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Original Issue

It Only Hurts For A Little While

Just ask Cincinnati or any number of other college football have-nots who, week after week, are willing to serve as fodder for powerhouses like Miami and Penn State, most of whom have discovered that a prerequisite for a trip to the top of the polls—and into a major bowl game—is a cream-puff schedule

Taken a look around college football lately? It's 100 people standing in an elevator trying not to make eye contact. Everybody wants to go 11-0, but nobody wants to play anybody to do it. Florida just announced that, starting in 1988, it will no longer play Miami every year. Miami just announced that, besides tangling with Cincinnati, East Carolina, Miami of Ohio and Northern Illinois next season, it will take on always-dangerous Toledo. That's only a little scarier than the menu the Hurricanes are serving up for Vinny Testaverde this fall—six varsity games and five J.V.'s, including last Saturday's 34-point underdog, Tulsa.

Georgia Tech canceled its annual games with Auburn and Tennessee, and the Auburn game goes back to 1892. This fall Penn State played a six-game exhibition schedule, including Rutgers, Cincinnati and East Carolina, before it opened the season with Alabama on Oct. 25. The Nittany Lions made room on their schedule for those first six teams by canceling a date with Auburn. Luckily, the Lions still were able to keep next year's opener, Bowling Green.

So guess which two teams are headed toward a $2.5 million (each) Dole Bowl? You got it: Miami and Penn State. Anybody noticing a trend here? Macho scheduling is out. Bake-sale scheduling is in—a cupcake here, a cream puff there. It's the name of the game: Bowling for Bucks. Play a finishing school if you have to; just bring back wins. The money is too big to try anything else. And it's a strategy that's limited only by the number of games East Carolina can play.

Can you blame 'em? Let's say you're the athletic director at Trustfund State. Your Fightin' Funders are led by a quarterback who drops back like Richard Simmons and a defensive line so peaceful that it's practically Amish. But the Lear Jet set among the alumni is on your back to get a decent bowl bid. You should:

a) Accept that job in the garment industry;

b) Schedule Texas, Nebraska and Florida State for your nonconference games and hope the poll voters give bonus points for valor; or

c) Schedule Rice, Colorado School of Mines and Claremont-Mudd (twice) and hope the voters get amnesia.

If you picked anything but c), either you've been watching nothing but ALF or your Motorola is stuck on 1963.

Wake up and smell the decimal points. National championships these days aren't made on the football field as much as they are in paneled offices before the season starts. Penn State and Miami are headed for the Big Chair, while a team like Notre Dame, which will have busted its gluteus trying to beat seven teams that have appeared in SI's Top 20, is likely to get a front-row seat in a La-Z-Boy for its efforts. Playing SMU, Penn State, LSU and Southern Cal on consecutive Saturdays just doesn't pay. Literally.

"At one time in this country, to win the national championship you needed to play a good schedule," says Irish coach Lou Holtz. "Now you don't. All the media care about is wins and losses."

Indeed, Penn State and Miami are Exhibits 1 and 1-A of street-smart scheduling. They've played just enough good teams to get a few TV games and catch the voter's eye. Yet they've played enough crummy teams to stay healthy, wealthy and undefeated. When Miami traveled to Cincinnati, for instance, it left behind eight injured starters and still won 45-13. Just a light workout; no pads. And about the time you sit down to Thanksgiving dinner, Miami will be kicking off against East Carolina. You like them baked, stuffed or mashed?

Maybe—probably—Miami and Penn State are the two best teams in the country. But the point is, the people in charge greased the skids for those two teams. "One of the big problems with Miami in the past is they haven't given their people a chance to win," says Hurricane athletic director Sam Jankovich. "They played too many tough opponents back to back." Jankovich cites Notre Dame as a "talented team that's played too tough a schedule. You can't play a schedule like that and win a lot of games. It takes it out of you physically, spiritually, emotionally and everything else." So, without a national-championship playoff or voters who pay attention to schedules, there's no incentive to play anybody.

Take Oklahoma coach Barry Switzer, who now has control of scheduling for the Sooners. He has said he'll never play Miami again. Switzer knows what the fans want—national championships—and he wants to be sniffing one every year. Why take risks? "Texas will be back, and Texas is enough for me to contend with," says Switzer. "I don't need to take another nonconference national power and stick it in there.

"Look at Nebraska's future schedule." continues Switzer. "They've got series with Wyoming and Utah State. Hey, there's nothing wrong with that. You make about 80-20 money [in the gate split]. You give those people $200,000 and expenses, and you keep $800,000 or $900,000. Tell you what, scheduling has a lot to do with how you win national championships." Tell you what, instead of Miami next year, Oklahoma will play North Texas State.

North Texas State's phone will ring a lot this off-season. One call may well come from Iowa coach Hayden Fry, who is corn-feeding his teams nonconference games that go down easy. The Hawkeyes started 3-0 this season, making an immediate splash in the polls with routs of Iowa State, Northern Illinois and UTEP. Meanwhile, Fry has postponed the start of a series with Miami from 1985 to '90. "We're not going to be as beaten up as we were with the teams we used to play," says Fry. "You can look at it two ways, and one of them isn't very smart. It's an injustice to cripple your cotton-pickin' team in nonconference games. The Big Ten is tough enough."

At Michigan, coach Bo Schembechler, last of the dinosaurs, says he would like to schedule the Northern Illinoises of the world, "but Hayden's got all those teams tied up." Bo can poke fun, but all Fry has to do is point across the prairie to Illinois to show what macho scheduling can do to a team. A year ago, the Illini, ranked No. 1 in the preseason by TV Guide, practically had their show canceled by an opening loss to USC. Two weeks later Illinois was blown out by Nebraska and never recovered. This fall the Illini were routed by USC and Nebraska on consecutive weeks and went on to lose four of their next five games.

Who needs the aggravation? Besides, if you're a "have" in college football, like Iowa or Arkansas, bake sales usually don't cost a cent. Fry will sell out every home game whether he plays Texas or Texas Bible College. So why mess with Texas? As Baylor coach Grant Teaff says, "If the money is the same, why not get a victory at the same time?"

Holtz, for one, can tell you which is a happier climate for rebuilding. "Not even close," he says. "When you win more, the morale is good, practice improves more, everybody's happy, everybody comes along just fine. Fans don't mind if you play Little Sisters of the Poor as long as you have a good won-loss record. We may have a pretty good team, but nobody knows it."

Notre Dame, which is 4-5 after losing 24-19 to Penn State on Saturday, is through playing the martyr. "Nobody plays schedules like that anymore," said athletic director Gene Corrigan last week, whereupon he announced that in the 1990s Notre Dame would play Miami of Ohio, Northwestern, Indiana, Duke and Virginia. If you can't beat 'em....

"If I had my way, I'd schedule nothing but teams I thought I could beat," says Washington State coach Jim Walden. If you're rebuilding, the idea is to bring in crumb cakes and stomp them. If you beat four crumb cakes and win three out of seven conference games, you've got seven victories.

"And now, people start to get interested," says Walden. "All they notice is that you're winning seven, eight games a year. The bowl people start to bring you along, your players start to get better, recruiting gets better. No one looks back and says, 'Who did you beat in 1984?' No one person can tell you who was on my schedule in '81 when we went 8-2-1. Not a soul."

Of course, the only loser is college football itself. The games stink.

Exactly how much rivalry simmers in a clash between Auburn and Western Carolina? How many thrills does an Auburn fan get by watching his heroes beat Western Carolina 55-6, as they did last month? An Auburn fan will watch the Tigers play the Coast Guard Academy if he has to, but when he also has to sit through UT-Chattanooga (42-14), Cincinnati (52-7) and (you guessed it) East Carolina (45-0) in one season, he starts bringing a good book. You think Auburn fans were a little disappointed to hear that their beloveds were supposed to play Penn State this year before the Nittany Lions dropped them?

Some coaches don't cotton to bake-sale scheduling. "I don't believe in teams playing one or two easier teams early to try to build up a record and get a bowl bid," says Colorado's Bill McCartney. McCartney put his schedule where his mouth was this year and paid for it. Had the Buffaloes not lost nonconference games to Ohio State and Arizona (both by three points), they would be 7-3 instead of 5-5. Compare Colorado's season, which includes wins over Nebraska and Oklahoma State, with 8-2 Auburn's. Which school do you think will get the better bowl bid?

Texas A & M coach Jackie Sherrill says that if the quality of games is going to get any better, the poll voters will have to start paying attention. "As a voter [in the UPI poll], I give a lot of consideration to a team's opponents," he says. "I also take note when teams have not played anybody. So far, Miami has made its entire season on one game."

Ouch. That's not going to sit well with Hurricane coach Jimmy Johnson. "Anybody that's an independent is going to be accused of having an easy schedule," Johnson says. "Everybody complained about us playing Texas Tech, which we beat 61-11. But nobody complains about Texas A & M playing Texas Tech, because it's a conference game."

Johnson's point is that conference members have even easier schedules than he does. Take Michigan, he says: "They start with Notre Dame, which is down. Then Oregon State. Puhleeeze. O.K., Florida State, good team. Wisconsin, they had just come off losses to Las Vegas and Hawaii. Michigan State, O.K. Iowa, having a good year. Then you've got Indiana, perennial Big Ten power. Illinois, having a great year, and Purdue's another one having a fantastic, bang-up year. Minnesota's another perennial power, then you go to Ohio State, who's down. Then you finish up with Hawaii, for crying out loud." Johnson's handicapping may not be so hot—the Wolverines couldn't get by Minnesota on Saturday (page 59) and Ohio State may not be so far down after all—but you see what he's trying to say.

In Miami's defense, getting a schedule together is not so easy these days. Nobody wants the Hurricanes anymore, because they're too bloody good. Moreover, unlike other powerhouses, Miami usually doesn't sell out (Oklahoma couldn't even fill the Orange Bowl), which means that you're not even going to get paid well for getting the bejesus knocked out of you. Florida is Miami's oldest enemy. The two teams have played every year since 1938 except for 1943. Forget all that. After next season the Gators will play the Hurricanes only twice every six years. Florida president Marshall Criser explains that playing Miami, Florida State, Auburn and Georgia every year is an honor that "we don't need bestowed upon us." With its '87 menu, Miami doesn't have a lot of room to gripe.

As long as there are East Carolinas out there willing to go anywhere at anytime to get their faces refitted for a big paycheck, bake-sale scheduling will continue to spread. The have-nots, with small stadiums and nobody in them, need the big one-time payday from the haves to keep their athletic departments breathing. "The Washington States of this world go to Michigan, go to Tennessee, go to Ohio State as sacrificial lambs," says Walden. "We're being paid to come in and get our brains knocked out. And that's what it takes to balance a budget. There are 40 schools in this country who don't understand what we're saying. They've never been a have-not. All they know is, when they say, 'Give me a plane,' somebody starts an engine."

The people getting abused in these mercenary missions aren't athletic directors. They're players. "A kid goes down and plays two big powers in a row," says ESPN's Beano Cook. "Then, when it's time for the kid to come home and play somebody on his own level, he's too beat-up to play well, and he loses. It's unfair to the kid."

Not to lecture, but there are cures. For one thing, the AP poll could reduce its bank of 62 voters to 10 or 15 knowledgeable writers and broadcasters who know the difference between Georgia and George Mason. Second (stop us if you've heard this one), a playoff system could be installed. You can keep the bowls. Have the winners of the four best bowl games (as selected by the AP) play on the two Saturdays following the bowls. It's not too painful. Promise. This season, for instance, we would have played it all off, picked a true national champion and gotten everybody back to school by Jan. 19.

Most important, Fred Fan should use his Saturdays to regrout the bathtub. Anything to stay away from the stadium. As long as he's willing to plunk down $14 to watch Arkansas turn Drillbit Tech into Cream of Wheat, Drillbit will keep getting scheduled and nothing will change.

Changes need to be made for the game's sake. And if not for the game's sake, at least for East Carolina's.



East Carolina was thrown, consecutively, to Nittany Lions (above) and Auburn Tigers.



Florida may have become weary of battling the Hurricanes (in white) every year, but...the Gators seem to have a big appetite for patsies like Kent State (above), which fell 52-9. In '87 they take on Tulsa and Wichita State.



[See caption above.]


The art of scheduling entails not only whom you play, but also when you play 'em. The harder the opponent, the softer the marshmallow you want the preceding week. For instance, by season's end:

Auburn will have played East Carolina before Tennessee, Cincinnati before Georgia and nobody before Alabama.

Alabama will have played Memphis State before Tennessee and nobody before Auburn.

Oklahoma will have played Kansas State before Texas.

Texas will have played Rice before Oklahoma.

Miami will have played nobody before Oklahoma and nobody before Florida State.

Florida State will have played Toledo before Nebraska, Louisville before Miami and nobody before Florida.

Arizona State will have played Wichita State before Arizona.

Of course, this setup stuff works both ways. The week before playing Miami, the Hurricanes' opponents will have played Georgia Southern. Kansas State, Minnesota, Western Illinois, Virginia Tech, Penn State, Louisville, Syracuse, New Mexico and nobody.