"There's nothing I can do about the scheduling problem. As I tell my kids, know what you can change and what you can't change. Why battle? It will change when the big people want it to. We're dealt a hand, and you can be dealt a hand, just like you can get a job, that will guarantee you failure. The system can dictate who wins and who loses."
—Coppin State coach Ron (Fang) Mitchell
September mornings are lively just about everywhere on the Coppin State campus in west Baltimore, but not in the 3,000-seat Coppin Center. This is the home court of the team that scored the biggest upset of last season's NCAA tournament, a 78-65 win over second-seeded South Carolina, and then came within a stolen pass of beating l0th-seeded Texas to advance to the Sweet 16. At 10 a.m. on this day the gym is mostly empty, much as it will be for all but nine evenings this winter, when the Eagles have home games.
In the basketball office overlooking the court and the folded-up bleachers, Fang Mitchell can't keep from laughing as he discusses the peculiar relationship of success and competition in Division I basketball: Once you enjoy a little of the first, finding the second becomes a skewed, elusive process, especially when you're trying to schedule games at home. "You are supposed to have your schedule set two years in advance," Mitchell says. "We don't have a game scheduled yet for next year. How come? Our phone never rings. It used to ring." He looses his sirenlike laugh and then turns serious. "But now people say, 'Oh, Coppin State, you don't want to play them, they're tough.' I have a problem with that because I'm trying to teach young people to accept challenges."
Ray Haskins at Long Island University, Andy Stoglin at Jackson State and a number of other coaches at small Division I schools with good teams are running into the same problem—they have to travel farther and farther from home to find strong teams willing to risk a game with them. "Big East schools don't want to play us," says Haskins, who last March took the Blackbirds to their first NCAA tournament in 13 years. LIU threw a scare into Villanova before losing the first-round game 101-91. "If we lose to a Big East, ACC or Big Ten opponent, people will say we were supposed to lose. But if we beat them, then it has strong [negative] implications for their program. College coaches don't want that stigma hanging over them. St. John's is still trying to get out from under the fact that they lost to us in the first game of the season last year. They had counted that game as a win. Instead, that loss cost them a trip to the NIT."
Call the NCAA tournament the Big Dance if you must, but that label better describes the college basketball off-season. That's when coaches and athletic administrators twist, hustle and double shuffle in trying to put together schedules that will 1) generate money for their programs, 2) produce enough wins to ensure gainful employment for another year and 3) look robust in the ratings percentage index (RPI, or power ratings, which ranks teams according to their winning percentage, their opponents' winning percentage and their opponents' opponents' winning percentage). "To be successful in coaching, scheduling is the second-most important thing, recruiting being first and coaching being third," says Arkansas-Little Rock coach Wimp Sanderson. "People have no idea how difficult it is."
The ultimate goal? An NCAA tournament berth. The path? Other than winning your conference tournament for an automatic bid, you'll need to win about 20 games, make sure some of the losses are to strong teams and hope to get an at-large invitation.
Members of the NCAA tournament selection committee will tell you that even schools from those conferences with the lowest power ratings have a chance for an at-large bid if they play a tough enough non-conference schedule. But take a hypothetical look at two schools faced with a decision on whether to play either Dartmouth (for an easy win) or UMass (for a possible loss). Now if you are, say, North Carolina, either Dartmouth or UMass would be happy to play you. Win or lose, both teams would get a nice check and a boost in the power ratings from playing a national powerhouse. But if you are Coppin State, LIU, Jackson State or any other small school capable of upsetting a big program—a "bad loss" when figured into the power ratings, not to mention in the eyes of fans, athletic directors and the press—a UMass will likely refuse to play you. If it did agree to play, it would do so only under competitive conditions that were overwhelmingly in its favor.
Here's how that usually works: Small School agrees to travel to Big School Field House to play in front of rabid Big School fans in a game officiated by Big School Conference referees. This is called a "guarantee game" because, for submitting to such disadvantageous conditions, Small School gets a guaranteed sum of as much as $50,000. In other words teams with a lot of money can virtually buy wins over teams without a lot of money. Rare is the day when Big School reciprocates, traveling to Small School to play under any circumstances.
"The NCAA tournament is the reason schools do not go home-and-home with [smaller] schools," says Arkansas coach Nolan Richardson. "You're telling the major college with a high power rating to go to a place like Bowling Green to possibly get beat and fall in the RPIs. They're not going to do that."
So if they want to schedule up, the Bowling Greens of the world are obliged to hit the road. Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun, whose team plays 15 to 17 home games a year out of 26 to 28 on his schedule, doesn't think that's such a bad deal. "They get the opportunity to have a good loss," he says of the ratings-impaired. "We would be a good loss for them, not only because we have a good name, but we're going to go out and play Stanford for them, Virginia for them, St. John's, Georgetown and Syracuse for them [which helps the small school's RPI]. There are more benefits than meet the eye."