Last season (2013-2014) the Blue Devils played the nation’s 6th toughest schedule according to Jerry Palm’s bracketology formula. In 2013, Duke saw the nation’s toughest schedule on the road to the Elite Eight. Counting backwards from there, Duke has played the nation’s 24th (2012), 8th (2011), 1st (2010), 8th (2009), 4th (2008), 1st (2007), 4th (2006), 4th (2005), 32nd (2004), 26th (2003), 6th (2002), and 23rd (2001).
In the past 14 seasons the Blue Devils have played the nation’s toughest schedule three times (more than any other program); a top five schedule six times; and a top 10 schedule in nine of those 14 seasons.
The architect of the schedule for the past two decades has been Deputy Director of Athletics and Operations, Mike Cragg. We sat down with the 27-year Duke veteran to discuss the ins and outs of the scheduling process.
TDD: In general, how does the schedule come together? Is it just a case of you calling various schools and asking if they want to get together?
Mike Cragg: I’ve been working on the schedule for the last 20 years, and it has evolved over that time with television and how much we work with our partners there. We work with ESPN extensively when considering the potential games. We also try to be creative with what we’re doing. For instance years back we created the home game in New York, which nobody was doing at the time. We helped create the Champions Classic, and we always look to do a preseason tournament.
After you factor in the 18 ACC conference games, we then have only a few slots left and so a lot of times it is me calling and negotiating with other schools. I will map out the date and look at the various TV windows and try to find common dates that work. For the non-conference games we’re usually looking for opponents who will come to us. Television helps us there, and we try to target conference champions or contenders. We try to replicate the NCAA Tournament with that. Then, with our remote home game, we work with TV to find an opponent that will provide a good matchup for them and for TV.
In all it takes around nine months to work everything out, and we try to customize each year to what’s best for our team that year.
Are there times when you call programs to come in and they just say “No”.
All the time. For some teams it doesn’t make sense to come to Cameron for whatever reason. Maybe it’s travel, money, or they don’t think the game will benefit them. Television does help a lot there, as it’s a chance for teams to play on National Television, but playing against us in Cameron is a tough game…I don’t want to speak for other programs as to why it doesn’t work for them, but we are often told no.
When you are trying to fill out the games that aren’t the exempt tournaments, events, or made for TV games, what are the major factors you consider?
I study the RPI and make a lot of phone calls and research to get a lot of feedback. I sit down with ESPN and say ‘Here’s who I think will be good’ and I get their input as well. We are usually looking for teams out of the MAC, the Big West, or the Southland and we try to pencil them in early. With TV, they want games that will play well on their networks.
One tradition we’ve heard about is the desire to play a “home game” for each senior on the roster. Is that something you actively work on when scheduling?
We haven’t been 100 percent successful on that over the years. I don’t have a list of who we may have missed, but there are some cases where it didn’t work out. It’s tough to do, but we try to at least get one home game for the player in his four years here. But there’s no set formula where we’ll say “we have to go to Reno, Nevada this year”. We inquire into the various possibilities as best we can though.
In going back to the ACC schedule, how have things changed with the league expanding?
We now play 18 conference games and our league has a great working partnership with ESPN, and that plays a role in the scheduling there. We don’t have any say in the ACC scheduling other than the conference bye date. If we are going to use that, we have to notify the conference that we would like to schedule a game during that time. Last year didn’t use it, but this year we’re playing St. John’s in New York.
With the 18 conference games, it seems that the schedule isn’t exactly even for everyone on a year to year basis…
With the 15 teams finally being in place the rotation is going to work itself out. We understand the big picture and want what is best for our league. TV has a big part in the initial schedule, but it all evens out.
In thinking of the various events, you guys play in the ACC-Big 10 Challenge each year as well. Do you have any say on opponents there?
No, we don’t. ESPN and the organizers look at the leagues and try to pick the best match ups possible. They try to keep it on a yearly home and away schedule so that you alternate each year, but sometimes it changes depending on the match ups that work. We are afforded some opportunity for some flexibility, but the main thing we’ve said is that if we’re going to Indiana, we’d like Indiana to return as part of the Challenge. Things like that.
That leads me to ask, are home and home series with high major opponents a thing of the past outside of these events?
In the modern age when you’re playing 18 conference games and you have the events like the Champions Classic, ACC-Big 10 Challenge, and the exempt events, it’s tough. 15 years ago we looked at the advantages and disadvantages of doing a neutral court home game at Madison Square Garden. In 2001 I called MSG and introduced ourselves to them and talked about the idea of playing a home game at the Garden. They loved the idea and it sold out. Back in those days promoters would promote double-headers, but after the revenue was split, you’d make less than a home game at Cameron. So, it’s worked out for us to do that at MSG, and now we’re looking at Brooklyn as well.
We are also playing nine road games in the ACC, and if you follow our team, the experience when Duke comes in is different than other teams. It’s the biggest home game of the season for most of our opponents, and our guys do well to rise to that challenge. But it’s a long season and you can only do that so many times. We prefer to look towards March and NCAA games where you aren’t playing on an opponents’ home court.
Playing the neutral site games whether it be our neutral home game, the Champions Classic with Kentucky, Kansas, and Michigan State, the ACC-Big 10 Challenge, or the Coaches versus Cancer Classic that we’re doing this year, it all helps build your reputation and has lead to big crowds in the buildings in which we play.
We’ve been fortunate to have Coach K and every game we’ve played has been a big environment. It’s a testament to him and it’s why he’s the best at what he does.
How do you pick the opponents for the neutral home game? Since TV is so involved, do you have the final say?
We all get involved with that decision. TV, the venue, and our staff. We all work together with ESPN to find games that work for everyone. We ultimately have the final say in who we play, because it’s our home game, and we’ve never been told “this is who you’re playing”.
Going forward, who do you see filling those games?
The goal is to find a game that works for everyone. We’ve played Villanova, Temple, Georgetown, UCLA, and Kansas in those game. I think, ideally, we would have one series set up and we’re looking to continue with that. We’ve talked about Georgetown, Villanova, Temple, and St. John’s.
With the exempt events, is there a rotation you try to keep in terms of which events to participate in?
We do, and there are a lot of them out there. We like Maui, and are looking to go back out there. We’ve looked at the Basketball Hall of Fame Classic, the Bahamas event is growing. We were in a good field there and they’ve continued to attract big fields to the point I think ESPN will try to get that event on their air. We’ve done the 2KSports and CBE Classic, the Coaches versus Cancer, and the NIT has a different format, but we’ve been there too. With Maui, we’d like to be there every four years, but it didn’t work out this latest time. We are always trying to sample the different events and the causes they support. I know in 2017 there’s a big Nike event for Phil Knight that we’ll be a part of.
How do the demands of travel factor into those decisions?
Travel and logistics of getting everyone where they need to be are what they are. We have a great support staff here that works with the professors and student athletes to make sure they have what they need.
Away from the games, are there any more international trips planned?
You can do those every four years. Next summer we are eligible to go, but with Coach’s Team USA responsibilities, it’s just not in the cards. It’s not a use it or lose it situation, and so it’s on the table for the future. When we went to China and Dubai, that was a chance to really work as ambassadors for what the University was doing abroad, and with Coach having just been in China for the National Team, it presented a unique opportunity. Last season we took the team to New York over Fall Break for the Elevate program. This year, however, we’ve elected to give the guys a real Fall Break, and there are no plans. It really comes down to what each team needs and what’s best for them.