Analyzing Classic performance

The first five Bassmaster Classics were winner take all. There was no prize money for second place or worse.

The last 37 Bassmaster Classics were basically winner take all, too. Though there was prize money for other competitors, it's been almost insignificant when compared with what the winner gets in prizes, prestige, endorsements, bonuses and the like.

So, it's easy to make the argument that being consistently competitive in the Classic is meaningless unless you win it — that second place is no better than last, and it may even be worse since the runner-up spot often comes with a boatload of disappointment and decades of "second" guessing.

But that's not true ... not really. After all, you can't win the Classic unless you're competitive, and giving it your best each and every day is the only way to make it pay off.

If you ask anyone who knows anything at all about competitive bass fishing who the greatest competitors in Bassmaster Classic history have been, there are only two answers — Rick Clunn and Kevin VanDam. They've each won four titles, and winning is where it's at.

The Classic made Clunn famous and vice versa. He was the first to win back-to-back (1976 and 1977), the first to win on a "mystery" lake and on a publicized body of water, the only angler to win on a reservoir (Guntersville in 1976), a natural lake (the Kissimmee Chain in 1977) and a river system (the Arkansas River in 1984 and the James River in 1990) and the first to win both a fall Classic (1976 and 1977) and a summer Classic (1984 and 1990). He's been to 32 championships, including a record 28 in a row (1974-2001).

VanDam has been to 22 Classics in a row (1991-2012) and counting. He's won four, including two in a row (2010 and 2011) and two on the same body of water (the Louisiana Delta in 2001 and 2011). Between 2004 and 2008, he was never worse than fifth, and over the past nine years he's been out of the top 11 only once. He and Clunn own just about every Classic record worth having.

But is there another way to evaluate Classic performance? That's something I've been thinking about for a while now.

The Classic is a tough tournament to evaluate. Other than identifying the guy who carries the trophy home, how do you assess performance over the years? From 1971 to 2012 the size of the field has ranged from 24 (1971 and 1972) to 61 (2003). Larger fields make it easier to qualify, but tougher to win. The number of "amateurs" (BFN, Weekend Series, WBT and College B.A.S.S. anglers) in the field has ranged from zero (the first two years) to eight (three of the last four years), and amateurs undeniably dilute the talent pool. Only one has ever won.

And then there's "the cut" — the bane of all tournament analysis. Beginning in the late 1990s, the field has been reduced to the top 25 anglers after two days. Before that, everyone got to fish three days, and the longer a competition lasts the less luck factors in.

All in all, evaluating Classic performance is a pretty tough task.

The best system I could come up with was to grade Classic competitors on their average finish based upon a percentile. That way I could fairly compare Classics with a 24-angler field against those with 50 or more qualifiers.

And I decided to score only those anglers who had qualified for the Classic 10 times or more — partly to make the task easier (only 47 anglers have qualified for double-digit Classics) and partly to reduce the luck factor even more. Anyone who has qualified for 10 or more Classics is not only a great tournament angler, but he's been there enough times that we can fairly assess his performance at the big dance.

Running the numbers taught me a lot.

First of all, once an angler wins the Classic, his performance in the championship tends to decline dramatically with very few exceptions. This supports the argument that "hungry" anglers fish harder and better than more established anglers.

Second, the anglers who have never won are some of the most solid and consistent performers in Classic history. Some guys never lose sight of the prize, and it obviously drives them even after they've been to a dozen or more championships.

Here are the top 10, in percentiles. The higher the number, the better they finish in the Classic.

Percentile Angler Classics Wins
76.88 Kevin VanDam 22 4
75.78 Guido Hibdon 10 1
74.37 Hank Parker 13 2
73.45 Aaron Martens 13 0
71.64 George Cochran 21 2
69.98 Brent Chapman 11 0
68.23 Michael Iaconelli 13 1
67.68 Todd Faircloth 10 0
67.56 Skeet Reese 12 1
65.81 Ricky Green 14 0

In case you're wondering, Rick Clunn finished 11th at 65.29. If you take away his last five appearances, he's much better at 70.32. That would rank him sixth.

It's really no surprise that KVD sits atop this list. Once he got past a couple of mediocre performances in his first two Classics, he's been nothing less than remarkable.

Guido Hibdon and Hank Parker were rock-solid, too. Parker never finished in the bottom half of a Classic field, and Hibdon did so only once. They both deserve a lot more consideration than they usually get when people discuss the greatest anglers of all time, and they're neglected for similar reasons. Parker quit when he was young, and Hibdon started late. Change those things, and these guys are on the short list of the best ever.

Just behind them is the best Classic performer who has never won, Aaron Martens. Again, this is no surprise. "The Natural" catches them everywhere he goes, but so far he's never caught them in the Classic quite as well as one other angler (whether that angler is Jay Yelas, Takahiro Omori or VanDam), resulting in four runner-up finishes.

Brent Chapman, Todd Faircloth and Ricky Green are (or were) solid Classic performers. Chapman and Faircloth should be factors in many more to come. Green was a rock in the '70s and '80s, qualifying for 14 straight championships and earning the moniker "Mr. Consistency." Cochran, Iaconelli and Reese are all-time greats who made their biggest splashes under the bright lights of the Classic.

So, in case you were wondering, these are the anglers who have consistently performed at the highest level when fishing in the biggest tournament of the year. Surprised?

What about the anglers who have been to the championship 10 or more times but struggled? Don't dare call them underachievers — they've qualified for the Bassmaster Classic on a regular basis, and that's the goal of every pro. These are great, great fishermen. They're just not getting it done in "the big one." Here's how the bottom 10 score.

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Percentile Angler Classics Best Finish
31.13 Mike Wurm 10 4th (1995)
37.05 Rob Kilby 11 3rd (1989)
39.05 Tim Horton 11 6th (2012)
39.87 Stacey King 12 8th (2004)
42.46 Guy Eaker 10 3rd (1987)
43.02 Greg Hackney 10 5th (2008)
43.99 Peter Thliveros 13 11th (1994)
44.29 Randy Howell 10 11th (1999)
48.10 Randall Roming 11 2nd (1991)
48.70 Jimmy Houston 15 7th (1978)

Tim Horton turned things around in a big way this year, finishing 6th on the Red River. Most of the other anglers on this list have had Classic success, too. Very few have fished 10 or more championships without cracking the top 10 at least once.

And though Mike Wurm had the lowest score of any angler with 10 or more Classic appearances, help is on the way in the form of Ish Monroe. He's only fished seven championships, but the best finish he's mustered so far is 14th (2007) and his score of 28.96 is the lowest of anyone with so much experience. Monroe is a proven winner at just about every level of B.A.S.S. competition, but the Classic has been his kryptonite — so far.

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