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 10th-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
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
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 nonconference 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."
Notice that Calhoun says nothing about giving the small program
an opportunity for a good win. The assumption, of course, is
that the small program coming to a place like UConn will lose.
So what are the opportunities for a good win for a school like
Coppin--whose nine home dates this year are all against fellow
Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference schools that are obligated to
play home-and-home series? Not very good: The Eagles open their
nonconference schedule with games at Connecticut, at Missouri,
at Iowa State's Cyclone Challenge tournament, at Arizona, at
Wisconsin and at Oklahoma's All-College Tournament.
"I don't get a chance to play schools that I know I am capable
of beating at home or away because those teams won't play us,"
says Mitchell. "I have to play 'guarantee games' on the road,
because that's just economics. So does everyone in the MEAC.
What we have then are losses. So the perception becomes, based
on your win-loss record, that you are inferior, that you're not
a quality conference or a quality program. Until last year, the
conference had never won a game in the NCAA tournament. If
you've never won a game in the NCAA tournament, how can you be
classified as a quality conference? But that makes us a 15th or
16th seed each year, and we're always playing a Top 10 team, so
the chances of winning an NCAA contest are very slim." Indeed,
no 16th seed has ever won an NCAA tournament game, and Coppin
State was just the third No. 15 seed ever to advance. "We had to
win two overtime games to get out of our conference tournament
last year," Mitchell says, "and then at the NCAAs, we proved
that we belonged. Yet our conference is always rated 30th or
31st--the lowest of the lows."
"Coppin State has better players than I have," says Arkansas's
Richardson. "But that doesn't show up on the computer rankings."
While tournament selection committee members insist that the RPI
doesn't weigh that heavily on their minds when they are making
up the NCAA tournament field--"The RPI is an important tool, but
it's only one tool," says committee chairman C.M. Newton, the
athletic director at Kentucky--it is a major preoccupation for a
vast number of coaches and athletic directors who handle
scheduling. Occasionally it even shapes a league's policy. For
instance, the Sun Belt Conference, in an attempt to improve its
power rating and its chances of getting additional NCAA at-large
bids, has adopted scheduling criteria that limit members to two
games against teams in the eight lowest-rated conferences and
prohibits all games against non-Division I schools. Which means
schools in the lowest eight conferences have that many fewer
teams who will even consider giving them a home-and-home series.
But, says Haskins, "I don't think coaches are just worried about
their RPI. They're worried about their image, period."
And image usually translates into job security. "I've had
coaches tell me, 'Look, I'm in my make-or-break year, the last
thing I need is to play you guys,'" says Andy Abrams, the former
athletic director at the College of Charleston, a first-round
winner over Maryland in last year's NCAA tournament. "I don't
blame them a bit. It's about food on their table."
Scheduling is also about money in an athletic department's
coffers. But for big-time programs such as those at schools like
Arkansas, Kentucky and UConn, schedule-making is not so much
about greed as it is about the fact that basketball supports
many nonrevenue teams. And much of the money that trickles down
is generated by home games--a profit of as much as $250,000 a
night. A coach from a big program will play at a small school
like Coppin State only if he sees some secondary benefit to it:
to establish a recruiting foothold in that area, to make good on
a promise to play in the hometown of one of his players, to do a
favor for a coaching associate at the small school or, in the
case of a short list of small programs in Florida and Hawaii,
just to give his team a day at the beach.
"A very small percentage of schools want to come to Jonesboro,"
says Arkansas State coach Dickey Nutt. "We got Oklahoma State in
a two-for-one deal, and we beat them at our place last year.
That's great for our program, but now it hurts our scheduling."
By beating Tulane on the road five years ago, Jackson State
actually suffered in two ways. Not only did Tulane refuse to
honor its contract and return a game in Jackson the following
year, but Alabama also called to cancel its home game with the
Tigers the next season as well. Neither Tulane nor Alabama has
played Jackson State since. A win at LSU two years ago penalized
the Tigers further: With Arkansas and Memphis the only big-time
teams in the region (besides LSU) still willing to play Jackson
State, the Tigers had to travel to Arizona, Arizona State and
UCLA to beef up their schedule. "That hurt us a lot," says
Stoglin, "because the farther you go, the more of the guarantee
money you have to spend."
Because Stoglin has so little leverage in a home-and-home
agreement, he rarely benefits from a buyout clause, a contract
proviso stipulating that a team backing out of a deal must pay
for doing so. Such provisos are common because coaches are
notorious for putting off return road games. "There are certain
coaches, a standardized contract is not good enough for them,"
says Richardson. "A standardized contract's buyout is $5,000. So
you go play them, then they say, 'I can't play, let's postpone
it.' Then after a while they just say they don't want to play,
here's $5,000." To discourage backsliders, Richardson often sets
buyouts at $50,000 or $100,000. "That way you're sure," he says.
Before they are set down on paper, agreements between schools
tend to be vague. "We were invited to Wisconsin-Green Bay's
Christmas tournament this year," says Haskins. "All the
information they sent us was inviting us for this year. But when
they sent us a contract, it was for the 1998-99 season. Because
they looked at our roster and saw who we had coming back:
Charles Jones [the nation's leading scorer last year], Mike
Campbell and Richie Parker." (For his part, Wisconsin-Green Bay
coach Mike Heideman says the original invitation was for the
'98-99 season, and that the confusion was caused by a
miscommunication between his staff and Haskins's.)
With that powerful roster Haskins has swung deals with far-off
Hawaii, Fresno State and Iowa, but he can't seem to catch a
break in the New York City vicinity. "I wanted to play Seton
Hall," says Haskins. "Tommy Amaker [the Pirates' first-year
coach] asked me if I was crazy. We can't get a game with
Columbia. Iona won't play us, Hofstra won't play us. They are
programs like us, but they don't want any part of us. This is
their philosophy: If they're going to take a game where they
have a strong possibility of losing, why not get $50,000 to play
that game [on the road], as opposed to losing for a lot less [at
The bottom line is, the best chance a small school has against a
big one is in the NCAA tournament. Even though Jackson State was
the 16th seed in last year's Southeast subregional at Memphis
and had to face top-seeded Kansas, Stoglin was unfazed. "Are you
kidding?" he says. "We got a neutral court, neutral fans and
neutral officials. That was a good deal for us." But for
modestly funded schools like Jackson State, that nirvana of
neutrality remains at the far end of a pothole-filled path.
How can they get out of the road rut? Mitchell has a
provocative, if impractical, idea. "Put Coppin State in the
ACC," he says. "Let us play the ACC schedule. Let us play at
home against those schools and not have to play guarantee games,
and I guarantee you our power rating would be high enough to get
us into the tournament."
Stoglin suggests an NCAA-imposed limit of 13 home games in a
26-game schedule. If such a plan were put into effect, he says,
"the big schools would call me because they'd rather play me
home-and-home than Kentucky and Arkansas. But that's not going
to happen." He has another idea. "One thing the NCAA could do
that would affect the ratings but not the money--because when it
comes to taking money from the big schools, they aren't going to
do that--is to have a point spread [that applies only to the
RPI] for teams on the road. If we're playing on the road with
their officials, in their place, then they should have to beat
us by more than 15 points to get a win in the power ratings. If
we have one of our officials, it's a 10-point spread; if it's
neutral officials, it's five points. That way we would have a
chance to get something out of the ratings."
Stoglin laughs, realizing the NCAA would never make official
policy of anything with the words point spread in it. Or maybe
he is recalling the wisdom of ageless baseball great Satchel
Paige. Thirty years ago they traveled together with the Harlem
Globetrotters, Stoglin as a player with the troupe and Paige as
an added fan attraction. "Satchel would always say, 'Youngster,
you have to get the big picture,'" says Stoglin. "I can sit here
and complain about the big schools and scheduling, but in the
big picture what it really comes down to is money."
In any case, Stoglin had other riches on his mind on this
September afternoon, including the 10 seniors and 40 walk-on
candidates who would start working out in the gym in 10 minutes.
It is a thought he can cherish briefly: For the moment his home
court is a very popular place to be.
"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
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY JAMES YANG THE RATINGS PERCENTAGE INDEX (RPI) GIVES TEAMS CREDIT FOR PLAYING A TOUGH SCHEDULE--IF THEY CAN PUT ONE TOGETHER [Drawing of figures with basketballs for heads being processed through factory marked "rpi"]
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY JAMES YANG IF A BIG PROGRAM HAS A GAME WITH A LITTLE SCHOOL THAT LOOKS RISKY, IT OFTEN JUST CANCELS THE GAME AND PAYS A $5,000 FEE [Drawing of large figure with basketball for head saying "No" into telephone to small figure with basketball for head]
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY JAMES YANG LOSING TO A LITTLE GUY CAN HURT A BIG SCHOOL'S RPI, BUT EVEN WORSE, IT CAN PUT A NASTY DENT IN A COACH'S JOB SECURITY [Drawing of small figure with basketball head pushing large figure with basketball head down "rpi" staircase]
COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATIONS BY JAMES YANG USING HEFTY GUARANTEES, BIG PROGRAMS VIRTUALLY BUY VICTORIES WHEN THEY LURE SMALL SCHOOLS INTO CAN'T-WIN ROAD GAMES [Drawing of small figure with basketball head trying to catch money falling from large figure with basketball head]