Scheduling the Pac

For those old enough to remember, it was a Native American named Chief Antelope that helped Washington beat fifth-ranked USC in 1977. Dressed in battle regalia, he gyrated into the end zone right before the start of the third quarter, and began an impassioned rain dance that brought down the Husky Stadium house.

Husky fans reveled in the dance even more, when minutes later the skies opened up and unleashed a torrential downpour that drowned out any chance for Trojan victory. There was also a funny story behind the story. The Chief was offering his support to Washington because he was under the mistaken impression that then-UW Coach Don James possessed Native American ancestry. Last year, Don James was asked about that incident. He reflected for a moment then chuckled. "The Chief was under the impression that I was part Indian," said James. "It was because of that that he loved the Huskies. His rain dance really helped us out-- so I wasn't about to tell him otherwise."

But this was no laughing matter for USC. Their succession of head coaches, starting with John Robinson, Ted Tollner and then Larry Smith, each complained about Seattle's November weather, and its effect upon on the Trojans. The win-loss column spoke to their frustrations. From 1975-1985, the Huskies hosted USC five times in November, and possessed a 4-1 record. In all four victories, Washington watched as USC slogged fitfully through stormy conditions at Husky Stadium. Interestingly enough, from 1986-2006, the scheduling patterns shifted. USC traveled to Seattle for a November game just twice in those twenty years. Their record in those games was 1-1.

Otherwise, the Trojans' record in the September-October timeframe in Seattle was 4-4-1.

This wasn't a conspiracy on the level of the grassy knoll in Dallas. But it did merit some question-asking. Contacts from Washington and USC pointed me toward the Pac-10 Office and Jim Muldoon, the conference's long-time Associate Commissioner. I wanted to find out more about how scheduling is conducted, and what forces dictate who plays where and when. But I began by inquiring if USC had complained to the Pac-10 about playing in Seattle in November.

"I don't have any memory specific to that," said Muldoon. "But in general, you try to rotate these trips throughout the schedule. So you're not always going to a warm-weather place or a cold-weather place at the same time every year. Because weather plays a factor of course, particularly if it's a November game in Pullman or a September game at Arizona or Arizona State. You don't always want to be subject to harsh weather. So we try to rotate around the schools through the cycles. It's difficult when you're trying to move games around for television, but that's the general philosophy."

I insisted to Muldoon that USC had to have complained to the league, for there to be such a sudden shift in the scheduling patterns. After all, at the present time, USC hasn't played a November game in Seattle in ten years, and only once in fourteen years. Muldoon sounded slightly irritated.

"No, like I said, it was just an issue of fairness," he said. "It's either the southern teams going north in November or the northern teams going to the desert in September. We try to be fair to everyone in that manner."

I followed this up by asking Muldoon if there were aspects of scheduling that are misunderstood by the general public.

"I think that people don't understand how complicated scheduling is," he said. "I don't think people understand how moving one game can have a domino effect on a half-dozen other games. We often have to make multiple moves in order to accomplish one move. Television is a complicating factor. Because you want to put your best foot forward for television and you want to give your television partners the most engaging show. So that is the hardest element of scheduling, I think.

"And I can you give you an A versus B type of thing," he said. "A situation like if we wanted to move a conference game to early September for television, when generally that game would be slated toward the back end, in October or November. For instance, this year we have UCLA vs. Stanford to open the season. We had to move several non-conference games around and one conference game, just to make it fall into place. So that's a very typical scenario, and it can get complicated."

But is it the league that makes these moves? Or do the conference teams make the decisions?

"The schools have to approve the schedule and any changes," he said. "We put a proposed schedule out there, and the athletic directors of each of the schools have to approve it. This year in fact, four of our five traditional rival games, everything but the Washington-Washington State game, are going to be on December 1st. That is the product of the NCAA going to the twelve-game schedule. We still only have fourteen weeks to complete the twelve-game schedule. Some schools found out last year that playing twelve consecutive games is difficult and they wanted to put some byes in the schedule starting this year. The only way you can do that is to move a game or two to after Thanksgiving. So that's a change that we will be seeing this year."

In conclusion, I asked Muldoon if he personally thought that playing twelve games was asking too much of the student-athletes.

"No, I don't think so," he said. "We like playing twelve games very much, because it allows us to go to a full round robin schedule—which we think is much fairer than schools missing each other. And previously, there were a couple of years where the calendar fell right and twelve games were allowed. We surveyed our players throughout the conference after those years, and most them thought that playing twelve games was just fine."

For the upcoming 2007 season, USC will once again arrive in Seattle in September. They are likely to be greeted again by balmy climes. If the old Chief is still around, someone might see if he can dust off the headdress and battle regalia, for old time's sake.
Derek Johnson can be reached at Top Stories