Notice that Calhoun says nothing about giving the small program an opportunity for a good win. The assumption, of course, is that the small program coming to a place like UConn will lose. So what are the opportunities for a good win for a school like Coppin—whose nine home dates this year are all against fellow Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference schools that are obligated to play home-and-home series? Not very good: The Eagles open their nonconference schedule with games at Connecticut, at Missouri, at Iowa State's Cyclone Challenge tournament, at Arizona, at Wisconsin and at Oklahoma's All-College Tournament.
"I don't get a chance to play schools that I know I am capable of beating at home or away because those teams won't play us," says Mitchell. "I have to play 'guarantee games' on the road, because that's just economics. So does everyone in the MEAC. What we have then are losses. So the perception becomes, based on your win-loss record, that you are inferior, that you're not a quality conference or a quality program. Until last year, the conference had never won a game in the NCAA tournament. If you've never won a game in the NCAA tournament, how can you be classified as a quality conference? But that makes us a 15th or 16th seed each year, and we're always playing a Top 10 team, so the chances of winning an NCAA contest are very slim." Indeed, no 16th seed has ever won an NCAA tournament game, and Coppin State was just the third No. 15 seed ever to advance. "We had to win two overtime games to get out of our conference tournament last year," Mitchell says, "and then at the NCAAs, we proved that we belonged. Yet our conference is always rated 30th or 31st—the lowest of the lows."
"Coppin State has better players than I have," says Arkansas's Richardson. "But that doesn't show up on the computer rankings."
While tournament selection committee members insist that the RPI doesn't weigh that heavily on their minds when they are making up the NCAA tournament field—"The RPI is an important tool, but it's only one tool," says committee chairman CM. Newton, the athletic director at Kentucky—it is a major preoccupation for a vast number of coaches and athletic directors who handle scheduling. Occasionally it even shapes a league's policy. For instance, the Sun Belt Conference, in an attempt to improve its power rating and its chances of getting additional NCAA at-large bids, has adopted scheduling criteria that limit members to two games against teams in the eight lowest-rated conferences and prohibits all games against non-Division I schools. Which means schools in the lowest eight conferences have that many fewer teams who will even consider giving them a home-and-home series.
But, says Haskins, "I don't think coaches are just worried about their RPI. They're worried about their image, period."
And image usually translates into job security. "I've had coaches tell me, 'Look, I'm in my make-or-break year, the last thing I need is to play you guys,' " says Andy Abrams, the former athletic director at the College of Charleston, a first-round winner over Maryland in last year's NCAA tournament. "I don't blame them a bit. It's about food on their table."
Scheduling is also about money in an athletic department's coffers. But for big-time programs such as those at schools like Arkansas, Kentucky and UConn, schedule-making is not so much about greed as it is about the fact that basketball supports many nonrevenue teams. And much of the money that trickles down is generated by home games—a profit of as much as $250,000 a night. A coach from a big program will play at a small school like Coppin State only if he sees some secondary benefit to it: to establish a recruiting foothold in that area, to make good on a promise to play in the hometown of one of his players, to do a favor for a coaching associate at the small school or, in the case of a short list of small programs in Florida and Hawaii, just to give his team a day at the beach.
"A very small percentage of schools want to come to Jonesboro," says Arkansas State coach Dickey Nutt. "We got Oklahoma State in a two-for-one deal, and we beat them at our place last year. That's great for our program, but now it hurts our scheduling."
By beating Tulane on the road five years ago, Jackson State actually suffered in two ways. Not only did Tulane refuse to honor its contract and return a game in Jackson the following year, but Alabama also called to cancel its home game with the Tigers the next season as well. Neither Tulane nor Alabama has played Jackson State since. A win at LSU two years ago penalized the Tigers further: With Arkansas and Memphis the only big-time teams in the region (besides LSU) still willing to play Jackson State, the Tigers had to travel to Arizona, Arizona State and UCLA to beef up their schedule. "That hurt us a lot," says Stoglin, "because the farther you go, the more of the guarantee money you have to spend."
Because Stoglin has so little leverage in a home-and-home agreement, he rarely benefits from a buyout clause, a contract proviso stipulating that a team backing out of a deal must pay for doing so. Such provisos are common because coaches are notorious for putting off return road games. "There are certain coaches, a standardized contract is not good enough for them," says Richardson. "A standardized contract's buyout is $5,000. So you go play them, then they say, 'I can't play, let's postpone it.' Then after a while they just say they don't want to play, here's $5,000." To discourage backsliders, Richardson often sets buyouts at $50,000 or $100,000. "That way you're sure," he says.