Scheduling expertise goes unnoticed when done properly. The schedule maker gets the blame when problems arise, but he rarely is praised for a schedule that benefits the team and school.
"We always joke around that if you're in charge of scheduling, the coach really wants to fire you," Illinois assistant Jay Price relates. "It's a thankless job."
Price has turned a lemon into lemonade by embracing the process and getting personal satisfaction with a job well done.
"Scheduling is an art. It's something that I hold really tight to my vest. It's a difficult thing to do."
Among the many variables Price must juggle, the potential of the team is of utmost importance.
"We do a lot of research, a lot more than people would think. And we start with how we think we're gonna be as a basketball team. When we schedule, we don't schedule just to schedule. It depends on what kind of team we have.
"Last year, we had two (nonconference) road games. We were coming off a 16-19 team. We weren't sure, but we thought we could be a pretty good team. There's a lot said about getting some confidence and getting your team going.
"I think it really helped to play those games. We played good against Vanderbilt, and we beat Missouri. I think it probably helped our confidence, and I think it probably spurred us on to getting into the NCAA Tournament."
There are many other variables as well.
"We look minutely at the schedule. We don't just open up our college directory and say, 'Let's play this team.' We try to play teams with good RPI's, based on the year before. We try to play teams with different styles to get us prepared.
"And then there's things I have to keep in place. There must be so many home games for the budget. Every year we play the Big 10/ACC Challenge. We assume it's home and away every other year, but that's the hard part. Sometimes, you're gonna have two games in a row at home, or on the road. That doesn't help us. A lot of times, we don't find that out until July.
"We play a United Center game every year, and almost every year we're gonna have to return the United Center game. We have a contract with UIC to play them every X number of years, so that jumps up every 3-4 years. The Missouri game, which is an awesome game every year.
"So we get tied into a certain number of games. When you're trying to figure out the correct number of home games versus the right kind of opponents, it makes it difficult. It's a puzzle, and next to recruiting and scouting, it's easily the third thing on my list."
Price also explores new options each year to prevent monotony and expose the Illini to alums in different parts of the country.
"Each year we change it. We try to do different things and see different places, depending on the type of team we're gonna have. We have some exciting events coming up. We can't release them yet, but we have some the fans will be happy with.
"We try to go to different parts of the country too, so the fans who don't get to see us have a chance to see us play. We're going to Vegas and Georgia this year. And with the Gonzaga series, we get to go to the Pacific Northwest next year. We've had unbelieveable fan support out there."
Adding national power Gonzaga to the schedule caused an unexpected complication when the Illinois football team scheduled a game on the same date. It required a great deal of extra communication with Gonzaga authorities, the Chicago United Center administration and network television to find the best alternative date, which now comes after the onset of the Big 10 season.
"Having to move the Gonzaga game put a little kink in the plans," Price understates.
Still, Price has great respect for Athletic Director Ron Guenther and his staff. They have a good working relationship. So they were willing to compromise and rearrange the schedule to accomodate the football team's needs. This relationship also helped when the Illini became locked in to play Western Michigan as part of a football contract.
"The administration has been unbelieveably supportive with what we're trying to do scheduling-wise. We're all one team here. They needed our help to secure a home-and-home football series, and we'll do whatever we're asked to do. That one was easy to schedule, but we've still got to find dates, get the right year."
A good schedule maker can never ignore his responsibilities. It is a never-ending problem.
"The thing is, you can't let it go. It's almost like recruiting, you have to do scheduling every single day. We want the teams that we get here to come play us where we don't have to return the game. I know some people want all these great teams, but sometimes you've got to have some games that are with a good team.
"For example, this year we're playing Boise State. I think Boise State is a great team that's coming all the way across the country to play us here. That's a good game for us. So it takes a long time, and you've got to plan out in advance."
Price also looks for holiday tournaments that don't count on the number of games Illinois is allowed to play per season.
"We like the exempt events where we have two games at home and two games somewhere else just merely from a revenue standpoint. The economy is tough right now. We want to have as many home games as possible, but we also don't want too many home games where the ticket becomes expensive."
In many cases, the Illini have a choice on what tournaments they attend.
"Absolutely. There's a million of them out there, and you just make phone calls, people call you, and you try to get the best deal you can get."
One exception is the Maui tournament. Everyone wants to play in Hawaii, so it's a seller's market.
"Every few years I'm gonna try to get Maui again. At that point, you can't play home games because it's three games in Maui.
"Maui usually has one Big 10 team a year, and you just have to call. That's one where they decide. When they say they can use you, you go. Again, the administration has been unbelieveable in helping us out with our scheduling."
This season, Illinois has an away game at Clemson and neutral court games with Missouri, Georgia and Gonzaga. And Vanderbilt will visit the Assembly Hall, a return of the game at Nashville last year. In addition, the Illini play four games as part of the Las Vegas Invitational including two home games. They will play Utah and either Oklahoma State or Bradley in Las Vegas.
In part three, Price discusses the current Illini team.