Gophers working to make nonconference schedule more challenging

Updated: August 25, 2003, 2:01 AM ET

MINNEAPOLIS -- University of Minnesota athletic director Joel Maturi has a scheduling headache. To get respect, the Gophers need to play tough opponents. To keep fans, they need to win.

The Gophers begin the 2003 season Saturday at home against Tulsa, a team coming off a 1-11 season.

The Gophers follow that with games against Troy State, Ohio and Louisiana-Lafayette. Those four teams were a combined 12-36 last season. The Sporting News, with the help of BCS expert Jerry Palm, ranked the Gophers' strength of schedule No. 75 out of 117 Division I-A teams, largely because of their nonconference opponents.

Maturi readily admits the schedule needs improvement. But Maturi and coach Glen Mason said the process is complicated by financial and philosophical hurdles that make assembling a nonconference schedule a challenging exercise, especially for a program that finally appears to be emerging from a bleak period.

"You have to do what's right for your program and at the same time match it up with what you can afford," Mason said.

As a coach, Mason is ultimately judged on wins and losses. And it doesn't make sense to put a team through a competitive grinder before it even reaches conference play. Bill Snyder built Kansas State into a national power with that philosophy in mind.

Maturi is focused on winning, too, but he also must find opponents that are more marketable, which could help attract more fans and generate more revenue.

"The system is set up to reward winning," Maturi said. "People can say what they want. But had we played three top-10 teams last year and got beat and didn't go to a bowl game, I'm not so sure they would be as enthusiastic as we are right now about our team. We have to find a little bit of a middle ground. We both think our program is at a level now that we can improve our nonconference schedule."

Soon after Maturi was hired last summer, he met with Mason to discuss ways to reach that goal. They went through each major conference and targeted teams they felt would make ideal opponents.

"They are in the same stage in their conferences to an extent that we are in our conference," Maturi said. "Glen has never said no to anybody I have talked with. But I'm smart enough to know not to go and say, 'Next year I'm trying to get Oklahoma, Southern Cal and Notre Dame.' That doesn't do us any good right now."

Instead, in 2004 the Gophers are scheduled to play Toledo, Baylor and at Colorado State.

Colorado State certainly is a significant upgrade. So is 2006 opponent California. Maturi said ideally he would schedule at least one nonconference opponent from one of the five BCS conferences each season.

"I don't know if it's the best team or the worst team," he said. "Who knows when you schedule five or six years out what they're going to be. But they're in a major conference."

Money, of course, plays a major role in the process. The Gophers generally guarantee a school between $200,000 and $300,000 to come to the Twin Cities for a game. But the Gophers often get outbid by schools with deeper pockets. Ohio State, for example, spent $1.275 million to play host to Kent State ($350,000), Washington State ($450,000) and San Jose State ($475,000) last season.

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index