Publish date:

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
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
ace-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,
-- 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.
-- Get home for the holidays. If you don't already host a
four-team Christmas ''classic,'' go make some eggnog and start one.
And don't forget, invite only patsies to your party. UTEP, a
borderline NCAA tournament invitee the last few seasons, will be
hosting the MetroMobile holiday bash in El Paso this year. The
guests? Alcorn State, Jackson State and Houston Baptist. Merry
Christmas! The gift-giving is all to thyself: two sure W's and a
handsome gate.
-- Pick the right patsies. If you try to boost your won-lost
record by beating up on weak teams, you do so at the expense of your
power rating. The NCAA tournament committee penalizes your team for
games against non-Division I competition when weighing your chances
for invitation, so for the best scheduling balance, draw your softies
from the depths of Division I -- schools like Brooklyn, Augusta,
Delaware State and the ever-popular U.S. International, which is more
than willing to commit lucrative suicide against ! far tougher foes.
Knowing you want them only for their beatability, the patsies will
hold you up for increasingly extortionate prices. A typical guarantee
five years ago was $5,000; now lower-level and midlevel Division I
schools are funding much of their budgets by selling themselves. For
its game at Oklahoma last season, Georgia State pocketed $11,000, a
windfall at the cost of one 124-81 loss. ''Guarantees have really
gotten out of hand,'' says Washington coach Andy Russo. ''People are
paying $25,000, $30,000 to bring in a team. A Syracuse can afford it.
We can't.''
Clemson is notorious for scheduling nonconference games against
the likes of Baptist, Winthrop and Coastal Carolina, but the Tigers
can get away with it without severely damaging their power rating
because ACC play gives their schedule enough backbone. ''The teams
that really get hurt are the Cleveland States and the Bradleys,''
says Billy Packer, who before commenting on games for CBS helps
matchmake them. ''Nobody wants to play them outside the league
because they're too good, and their league schedule isn't strong
enough to boost their power rating. They get boxed in.''
-- Tune into television. TV is the great matchmaker. To get the
games they want, the networks will ask you to switch dates and move
tip-off times. ''TV has more to do with scheduling than the coaches
do,'' says Miami coach Bill Foster. ''You've got to play to their
beat. The athletic director doesn't want to turn television down
because of the bucks ((see chart, p. 26)), and a lot of times the
coaches don't ((turn TV down)), because they want the exposure.''
''It's almost comical what's going on right now,'' said an
athletic department official at a major school in late August, at the
tail end of the scheduling high season. ''Lenny ((DeLuca, the
director of program acquisitions for CBS Sports)) is notorious. He
puts together a shopping list and goes to all the conference meetings
and says, 'Oh, yeah, we'll get you on.' So you schedule only 25
games, hoping a network will come in with the two others. Maybe 70
schools are doing this, and then Lenny suddenly says, 'I'm finished,'
and maybe 50 schools aren't in the mix. And everybody's scrambling.''
In his own defense, DeLuca calls that ''a terrible overstatement.
We'll try to get all the Top 20 in, and sometimes we can't.''
Most schools will do whatever they can to accommodate television.
When the PCAA decided to change its name this summer, the conference
members elected to become the Big West, in part to help them vie for
the late-night slot following the Big East and Big Ten games on
ESPN's Big Monday doubleheaders. And this season's
Kentucky-Louisville game may be played on Jan. 1 -- or on Dec. 31 --
depending on the NFL playoffs on CBS.
Before the 1985-86 season, Kansas tried to back out of a game at
the University of Detroit when NBC swooped in with a big-bucks offer
for the Jayhawks to play Louisville on TV. Detroit, unhappy about
losing the jewel of its home schedule, refused to accept Kansas's
$10,000 cancellation fee, went to court and forced the Jayhawks to
honor their commitment.
Over the summer ABC wanted to set up a UNLV-Arizona game for the
coming season, but UNLV already had a full schedule. The Runnin'
Rebels play Nevada- Reno every year and asked Reno if the date this
season could be scrubbed. Reno said fine -- if UNLV would find a
Division I school willing to play at Reno on the same date without a
return obligation, and if Vegas would pay whatever guarantee that
school agreed to. In late August, South Alabama showed interest, and
Creative Sports Marketing, the promoter, offered on behalf of Vegas a
$20,000 guarantee. South Alabama asked for $35,000. Suddenly a few
other schools got interested, and eventually Eastern Illinois signed
on for $26,000. The nation will watch UNLV-Arizona on ABC on Dec. 10.

-- Play for perks. Schools like Southwestern Louisiana in
Lafayette, Lamar in Beaumont, Texas, and Arkansas-Little Rock have
teams that are too good for their own good. Big-name schools won't
come in to give the home folks a show because the risk of losing is
too high. As one scheduler at a high-profile program says, ''If I
want to get beat, I go to North Carolina and get beat. If I go to
Southwestern Louisiana, I'm probably going to get beat, too -- except
nobody knows it's nothing to be ashamed of.''
So if you're a Southwestern Louisiana, you contact a scheduling
broker. He calls up a big-time school and works out details regarding
the date, the guarantee, the return and whatever additional
inducement it might take to get a visiting coach to agree to come to
your place. That ''bonus'' may take the form of an all-expenses-paid
off-season fishing trip or golf outing for the coach, or five or 10
grand for appearing at your clinic or giving a luncheon speech to
your booster club. Strictly speaking, these offers are legal,
although three years ago the NCAA passed a rule requiring coaches to
notify college presidents of all outside income.
While such inducements may be legal, everyone involved in
scheduling is loath to talk about them, in part because of possible
IRS ramifications, as in the case of former Memphis State coach Dana
Kirk. The indictment in Kirk's current federal income-tax evasion
trial in Memphis originally contained charges, later dismissed, that
Kirk, while coach, received $10,000 from the organizers of the 1983
Winston Tire Classic in Los Angeles. That fee was paid for Kirk's
agreement to make himself available for pretournament phone
interviews with the media and, if needed, to appear at a press
luncheon and clinic. Payment of the sum was, however, contingent upon
Memphis State's participation in the tournament. Also, negotiations
for the Tigers' appearance in the '82 Sugar Bowl Tournament were
ended, the indictment said, because of Kirk's demand for $2,000 for
attending a dinner meeting connected with the tournament.
The coaching community abounds with rumors of coaches who have
profited mightily from scheduling inducements, and many in the
fraternity rail against the practice. ''That's probably as
distasteful as anything in our business,'' says Russo. ''If I lost a
game and was benefiting from it financially, I'd find it hard to go
in the locker room afterwards and face my guys.''
As scheduling becomes more difficult, professional matchmakers are
prospering. Schools retain firms like Sports Productions, Inc. or
National Sports Scheduling of Provo, Utah, when in late summer they
get desperate to fill a date or to find a name team for a holiday
tournament. And sometimes the brokers create the date themselves.
Russ Potts, head of Sports Productions, Inc., put together
Georgetown's visit to New Mexico in December 1984. By billing the
game as a ''special event,'' Potts was able to hold it out of New
Mexico's season-ticket package and charge $15 a head, twice the
standard price. New Mexico netted $65,000 for the game and gave Potts
a check for $90,000, from which he paid Georgetown's guarantee and
collected his own fee. ''I'm not a scheduler, I'm an independent
promoter,'' says Potts.
In the process, Potts helped New Mexico buy an upgraded schedule,
but the impact of that night was fleeting, proof of the pitfalls of
the Scheduling Game. Former New Mexico coach Gary Colson won 24, 19,
17, 25 and 22 in his last five seasons, yet his Lobos were passed
over by the tournament committee each time, and he was forced out at
New Mexico last spring. ''Georgetown % coming to our place was
big-time for us,'' he says ruefully. ''We lost by eight, but it was a
great game, and everybody was happy. Everybody made money that night,
I guess -- everybody except me.''
In the Scheduling Game, as in any other game, somebody has to