Smaller schools hit the road for a beatdown -- and a paycheck
CLEMSON, S.C. -- On Tuesday night, thousands of purple-and-orange-clad fans filed into Littlejohn Coliseum to see undefeated and newly minted No. 25 Clemson play. Only a few fans had ever heard of the evening's opposition, the little winless school with the odd nickname struggling through its transition from Division II to I. Even fewer knew exactly why the North Florida Ospreys were there.
"There's more than one reason why they call these 'guarantee games,'" mused UNF head coach Matt Kilcullen before the matchup, which featured the largest RPI gap in the history of college basketball (No. 1 vs. No. 343). "Everybody is guaranteed something."
In most sports, the concept of money changing hands between competitors is unthinkable, unethical. In boxing, "shamming" carries with it federal prison time, as well as tens of thousands of dollars in fines. But in American college sports, "appearance fees" are simply part of the early-season landscape. Call them guarantee games, money games, or the more morbid colloquialism "body-bag games;" the first seven weeks of college basketball season are full of these virtually predetermined outcomes, often resulting in eye-popping blowouts.
Money games have been part of college basketball for decades -- when Kilcullen was an assistant at Notre Dame in the 1980s, he was on the other side of the transaction, paying smaller schools to travel to the Joyce Center and take their lumps in return for a payout. But the economics have changed -- the slow extension of the regular season into early November means more dates to fill, and the schedule's growth hasn't outpaced the explosion in the Division I ranks. It's still a seller's market, and that means small schools can strike some sweet deals.
"We're going to Marquette on Dec. 28," said Presbyterian head coach Gregg Nibert, who collected a check from Clemson last month after a 79-58 loss in a guaranteed game. "They needed a game. So they gave us $85,000, air and ground transportation and two nights' lodging."
Presbyterian, like North Florida, is in the process of transitioning into the NCAA's top flight, and funds from guarantee games have helped raise the program to Division I standards. During 2007-08, the Blue Hose's first season playing a D-I schedule, Nibert's crew travelled from coast to coast, compiling a 5-25 road record, but the seemingly endless trip had a greater purpose.
"We ended up raising $650,000 last year," Nibert reported. "This year, it will be around $400,000. That's almost a million dollars right there. The big schools might take that kind of money for granted, but to us, it's a new locker room, competitive salaries, all those things that are going to help us compete at this level for years to come."
Teams from low-RPI, low-budget conferences like the SWAC, MEAC, NEC and Atlantic Sun often enter conference play beaten down by the constant losing, but Presbyterian is seeing some dividends from its long bus rides. Nibert's 2008-09 team, made up mostly of holdovers, has emerged tougher for the experience. The Blue Hose are now 4-5, one short of their win total from last season, and won their first two Big South games against Coastal Carolina and High Point -- both on the road.
The Ospreys, however, haven't seen that kind of rapid improvement. North Florida has yet to win a road game since making the leap from the Peach Belt Conference to the Atlantic Sun four years ago, losing its first 44 contests away from home as a D-I member. Overall, the program came into Clemson on a 54-game road losing streak.
That's not to say they haven't occasionally come close. Two years ago at Northwestern, for example, UNF shot 31 percent but came within one possession of winning.
A lot of the freshmen on our team don't know we're getting paid. They might not fully realize the big-picture aspect, that what we're doing is ultimately for the good of the program. I just try to put all that out of my mind and treat this as a regular game, just go out there and play as hard as I can.
"We were just one rebound away from pulling that game out," said Kilcullen, recalling the 40-39 loss. "We would have taken that win and that check and just floated all the way back down to Jacksonville."
And this being basketball, a sport in which the improbable is never out of the question, sometimes teams do end up pulling off the ultimate double bonus.
On Monday in Syracuse, in Cleveland State's only money game of the season, the Horizon League's Vikings traded leads all night with the undefeated Orange. After Syracuse erased a five-point margin in the final minute, the visitors won 72-69 on Cedric Jackson's miracle 60-foot buzzer-beater, which immediately generated thousands of YouTube hits and was promptly inserted in national highlight reels. What nearly all the postgame stories missed, though, was that Cleveland State earned a bigger reward than "SportsCenter" time, and head coach Gary Waters was hesitant to divulge the details.
"Let's just say it was the maximum six figures," said Waters, before joking: "I don't want to get Syracuse mad; they haven't sent the check yet."
The next afternoon, hundreds of miles away to the south, another underdog was preparing for its guarantee game, drawing inspiration from Cleveland State's miracle finish.
"You can bet I'll be bringing up that up when I talk to the team before the game," said Kilcullen, smiling.
After night fell over South Carolina, there were early signs that another shock result was in the making. In front of a half-full Littlejohn Coliseum, North Florida took the floor in generic blue-and-gray Nike uniforms without names on the back. The anonymous visitors matched Clemson shot for shot, standing up bravely against the nationally ranked Tigers. When Clemson camped out on the perimeter, expecting the Ospreys to jack up 3s all night, scrappy 6-foot-7 sophomore Kyle Groothuis snuck inside for a series of uncontested layups as the home crowd groaned. Twelve minutes into the game, the score was tied at 17.
The fans were riveted to the end, but their interest was mostly due to a free taco promotion triggered when the home team scores 75 points. Clemson, for its part, got its 11th win, and the school pulled a profit -- ticket sales and concessions always outstrip appearance fees. North Florida will receive a five-figure check in the mail. What the Ospreys' players and coaches got out of the experience, though, was far more difficult to quantify.
"We try to look at this as an opportunity," said Kilcullen, sitting sullenly in a row of paw-print folding chairs after the game. "It's an opportunity to get better. We played well for 15 minutes, and I thought our defense did a good job during that stretch. But they took us out of everything we tried to do. I mean, that's one of the best teams in the nation it was men against boys out there."
But North Florida isn't your average hoops palooka. Strict academic standards mean the coaching staff has to obtain a high school transcript for every recruit, to make sure the player will make it through a selective admissions process that doesn't feature a back door for athletes. (Think of UNF as a Patriot League school with far superior weather.) And the administration doesn't load up on guarantee games to raise funds -- it wouldn't be fair to the players, Kilcullen explains -- but the slumping economy might force the issue.
"The state of Florida just cut its education budget by 14 percent," Kilcullen said. "At the same time, I already have two offers for next year for $80,000 and $85,000."
Stuck in the middle are the players, the ones who have to withstand the 40 minutes of physical and psychological torment of guarantee games.
"A lot of the freshmen on our team don't know we're getting paid," said Groothuis, who ended the night against Clemson with nine points and seven rebounds in 23 minutes. "They might not fully realize the big-picture aspect, that what we're doing is ultimately for the good of the program. I just try to put all that out of my mind and treat this as a regular game, just go out there and play as hard as I can."
"It's easy to quit in a game like this," Kilcullen said. "It's easy to convince yourself that there's nothing to play for. But we didn't take a dive tonight; we never threw in the towel. I'm proud of my guys for playing hard; that's all I can ask of them."
Kyle Whelliston is a contributor to ESPN.com.