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Alexander Wolff
November 25, 1992
Matchmakers work out team schedules with cunning and care, because balancing W's and dollars is tricky business
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November 25, 1992

Dating Game

Matchmakers work out team schedules with cunning and care, because balancing W's and dollars is tricky business

On Dec. 10, mighty Georgetown will take the court at the Capital Centre to play tiny Shenandoah College (enrollment: 935), which has a fine music conservatory but a pushover of a basketball team. Hoyas vs. Hornets? What's going on here? And how is it that U.S. International University, of San Diego, will take to the road this season to get pounded by the likes of Syracuse, Southern Cal and Rhode Island—and laugh all the way to the bank?

And while we're at it, why will any athletic director in the country gladly answer a phone call from a television guy named Lenny? And why is it that coaches who would never breathe a word about payoffs to players can be heard to say, in loud voices, "We're buying three teams this season"? And why will Eastern Illinois play Nevada-Reno on Dec. 17 and get paid $26,000 by Nevada-Las Vegas for doing so?

The answers to these questions reveal a Machiavellian side of college hoops in which every basketball game is a pawn in another, larger contest, the Scheduling Game. The primary objectives are to earn a bid to the 64-team NCAA tournament and, of course, to make as much money as possible in the process. The strategy is quite simply to line up enough victories to catch the eye of the tournament committee, while also making certain that the quality of those wins—the basis of what's called your power rating—will impress that omnipotent body.

Beyond that, the Scheduling Game is very tricky. So long as a Kentucky gets into the NCAAs with a record of 16-12 (as in 1985), and a New Mexico doesn't get invited with a 25-10 record (as in 1987), every coach in Division I will be fussing as much over his Filofax calendar as his courtside clipboard. Fail to book a properly balanced schedule, and you'll end up booking tee times for the second week in March.

By NCAA rules, a Division I school can play as many as 28 regular-season games (including the first-round game of the conference tournament). Many of those, of course, are predetermined conference matchups; the rest are arranged by agreement between schools, with TV often a very interested third party. Unlike college football schedules, which are booked years in advance, basketball schedules are arranged and rearranged well into the August and even the September before the upcoming season. The heavy action is in the summer, and here are the rules by which it unfolds.

•Stay at home. The most obvious first strategy is to schedule as many home games as possible. "You have a better chance of winning, and you can charge more for season tickets," says Pete Derzis, the associate athletic director at the University of Alabama-Birmingham. "Of your 27 games, you try for at least 14 or 15 at home." To measure the value of by-the-hearth scheduling, watch Virginia this season. The 1987-88 Cavaliers went 13-18 while following a bedouin itinerary that took them away from Charlottesville 18 times. This season Virginia plays 16 games, including its first eight, in University Hall. By January, people will be hailing the Cavs' great turnaround. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus, and he looks a lot like an assistant athletic director.

•Adopt a no-return policy. Many scheduling agreements are of the you-play-one-at-our-place-this-year-and-then-we-will-play-one-at-your-place-next-year variety. But the cutthroat schedulers from the big schools try to strike a no-return arrangement. Find a beatable visitor and entice it to your arena with such a lucrative guarantee—say, a sum of $10,000 to $20,000—that the school won't require a return engagement next year. Simply put, in current basketball parlance, you "buy" the opponent. "We hadn't bought a team in my six years here because we didn't have the money," says St. Louis coach Rich Grawer. "This season we're buying Coppin State and Brooklyn College. We explained to our administration that if we go to a Florida A & M or Grambling, it costs us in team travel, in time lost from class, in wear and fatigue. It's worth it to buy a team."

Some schools look to buy a foe for other reasons: to beef up the quality of their schedules or to bring in a glamour name for their fans and for recruiting purposes ("Son, you'll notice we barely lost to Kentucky here last year...."). This strategy can be difficult to execute. Says Wyoming coach Benny Dees, "It's easy for me to get up on my soapbox and say we're going to play a tougher schedule, but it's harder than the devil to get really good teams to come out here. To get Georgetown is going to cost you $40,000 or $50,000, and sometimes you have to play two [there] for one [here]." Sometimes no one is willing to meet that price: Hence Georgetown will host Shenandoah, a Division III school that has turned out a number of major league violinists. A TV date at Arizona fell through, and the Hoyas couldn't get a "real" school to agree to an arrangement on short notice. So, instead, they'll bring in the Hornets for a quick W.

Meanwhile, a Cornell or a Canisius can't afford not to bus in to Syracuse and get whipped in front of 30,000 in the Carrier Dome in exchange for a tidy payoff—as both schools will happily do this season. But the big boys can call the shots. Says Oklahoma coach Billy Tubbs, "I only play road games if they're on TV or I'm guaranteed a return. Or if they're in exotic places—Hawaii, Alaska."

•If you travel, travel far. Tubbs, who's so savvy on the subject that he delivers a seminar on scheduling at coaching clinics, knows this trick well. The NCAA doesn't count games outside the lower 48 states against your limit of 28. So you'll want to schedule yourself into November's fiercely competitive Great Alaska Shootout or the luau of December tournaments in Hawaii. The guarantees are humorously low, but that's not why you go. You go to get into some tune-up games as well as to procure some fetching pictures to gussy up your recruiting brochure.

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