THE SCHEDULING PUZZLE: Juggling Square Pegs, Round Holes and Dollars Signs

During a recent Debbie Antonelli and Beth Mowins “Shootaround” podcast, Oklahoma’s coach Sherri Coale described the gap between desire and reality within the scheduling process:

You can ask a coach and [they] would not like to be on the road three times in a row. And a coach would like to have at least two games televised on their home court on Saturdays, etc. etc. You come up with 15 criteria [and] at the end of those criteria you can’t build a schedule. It is physically and humanly impossible to satisfy all of those criteria and come up with a schedule.

Or, to put it more simply, coaches dream, and their assistants and basketball operations managers laugh – sometimes hysterically.

It’s no surprise that location and conference has an enormous impact not just on scheduling economics and opportunities, but also on the wear and tear on staff and student athletes. “I remember when I worked for coach Yow at NC State,” recalled Beth Burns, now head coach at San Diego State University. “I got home from a road game at nine o’clock and I’m like, ‘what do you all do around here? This is crazy!’” “It was a bus league,” she explained. “It was the easiest thing I’d ever done, because I’d been to Colorado with Ceal Berry and been in Oklahoma and Missouri. Once you get west of the Mississippi it’s a whole different animal with how you have to travel and do things.”

When she returned to SDSU and the Mountain West in 2005, “I could have filled my schedule in 15 minutes because we stunk,” said Burns with a laugh. “And we’re in the most beautiful city in America. And we have a major airport.” Of course, that blessing can be a curse when it comes to away games. “Three quarters of my league gets to be on a bus against each other. They get to have fun trips. We’re on a plane everywhere we go.” Recently, for instance, the Aztecs played at Texas Christian University. “It’s two time zones over and we had to get up at two in the morning to get back to go to class on Thursday.”

Another wrench in her scheduling is that, unlike many schools with a Wednesday-to-Wednesday exam schedule, SDSU runs Saturday to a Saturday, encompassing two weekends in December. “That’s why we went to Hawaii [this year],” she explained. “We did not choose to go from UConn to Hawaii. We did not want to take the worst travel trip in America. But, it was three games and I had to get three games. I really didn’t like our schedule at all, but we lived through it and we’ve done okay.”

An accepted fact of Division I scheduling is that teams will pay another team come play them at home. The fee can encourage teams to travel to hard-to-get arenas, allow the host to reap the benefit of a strong fan base and can underwrite other programs. “We see on the men’s side hundreds of thousands of dollars guarantee games,” said Joe Logan of Loyola University (MD). “On our side I don’t think were looking for the ‘big’ money as much as we might just be looking for it to cover the cost of the trip and to supplement our budget. And that is different at every mid-major. Sometimes [the fee] goes into the women’s basketball budget, sometimes it doesn’t.”

Locking in those games is not without its challenges. “The problem arises when the guarantee is suddenly not enough,” said Nels Hawkinson, Executive Director of Basketball Travelers, which has organized tours and tournaments for over 20 years. “You settle on a figure – say $12,000 – and you say that’s the best you can do (even though it may not be). You send out a contract and then the contract never shows. It might be a legitimate reason – maybe the coach might not be back next year so the contract is being held. But there are also other reasons they’re not getting it back. They think, ‘Great, I have $12,000 for sure,’ and they’re going to tell the next person that calls, ‘Listen, I’ve got $12,000 from somebody, if you give me $16,000 then we’ve got a deal.’”

Burns has no issue with programs asking for money. What she expects in return is a measure of honesty and directness. “Some people are straight up right from the beginning. They’ll say, ‘Listen we’re going to play three road games and we’re trying to get this much.’ And I’ll say, ‘you can negotiate all you want, but I’m not holding out on you. This is what I’ve got. So if this isn’t going to make it, well then let’s let it go.’”

“I don’t want to sound old school but if I shake your hand I’m coming or you’re coming,” she continued. ‘That’s just the way it goes. Now, I’m not that naïve — sometimes things have to change. I’ve had to call people and say, ‘Listen, we just got this great opportunity to take this trip – can we move it around? I’ll help you replace the game if necessary. I just would hope that most of us won’t straight up stiff people. But there are people who will do that,” acknowledged Burns. “You just have to have a long memory and remember.”

“It is like everything else in this world,” she continued. “90% of the people do it exactly the way you’d hope they do it and 10% don’t and they’re not going to. And that’s why we have an NCAA rulebook that’s thicker than the Manhattan phone book. People are ethical some people aren’t — and more are ethical than not.”

In 2006, the NCAA increased the permissible number of contests in basketball. Some programs have welcomed the extra games – others have not. “We have trouble finding games a lot of years,” admitted Notre Dame’s Muffet McGraw. “There is this crazy ‘trying to get a game, trying to buy a game, trying to get people to come’ time. Or, we want to go to a certain area and there are some schools that just they say, ‘No way, we don’t play you guys. We’re looking for win.’ So it is it’s a challenge. Every year I feel like we’re always looking for that last game or two.”

This year, Burns simply chose to under schedule “not because I don’t competitively wish we could have another win on the board,” she explained, “but I can’t play during exams and that’s a fact. It’s better to have rest in our case. That’s our challenge. Because we’ve got to play the games. The fact that we played ranked teams and were able to beat a couple of them — well that makes all the difference in the world. And I can’t play eight ranked teams if I only have eight non-league games. My conference is too good. We have to be able to have a balance.”

Discussions will be held at this year’s Final Four about possibly reducing the number of games and, said McGraw, “it’s going to be interesting to see how that goes. I’m in favor of it because we’ve had a couple years where we didn’t even play all the games.” Of course, McGraw recognizes that there are many who want to maintain the total number. “I think probably the mid-majors are going, ‘Whoa, wait a minute. You’re taking away some money [because] if you drop a game, it’s not going to be a conference game, so it’s going to affect us.”

“I can totally understand where Muffet and Beth are coming from,” said Logan. “One creative option is just give people a choice. Every conference plays a different number of conference games, so every team within an individual conference has a different number of non-conference games that they can schedule. And, obviously, exams across the country are at different times. So, if they want to play 30 games, if they want to play 31 games, or play in an exempt tournament, give them the choice. Say look, if you only want to play eight non-conference games because of your economics and that’s what your administration agrees to, then that’s what you do.”

“Now the question there becomes what will the NCAA committee do? How does that affect your RPI would be the very first and very next question. For instance, say I played 34 games and won 28, while you only played 27 games and won 19. Our percentage might be the same, but are you penalizing me because I can’t afford to play non-conference games?”

As the reality of programs undergoing 10% cuts and required furloughs, it’s not much of a reach to anticipate shifts in the fee system. “If that guarantee money doesn’t increase or doesn’t cover the cost of the trip,” said Logan, “now it becomes, ‘am I going to go play those games? The idea of flying out to Stanford to play a top 10 program, a Hall of Fame coach and to get a great experience for kids to go to a school like Stanford and see what it’s like, those days I think are to go by the wayside.”

“If we are going to go and play in San Diego, Beth is going to have to say, ‘We’re going to cover your costs.’ Because I don’t think I’d be able to say to my administration, ‘look it’s only going to be $7000 instead of $14,000.’ They are going to say, ‘that $7000 is five local trips.” Whatever amount of guarantee money may be available in the future, other questions loom. “Do we want to spend that extra money on non-conference travel or do we want to spend that money on recruiting?” asked Logan. “And the next piece is we are able to go overseas once every four years. Some of our guaranteed money helps us with our overseas trip. So, do we see the value in the overseas trip or do we see the value in our non-conference scheduling? And that will become another debate, institution by institution.”

“I think you will see is the increase in exempt tournaments,” posited Logan. “There is a value in those where you can say, “look we are going to spend $5000 for weekend, and we’re to play three games but it’s only going to count as one.” He also wonders if some of the top conferences may start playing more games at a non-conference site. “If we can’t afford to go to an Oklahoma or Texas Tech or somewhere like that,” said Logan, “I think that they’re are going to have to travel to place the mid-majors on the road — which hasn’t happened either in recent years. I can see that that would grow the sport if some of those bigger schools would come play in some mid-major gyms so that it would get exposed to the local community. If you can get a Stanford, a Georgia, a Connecticut, a Notre Dame to come they would garner interest just by their name alone.”

There may be more opportunities to start tournaments similar to those on the men’s side. The question will be getting sponsorship and teams to play in them. Burns has already set up a double-header to support her conference-mates. The first “JHG Jam” – in honor her collaborator Jane Hancock, of a local businesswoman – will feature SDSU playing Arizona. Utah will play against UCLA because, as Burns noted, “Utah can’t get people to come to Salt Lake. So what I’ve tried to do is invite a different league team every year and UCLA is going to have a neutral court game. It’s only a two-hour bus ride and that allows their fans to be able to see it. I hope it’s going to be a win-win situation.”

“But you know,” she said, “the economy is just frightening. “You just have to use your head. It’s a lot easier for me, being in the city that I am. I try to use trade a lot. We can get hotels. We can get a Sea World to pass. But cash is cash. It’s an issue,” concluded Burns. “It’s a fact.”

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