Editors Note: If you are as fascinated as I am about the administrative side of big time sports, you have probably spent time thinking about the complexities of schedule making. The NCAA released a brilliant essay on how it works. If you have the mind of a puzzle maker, this could be an interesting career choice. For a complete version of the article, you can visit the NCAA website by clicking here.
Adventures of College Basketball Schedule-Makers
By Gary Brown
When Utah State men’s basketball coach Stew Morrill heard that Champion magazine was doing a story on scheduling, he said, “Well, I hope you have a lot of space because it’s pretty complicated.”
Despite having only about a dozen nonconference games to fill annually, scheduling those contests is a year-round operation for Division I men’s coaches, athletics directors and directors of basketball operations who become entangled in a maze of Post-it Notes, matrices and extenuating circumstances.
Somehow all of the sausage-making ends up in a casing of contests fans can’t wait to consume.
But then come the typical outbursts: Why are we playing three straight road games in December? Why are we playing at a neutral site instead of home? Why do we play such a challenging schedule? Why don’t we play a more challenging schedule? Why aren’t we on TV more often? Why won’t so-and-so play us?
The schedule-makers know why. Because the facility isn’t available. Because so-and-so won’t agree to a home-and-home. Because the network has another marquee matchup in that time slot. Because final exams are that week. Because we can’t afford to play there. Because the RPI rewards those games.
To be sure, the “becauses” easily outweigh the “whys.”
“I’ve been a head coach for 24 years, and to me, scheduling has become just as complex and difficult as recruiting,” Morrill said. “In some respects, it’s a nightmare.”
So to those who dream of one day juggling calendars and pulling off those once-in-a-lifetime deals, it’s not as easy – or as glamorous – as it appears.
Michigan State: ‘Anytime, anywhere’
It would be hard to find a team that schedules more aggressively than Michigan State. Of course, it’s easier to back up the “anytime, anywhere” scheduling philosophy with a perennial Final Four contender.
But the Spartans’ success can actually be a detriment to scheduling.
“You’d be surprised,” said Kevin Pauga, director of basketball operations, when asked if it was as easy as just hanging out a vacancy sign in East Lansing.
Pauga and head coach Tom Izzo know what they want to accomplish with the Spartans’ nonconference schedule based on the talent in a given year, though Pauga said he has a “blueprint schedule” built all the way through 2015-16.
But the clay is still pretty soft on that sculpture. Because the Big Ten Conference schedule calls for 18 league games (which could change in a couple of years with Nebraska joining the conference), that allows for just nine nonconference games, plus an exempt tournament.
There typically are some known quantities going in. The ACC-Big Ten Challenge, for example, has Sparty visiting defending national champion Duke on December 1. This year, Pauga also knew in advance that the 2010 Maui Invitational over the Thanksgiving holiday included Michigan State.
A desire to have a game between Michigan State and Syracuse was fulfilled in April when the Jimmy V Classic announced a December 7 clash between the two at Madison Square Garden. That left a gap between December 1 and 7, and with Izzo demanding at least two days of prep time between games, that made December 4 Pauga’s next target. Bowling Green filled that vacancy.
That’s kind of how it works, though schedulers have dozens of balls in the air at any given time, including final exams (the timing of which differs by school), holiday dates, television deals and home football games (which must be avoided at all costs since no campus wants to handle the logistics for two major events on the same day).
Teams also need to play enough home games to placate the fan base and generate revenue for the overall athletics program. The slate also requires enough “winnable” games, while teams still must be able to satisfy the Division I Men’s Basketball Committee when March rolls around.
“I’ve got color codes all over the place,” Pauga said. “Blue is for teams I have existing contracts with and dates that I’d like to get the game on. The game turns white once it’s set. Yellow games are TBA that I don’t have teams for but these are the dates I’d like to schedule them. Purple games are exempt tournaments.
“I have teams on here that I haven’t even talked to.”
A giant 12-by-18-foot wall calendar filled with Post-it Notes helps Pauga keep Izzo apprised and gives the legendary coach “an easier visual for prep days and travel demands and all that,” Pauga said. That helps the duo strategize who fits the bill for a post-finals-week opponent or what dates to propose for marquee TV matchups.
Wrapping games around finals week presents its own challenges. Michigan State conducts graduation in the Breslin Center the Friday and Saturday before exam week, so Pauga has two choices on that weekend – play at home Sunday or hit the road Saturday.
“You also have to take into account wanting to accommodate TV,” he said. “For example, we host Texas this year, and you want to schedule that on a date that accommodates ESPN since it’s a weeknight game. There’s no reason to play that game on a Monday against Monday Night Football or a bowl game. You want to get the exposure from these games in which marquee teams come to your place.”
Pauga and Izzo also are well aware of the points each game could bring in the Rating Percentage Index. “We have our own internal RPI formula that tells us how many points we’re going to get if we play Bowling Green, Tennessee Tech or Texas,” Pauga said. That usually ends up being on the high side, given Izzo’s propensity for playing anytime, anywhere.
“We’ve been everywhere, man,” Pauga said. Indeed, Michigan State has visited Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, Florida, Texas, Connecticut, Arizona, UCLA, Boston College and Syracuse during the last 10 years. The Spartans have played in more than a dozen NBA arenas, too.
“Tom wants to challenge players and give them ample time for a grueling conference schedule and the NCAA tournament,” Pauga said. “We could certainly go 12-0 against lesser opponents, or we can challenge ourselves by bringing marquee teams to the Breslin Center and go to cool places against top teams.
“It’s very much a ‘been there, done that’ mentality by the time we get to the end of the season. Our guys are rarely put into a circumstance late in the season that they haven’t already experienced.”
Florida State: Dates and sites, X’s and O’s
Florida State head coach Leonard Hamilton and associate head coach Stan Jones believe in tough nonconference schedules, too, as long as they help build the team in a given year.
Jones, who has been an assistant to Hamilton at Florida State and at Miami (Florida), sees scheduling as a smaller part of a bigger picture instead of a separate entity. Rather than fill in the blanks years in advance, he and Hamilton assess each Seminole team as best they can and try to assemble the right kinds of foes to help the squad overcome whatever challenges that may present themselves.
“We forecast our team each year and determine how experienced it will be and what kinds of characteristics it might have, such as whether we’ll be heavy on post play and light in the guards or vice versa,” said Jones, who coached at the high school level before joining Hamilton in Miami. “You try to assess those types of things and build a schedule that would allow that group to achieve the most success possible in that season.”
Part of that is playing against teams that provide good preparation for the typically rigorous Atlantic Coast Conference schedule. In most cases, Jones said, that means a balanced nonconference schedule that provides some flexibility while still getting players accustomed to some stiff competition.
“You need that balance to give your younger players some playing time and to give us a chance as a coaching staff to try some different combinations to give us the best opportunity to be successful both offensively and defensively as we head into ACC play,” Jones said. “We want to establish our identity as a team by the time we start conference play. You don’t want to be trying to figure out who you are when you go play the top teams in the ACC.”
Among the unique logistical challenges for Florida State is scheduling around a public facility. The Seminoles play their home games at the Donald L. Tucker Civic Center. That means the first scheduling domino usually is finding out the dates the arena is available and matching opponents with those dates.
Finding quality road games comes next. While not too many teams from power conferences will risk taking a loss in Tallahassee, Jones and Hamilton have had some good home-and-home relationships with nearby teams from the Southeastern Conference, including Mississippi and Auburn. The Seminoles also have the annual rivalry match against Florida.
Then there’s the built-in ACC-Big Ten Challenge (this year it’s Ohio State) and usually an exempt event (such as this year’s Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu) to beef up the nonconference schedule.
But Jones likes to go after mid-majors, too, even if the games are on the road. In fact, he thinks road games are an essential ingredient in a team’s broader preparation.
“One, you want to teach your guys to go on the road because, as you know in our league, getting road wins is challenging at best,” he said. “Two, you want to get your guys accustomed to a routine as far as how to conduct themselves and prepare for the travel – leaving after practice, getting to where they need to be, getting used to a roommate in the hotel and still getting the rest and nutrition they need during the trip.
“We look at those kinds of dynamics as we try to prepare our team for all the things that are going to go on through the course of the season.”
This year, Florida State is at North Carolina-Greensboro, FIU and Loyola Marymount, in addition to a contest at SEC foe Auburn. While some people might question why a team in a league like the ACC would also want to go heavy on the nonconference slate, Jones said it’s part of the scheme.
It doesn’t always work, though. In 2005-06, when the Seminoles went 19-9 in the regular season and 9-7 in ACC play, the nonconference schedule included two teams from power conferences that had down years and a mid-major whose roster was depleted after a coaching change. Suddenly, games that had been scheduled to boost the Seminoles’ RPI detracted from it – and Florida State didn’t make the NCAA tournament that year.
To Jones, scheduling is its own game, complete with scoring runs, turnovers and three-pointers. Even the logistics are a buzzer-beater. While it might be rare, Jones said it’s a pleasure to sit down with schools, negotiate the terms and get the contracts sent, signed and returned in a timely fashion.
“It’s a bonanza to get all of that done without delays,” he said.
And that’s even before the opening tip.
Utah State: Home and (sweet) home
Scheduling is like a card game in some respects. Before the Internet age, Utah State head coach Stew Morrill said he could sneak up on the big boys with a few “aw, shucks” comments on his team’s talent level to lure BCS schools into a home-and-home with the Aggies.
Nowadays, though, with no card left unturned on the World Wide Web, prospective opponents see Morrill’s 176-13 record at the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum and fold.
That makes it tough for a good team from a non-power conference to play a winning postseason hand.
More often than not, teams from the power conferences offer a “guarantee” game that gets the mid-major to travel and then buy out the return trip. While that arrangement may be financially lucrative but competitively imbalanced, there are enough programs that need the money to keep giving the big fish the run of the scheduling pond.
Morrill says up front that he’s not interested in guarantee games, either philosophically or fiscally. He believes the home-and-home is the fairer arrangement, and Utah State – with its season-ticket sales and 10,000 fervent fans per game – does well enough with receipts to not go begging.
Morrill isn’t keen on the “two-for-one” arrangement, either, though he’s had to at least consider it given the dearth of straight-up deals. But even then, prospective opponents balk.
“What has happened with a lot of the power schools is that they don’t want to play any road games. Well, nobody wants to play on the road – we all know the percentages of winning on the road – but all of us have to at some point,” Morrill said.
Morrill even holds a road game open until late in the scheduling process, “hoping that a power-conference team will get desperate for a home game and will play us home-and-home.”
But no one’s taking the bait. “Last year, nobody would play Northeastern because they were pretty darn good, and nobody would play us, either, so it got to August and we decided to play each other,” Morrill said. “We’re trying every strategy available. It’s frustrating because the average fan thinks you just don’t want to play the top teams.”
Utah State Athletics Director Scott Barnes has worked with his coach on a couple of creative approaches.
First, the school hired a promoter to explore neutral-site “home-and-home” opportunities for the Salt Lake City market and the opposing team’s market. Utah State has even offered to pay more than twice the guarantee just to get that done. The promoter has brokered hundreds of high-caliber basketball games for TV, yet the best offer he’s had so far is a neutral-site game in Salt Lake and a return game at the opponent’s gym instead of at its neutral site.
The other and perhaps more fruitful approach is to incorporate a basketball home-and-home into the football negotiations. Barnes said Utah State allows itself one guarantee game a year in football, and he is using those talks to boost the basketball slate.
That has worked, as Utah State’s 2013 football game at Southern California produced a home-and-home between the Aggies and Trojans in basketball starting in 2012-13. It will be the first time a Pac-10 Conference team has visited the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum since 1977.
“The opportunity to secure a guarantee game in football is much greater for us than in basketball, so we’re able to use that as leverage,” Barnes said.
As tough as it is to schedule the kinds of opponents that improve the team’s tournament resume, Morrill noted that Utah State has earned two at-large berths to the NCAA tournament in the past five years, which the Aggies hadn’t done much previously. “It means we’re doing something right,” he said.
But he still prefers the good old-fashioned home-and-home approach.
“Every institution and coach has a right to do what they think is best for their school and for their program,” Morrill said. “It sounds like I’m faulting those schools for not wanting to do the home-and-home, but I’m not. Everyone has to do what’s best for them. But when you’re standing in our shoes, it can be a little frustrating.
“I don’t mind getting beat at your place as long as you come back to my place. That might be viewed as old school, but that’s what I am – I’m gettin’ old and I am old school.”
Gonzaga: Zigging and Zagging
Like Utah State, Gonzaga struggles to attract mansion-dwellers to its neighborhood. Nestled in Spokane, Washington, the Bulldogs are a David-turned-Goliath story in men’s basketball, which makes the now nationally branded team a feared commodity in scheduling.
To make it work, the Bulldogs have had to Zag where others zig.
“We had to take some chances early on,” said Director of Basketball Operations Jerry Krause, who is the mastermind behind Gonzaga’s scheduling efforts. “We even took guarantee games. We had to do that a few times to gain a foothold. That’s risky when data show that more than 70 percent of games are won by the home team.”
But to the power teams’ chagrin, Gonzaga began being responsible for some of that other 30 percent. A couple of years ago, the Zags inked Tennessee for a home-and-home (though the game in Washington was at the Zags’ neutral site in Seattle instead of their home floor at the McCarthey Athletic Center), and the Bulldogs won both.
This year’s slate includes five marquee matchups, but only one (Oklahoma State) visits McCarthey. Gonzaga hosts Illinois, but at Key Arena in Seattle for the annual “Battle in Seattle” (a return trip from Gonzaga’s visit to the United Center in Chicago last year where the Zags won in overtime). It also hosts Memphis in Spokane Arena. Gonzaga plays at Key Arena and Spokane Arena annually in charity events. The other two games are on the road or at the opponent’s neutral site (at Washington State, and Baylor in Dallas).
But Krause said Gonzaga has to scrap for those games.
“It has changed slightly over time, but the problem is essentially the same – the power conferences are less likely to schedule the non-power conferences, especially in a home-and-home arrangement,” said the man who has been involved with the sport for 50 years, including 17 as a head coach at Eastern Washington and eight as an assistant at Gonzaga.
“The power conferences don’t want to give up that home-court edge, and they’ve got the money to buy home games,” Krause said. “In addition, their conference schedules take care of their RPI.
“So there’s still a reward for winning most of your games if you have the money to buy home games, and a lot of schools still have that in their arsenal, whereas we and a lot of other schools in non-power conferences with smaller arenas don’t have that luxury.”
While few teams want to test the Zags in a true home-and-home, Gonzaga remains an attractive neutral-site option because of its TV profile and reliability as an NCAA tournament team. And because even the power-conference teams need to sprinkle at least a few challenges into their nonconference slates to prepare for their rigorous conference seasons, playing Gonzaga on national TV isn’t a bad option.
It also doesn’t hurt that Krause has been such a fixture in the game for half a century. He’s been on the National Association of Basketball Coaches board of directors and has chaired the NCAA Men’s Basketball Rules Committee, among a number of other assignments. Along the way, Krause has woven an extensive web. “There are few coaches I don’t know,” he said.
That has allowed Gonzaga to open some doors that otherwise might have been closed. The Illinois series, for example, which spent two years as a neutral-site swap, now shifts to a true home-and-home. The Zags visit Champaign in 2012 and host the Illini in 2013.
“I credit (Illinois head coach) Bruce Weber for that,” Krause said. “There are a lot of coaches who wouldn’t do that, but we’ve been able to find some of the ones who will.”
That ongoing search is just part of what it takes to build a basketball schedule.