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The Backout Bowl

Scheduling is a slippery game in college football

Posted: Friday April 14, 2006 12:13PM; Updated: Friday April 14, 2006 12:53PM
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Arizona State has seen firsthand how difficult scheduling can be in college football today.
Arizona State has seen firsthand how difficult scheduling can be in college football today.
Robert Laberge/Getty Images

By John Walters, Special to SI.com

If you were jilted by your date a week before the prom, you can understand how Arizona State assistant athletic director Mark Brand felt in December.

A few weeks before Christmas, Brand, who oversees football scheduling for the Sun Devils, placed a phone call to New Mexico State. The Aggies were scheduled to play at Sun Devil Stadium on Sept. 2, a contest that had been contractually agreed upon between the two schools five years earlier. Brand was calling his colleague in Las Cruces, N.Mex., to see if the Aggies would mind playing the game two days earlier, on the Thursday before Labor Day weekend.

"Are you sitting down?" asked the Aggies' official. "I've got some bad news for you. We're not coming."

"I thought, You've got to be kidding me," recalls Brand.

At about the same time Brand was wondering who Arizona State would find to replace New Mexico State for its home opener, ESPN vice president of programming and acquisitions Dave Brown was placing a series of phone calls to Vanderbilt vice chancellor David Williams. Would Vanderbilt be interested, Brown inquired, in playing Michigan in Ann Arbor on Sept. 2?

Williams knew, as did ESPN's Brown, that Vanderbilt already had a game scheduled for that day. The Commodores were set to host Middle Tennessee. Williams said no thanks.

Brown called back and sweetened the offer. Williams again declined. He hung up and waited for the phone to ring.

"ESPN called back a third time," says Vanderbilt director of sport operations Brian Reese, "and offered to put a women's game on national TV."

And now Vanderbilt is playing at the Big House on Sept. 2.

"We're leaving a school in the lurch seven months before the season starts," admits Reese, who is now in negotiations with Middle Tennessee to have the Commodores visit Murfreesboro twice in the next few seasons as compensation. "I'd hate for someone to do that to us."

Welcome to the always opportunistic and ethically opaque world of nonconference college football scheduling. A world in which the sanctity of a contract means little -- less if the contract does not contain a "liquidated damage" (i.e., buyout) clause. In which an incoming coach or athletic director (or major television network) can erase an existing game off the "future schedules" page with relative impunity. You've heard of the Outback Bowl? Welcome to the Backout Bowl.

Searching for Patsies

In December 2004, McKinley Boston was named the new athletic director at New Mexico State. Almost immediately he hired Hal Mumme as his football coach. In 2005 the Aggies, playing a nonconference schedule that included bowl teams UTEP, Cal and Colorado, finished 0-12. After the Aggies' final game, a 24-21 loss to Utah State, Boston made the decision to drop Arizona State from the 2006 schedule.

"I told our [board of] regents and our president that we have to take a hard look at our schedule," says Boston. "Do we want to continue to take part in body-bag games, to lower our program's morale, to risk losing three or four key players to injury just for a big payday? Or do we want to turn this program around? So we made the decision to go in another direction, to soften the schedule."

Normally, as with Arizona State and New Mexico State, the school that bails out is the visitor. But not always.

Former Oregon senior associate athletic director Dave Heeke was shocked when Indiana, despite soundly thrashing the Ducks in Eugene in 2004, broke the latter half of their home-and-home set for Bloomington in '05. "It's very unusual for someone to not want you to return to their home," says Heeke, now the athletic director at Central Michigan. "But the way it is now, contracts can be simply negotiated out of or simply not honored."

Indiana replaced Oregon with I-AA Nicholls State and issued a brief release. The pertinent sentence read: "Our decision to add Nicholls State in Oregon's place was to acquire a game that would ideally assist our new coaching staff in their transition to IU."

In other words, first-year Hoosiers coach Terry Hoeppner wanted no part of a preseason Top 25 foe in his home debut. As it happened, Indiana squeaked past Nicholls State 35-31.