Even the most brilliant minds still haven't figured out how to stop the ball from bouncing.
Before becoming a co-owner at Toulouse, Luke Bornn had worked as an executive with the Sacramento Kings and as the director of analytics with Roma in Serie A. Before that, he was a professor at Harvard. And before that, he spent some time at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
To address what you're thinking: "[I] built bombs," he joked.
Not really. He worked on a problem where he helped prevent helicopters from falling out of the sky. One bullet hole in a propeller? Totally fine. Two bullet holes in a propeller? No one knows. Three? That thing suddenly drops back to Earth. By using little sensors scattered across the helicopter, Bornn helped discover that you could detect minor changes in the vibrations of the chopper as the holes in the propellers piled up. A similar process is now used to determine when bridges are on the verge of collapse.
Compared to that, this whole soccer thing should've been easy. But there were two big problems, then and now: randomness and rules.
In Bornn's first season with Toulouse, they missed automatic promotion from France's second division by two points. "You think, 'Geez, if I had done that right earlier in the season or if I had the wherewithal to spot this error after the second game instead of after the fifth game, we maybe would have won another game," he told me. "'We would have been promoted.' That's how close it is, and there's so much randomness."
Instead, they entered a two-leg playoff with Ligue 1 club Nantes. Over the pair of matches, the clubs played to a stalemate, two goals apiece. Except, Nantes stayed up because of France's away-goals rule.
"A tiebreaker is why we didn't get promoted," Bornn said. "But I think the nature of sports is that it feels like there's so many little things you can always do better. And so there's this constant struggle to figure out where you should focus your time and attention. And it was actually a good experience because it forced everyone to realize little decisions matter."
The next season, they got more of the little decisions right, won Ligue 2 outright, and produced a better goal differential (plus-49) than the second- and third-place teams combined. The following year was supposed to be a consolidation campaign: figure out which players to move on without weakening the team too much and establish Toulouse as a Ligue 1-quality team that was only at risk of relegation if a bunch of things went seriously wrong.
Toulouse did that, finishing 12th in their first year in Ligue 1 under the new ownership. But then they did another thing, too: they won the French Cup. They didn't just win it, either. They won 5-1 and they won against the team, Nantes, that had kept them out of Ligue 1 two years prior. It was the culmination of an alternative, analytical team-building approach -- but not because they had a trophy to show for it. No, simply because it had to be.
"The minute we won the cup, I had to totally disconnect from Toulouse," Bornn said. "It's totally independent."