a clean start. I cannot really share any of the credit for what NAQT has become today.
The other big thing: we were very arrogant and naïve about how we were going to take the HS market by storm. We should have realized that it would be a lot harder to break into a market that was so fragmented, and that what we were trying to do represented a threat to all the mini-fiefdoms various HS coaches and organizations had built up over the years. Obviously NAQT “made it” eventually, but I think we probably could have been better prepared for our first forays.
Where did you see NAQT going?
I had dreams of displacing CBI, perhaps getting the college game back onto TV. David always pushed for HS being a high-priority market, and he was right: that’s where the numbers were.
Aside from you, David, and Tom, who else was there at the beginning?
David Frazee was the organizing force. Robert Hentzel was a very early recruit. Even from the start he made a huge impact. He created question-writing software practically weeks into the formal organization of the company. [Rob is delighted to have his early contributions remembered so fondly, but his technical work was started in summer 1997, about a year after NAQT was founded —Ed.]
Others at the beginning were Doug Bone, Julie Stahlhut, Dwight Kidder, Eric Bell, Mike Burger, Dave Dixon, Peter Freeman, Kevin Olmstead, and Eric Hillemann.
Why did you step away?
I wasn’t really up to the task of running the company, let alone do that while working a full-time job. Given the circumstances around my resignation, it took many years before I felt I could reach out to the NAQT crew again, and it was a tremendous relief to me that they welcomed me back with open arms.
Was a High School National Championship Tournament always on the minds of the members?
We always knew it was going to happen. I don’t know that any of us foresaw it becoming what it is now.
What part of your involvement with HSNCT do you wish the community knew/understand better?
I don’t really have any “pull”. If they have concerns I can and will certainly relay them to the people running the show, but when it comes to HSNCT and the other big events, I’m just a guy now. I mean, being a moderator is an important role, but that role only goes so far. (Which is fine. I tell my wife Jennie these days that I have the best job at national championships: I get to participate without having to do any of the thousands of hours put into preparing for the event. Sure I help out some beyond moderating, but it’s really at the fringes compared to what the core team is doing.)
Where do you see HSNCT in another 20 years?
It’s hard to imagine the field getting too much bigger than it is now; it’s doubtful it could get to more than 400 teams and still keep its current structure mostly intact. There’s room for more geographic diversity, including underrepresented states and maybe some more international teams.
Where do you see national tournaments evolving next?
There are still lots of states where quiz bowl is nonexistent or close to it; I think we have room to grow there. I would also hope that there might be media opportunities; if not TV, maybe Internet streaming (that is a media form still in its infancy). There’s also lots of room to grow at the middle school level. Internationally, it’s awesome that HSNCT often attracts a foreign school or two; there is no reason why circuits could not develop in the UK, China, anyplace else really. They need not be integrated with the (U.S.) HSNCT.
Do you have a favorite buzz/protest/anecdote from a game room during HSNCT?
Not from a game room; this happened in 2017. A group of kids recognized Colby Burnett, and asked to take a photo with him, because how often do you get a chance to get a picture with a Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions winner, right? So the guy they ask to take the photo for them? Ben Ingram. You know, a Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions winner. Ha!
For actual game play it’s hard to beat the 2016 HSNCT. In the semifinal, I saw one of the greatest comebacks I have ever seen at any level of play. Thomas Jefferson raced out to a 350–30 lead over Detroit Catholic Central, but DCC never gave up, clawing back to a 385-all tie headed into the last tossup. TJ snagged it despite a bit of a controversy over whether the player who buzzed hesitated too long, but video review after the fact proved the officials made the right call. Then, the final was the first HSNCT final to go to overtime.
What advice do you want to share with the players?
Don’t forget to have fun. Sure, we’re here to compete, but if this ever stops being fun, walk away. Or better, figure out what’s preventing it from being fun and get that out of the way.
With the coaches?
Don’t ever forget that these are kids, and your primary job is not to groom them to win, but to teach them something. Help them learn new things, help them reach their potential. Help them learn how to conduct themselves with maturity and honor, regardless of whether they are winning or losing. Those lessons will serve them better in life later on than any number of trophies will.
With the community at large?
Get as excited about quiz bowl as you do about traditional athletics. Help kids find opportunities to play. Stay involved in the game even after your playing days are over. Help coach your kids’ teams. Volunteer to be a game official at a local tournament.
Also, we need to encourage kids to come try out. You don’t have to be a brainiac to have some success, and it’s OK to play just to have fun. It doesn’t matter if you’d never crack the D team at a top school: if you’re having fun, come out for the activity. And we especially need to encourage more girls to play, and more minority students.
Any last thoughts?
I’m not really the “public face” any more, and that is as it should be. But I will say this: there were a couple of times this year during playoff matches in which Matt Bruce acknowledged my presence in his pre-game spiel, and it made me feel like a celebrity.

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