Commentary

Follow the $$$ for scheduling

Originally Published: June 9, 2009
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

Scheduling is not an art, and it certainly is not a science. It involves some skill, to be sure, but, c'mon, it's not exactly writing the algorithm for Google. A school has to find 12 opponents and has 14 weeks in which to play them. Not only that, but only the three independents -- Army, Navy and Notre Dame -- have to find all 12 opponents themselves. The other 117 schools have, depending on the conference, seven to nine predetermined opponents.

[+] EnlargeArmy vs. Georgia Tech
AP Photo/Gregory SmithGeorgia Tech won't be traveling to West Point this year to return the teams' 2007 contest.

So scheduling is like fitting a 12-letter answer into 14 squares on a crossword puzzle, with as many as nine of the letters supplied to you. How tough could it be?

Not exactly.

Scheduling is more like high-stakes Sudoku. Everyone knows the nine numbers in Sudoku. The trick is putting the nine numbers in the correct order, row after row, horizontally and vertically.

Then throw in a few twists. There's the need to schedule the right nonconference opponents. If you are one of the college football haves, "right" serves as a euphemism for "undernourished." There's the need to recruit those opponents in a marketplace that has turned in the direction of the have-nots.

To them, "right nonconference opponent" is a euphemism for "wealth waiting to be fleeced." When the NCAA Division I adopted a 12-game schedule beginning with the 2006 season, the demand for Football Bowl Subdivision opponents increased. The schools in the smaller conferences -- your Sun Belts and WACs -- have used that demand to ratchet up the price for their services toward seven figures.

"Schools are looking for wins. What's a couple of extra hundred thousand?" said Joe Gottfried, the athletic director at South Alabama, which starts its first game this fall and will play an FBS schedule in 2011.

College football schedulers must balance the need to attract fans and the need to attract wins. Fans buy tickets, and the revenue from that helps pay the rest of the athletic department's bills. Wins are the mileposts on the road to postseason success, whether that is defined by the first bowl bid in 25 years (Vanderbilt) or six straight top-five finishes (USC).

The schedule with the right blend of home games and difficulty, in the right order, can mean the difference between a good season and a bad season. Or a good season and a great one.

There is no such thing as Scheduling 101, as in a single discipline. Scheduling requires the entire spectrum of academe, from math to history to geography to business. The officials who do the work usually are assistant or associate athletic directors, in consultation with their coach, their marketers, their television partners and their Magic 8 Balls.

Begin with another discipline -- philosophy. The most accurate depiction of the philosophy of scheduling would be a Venn diagram. The smaller oval represents strength of schedule. The other, larger oval represents money. When in doubt about why a team schedules the way it does, you can always look for the Benjamins -- Franklin, not Roethlisberger.

It's very simple. If you can fill your stadium, you play home games. If you can't fill your stadium, or if your stadium isn't big enough to generate the money the athletic department needs, you play road games.

Georgia associate athletic director Arthur Johnson described the Bulldogs' philosophy in succinct terms.

"We want to play as many games as possible at home," Johnson said.

Schools are looking for wins. What's a couple of extra hundred thousand?

-- Joe Gottfried, South Alabama athletic director

That comes at a price. Georgia has agreed to pay $975,000 to North Texas for a game in 2013, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported this month.

With Georgia and Florida playing an annual neutral-site game, one team or the other has only three Southeastern Conference home games each season. Each team also plays a nonconference, in-state rival (Georgia versus Georgia Tech, Florida versus Florida State). The Gators have not played a regular-season, nonconference game outside the Sunshine State since 1991, when No. 5 Florida lost at No. 18 Syracuse 38-21. The next year, the SEC expanded to 12 teams and adopted an eight-game conference schedule.

Florida, in comparison to most other schools, takes its refusal to travel to the extreme. Of the other FBS schools that regularly fill massive stadiums, most of them will devote one of their nonconference games to a home-and-home deal with a team from a far-flung BCS conference. The Bulldogs played at Arizona State in 2008 and will open this season at Oklahoma State. The future includes games at Colorado and a home-and-home with Oregon in 2015 and 2016.

Only in college football do schools agree to play 10 or more years down the road. Why? Traditional powers set up nonconference games far into the future for the same reason their coaches offer scholarships to high school juniors. If that's what it takes to get who you want, that's what you do.

"Strength of schedule is overrated," Johnson said. "You'd love to have a national name [opponent] that's in a valley one of these years. It still looks great. You just don't know when people are going to be up and down."

Johnson has lined up opponents such as Louisiana-Lafayette and New Mexico State from the FBS and Tennessee Tech and Coastal Carolina from the Football Championship Subdivision. SEC teams seek out such games because they know their fans will buy tickets. Across the country at USC, Trojans coach Pete Carroll wants to play tough opponents. That's all well and good, but he would be playing them whether he wanted to or not.

"We're in a very competitive market. We have to put a competitive product on the field," said USC senior associate athletic director Steve Lopes, who handles the Trojans' schedule. "That's what is driving the guarantees up. [SEC schools] can play anybody and fill the stadium."

Lopes has it easier than schedulers at most schools. The Pac-10 plays nine conference games each season, and the Trojans have played Notre Dame annually since 1926 (save for the war years of 1943 through 1945). That leaves Lopes only two games a year to schedule. USC has agreed to home-and-homes with Minnesota, Syracuse and Boston College. He said he is close to announcing a home-and-home for 2019 and 2020.

At the other end of the spectrum is South Alabama, which won't field its first team until this fall. Yet the Jaguars already have home games scheduled against Mississippi State, North Carolina State, Kent State and Navy.

South Alabama, which discussed starting to play football as early as the mid-1990s, timed its leap into the market with the precision of a Wall Street ace. The Jaguars, already members of the Sun Belt Conference in 14 other sports, used that membership in an FBS conference to lure traditional schools into deals.

The Jaguars will receive $850,000 from Tennessee for a game in Knoxville in 2013.

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame-Navy
Jim McIsaac/Getty ImagesNotre Dame and Navy have the burden of filling in 12 slots on the schedule every year.

"We could have waited a year or two more and made more money," said Gottfried, the athletic director.

The closer a season gets, the bigger a hole in the schedule gets and the more a school will pay to fill it. The smaller schools know this and exploit it.

Veteran schedulers are aghast at how the market has changed.

"A couple of years ago, you could buy a game for $300,000," Florida State associate athletic director Andy Urbanic said. "It's almost impossible to do that. You're paying $400,000 to $600,000, and if the school is far away, you pay more."

San Jose State is discussing a 2010 visit to Alabama, two sources say. But before the Spartans can sign for a payday that could be as much as $900,000, they must extricate themselves from a game they have scheduled with Arizona State. Cost of the buyout: $200,000.

Buyout clauses once existed as boilerplate contract language, insurance to cover the embarrassment of having to break a contract. These days, buyout clauses are used as parachutes to escape in order to sign more lucrative deals, even if it means giving up a home game.

Army paid Georgia Tech $150,000 to get out of the Yellow Jackets' return visit to West Point this season. Miami (Ohio) called Colorado in January and told the Buffaloes not to come to Oxford in September. The RedHawks signed to play a neutral-site game with Kentucky at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati.

Neutral-site games were a fixture in the pre-television era. Schools would play in big cities both to promote their programs and to earn good checks. Notre Dame and Army played at Yankee Stadium for years. Alabama and Auburn played in Birmingham. As campus stadiums grew in size, and television allowed every fan to see every game, neutral-site games disappeared.

In recent years, however, schools have begun to use them again to make a splash. Alabama coach Nick Saban, anxious to recruit in Atlanta, agreed to open the 2008 and 2009 seasons in the Chick-fil-A Classic against Clemson and Virginia Tech, respectively. Lo and behold, the Crimson Tide have four commitments from the state of Georgia for their 2010 signing class.

A neutral-site game allows a team to play a strong opponent for a home-game-sized check without having to return the game. Notre Dame, attempting to reach its national fan base, has scheduled to play in Dallas; East Rutherford, N.J.; Foxborough, Mass.; New Orleans; Orlando, Fla.; and San Antonio.

Playbooks are recycled to gain an edge. Yesterday's outmoded attack is today's innovation. In scheduling, as in football itself, everything old is new again.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN3.com. His book, "The Maisel Report: College Football's Most Overrated & Underrated Players, Coaches, Teams, and Traditions," is on sale now. For more information, go to TheMaiselReport.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com