Defending the Schedule

With schools conscious now more than ever with the financial stability of their athletic department and their football program, Big Ten head coaches need to schedule according to their needs of their football team and their pocket book. Badger Nation explores the process behind the schedule.

CHICAGO – Every time Wisconsin releases its non-conference schedule, the moans and groans can be heard throughout Badger Nation.

"Another FCS opponent?" "Who are these guys?" "Why can't we get a big name opponent?"

If only things were that simple for every school in the Big Ten. While some schools schedule big-time non-conference opponents for home-and-home series, all the schools face the reality of needing seven home games to bring in the necessary revenue to the school's athletic program. For schools like Wisconsin, who has lost only three home games in the last five years, it comes down to the fact that teams simply don't want to come.

With each school having different and similar obstacles to overcome, Badger Nation took advantage of interviewing nine of the 11 Big Ten coaches at Big Ten Media Day and asking them basically the same question – what goes into your non-conference schedule making process.

The answers may surprise you.

Illinois head coach Ron Zook – vs. Missouri (Sept. 5 in St. Louis), Illinois State (Sept.12), at Cincinnati (Nov.27), Fresno State (Dec.5)

Badger Nation: What's your philosophy when you start scheduling your non-conference games? What do you look for and try to piece together?

Zook: Obviously it's hard right now because of the Big Ten schedule. Everybody is locked into that middle-of-the-season type thing. I wanted open dates and to prolong the season. We took as many open dates as we can and as it turns out, we are playing two non-conference games after the conference season. My thing is open dates and prolonging the season.

Badger Nation: Was that by design – scheduling those two teams and that late in the season?

Zook: Those particular teams weren't necessarily what I had in mind but playing that late in the season was.

Badger Nation: What's the big difference, if there is one, in schedule games in the Big Ten Conference from scheduling games in the SEC?

Zook: Well, the biggest difference is that the Big Ten games have to be played in the middle of the season and nobody is willing to change early or late, which is kind of the old way of thinking so to speak. I think it's starting to change with open dates. A lot of the thinking goes back to when we played a 10-game schedule, then it went to 11 games now it's 12 games and the thinking hasn't changed. To play 12 straight games is hard on the coaches, hard on the players and hard on everybody. I would rather have some time. If people want to get done before Thanksgiving and go out and recruit and whatever, that's fine. I would rather prolong it.

Indiana head coach Bill Lynch – Eastern Kentucky (Sept.3), Western Michigan (Sept.12), at Akron (Sept.19), at Virginia (Oct.10)

Badger Nation: You talked briefly yesterday about your problems with this season's non-conference schedule. Can you talk about that again briefly?

Lynch: It was fairly simple in the sense that we were at seven home games, five road games and South Florida had a chance to do a series with Florida State. Obviously, that's a great opportunity for them. In reality, contracts are set up nowadays that you can let them out of the contract, you can move the game or they can just buy you out. In this business, we understand that we all have challenges and it was a good opportunity for them to get involved with Florida State. We simply moved their game down the road.

So, it was late in the spring and we had to find a game. There weren't many options and we were looking for a BCS team. We tried and there were very few schools that had that date available and they all wanted us to come to their place. We weren't going to go to some place for a year, we wanted somebody to get a home-and-home with. Virginia was willing, but they needed the first game at home. We said we'd do that and they are coming here in 2011.

Badger Nation: How tough is scheduling in this day and age?

Lynch: It's tough. It really is. When you add a 12th game, you added another non-conference game that you needed to find. We all want to play at home because the revenues part is very important. You have to schedule far ahead, you've got to know where you are with your program and you need to be smart. We use to schedule five, six years in advance, but now it's almost yearly with opportunities that come up and buying out of contracts. It's not as simple as it used to be. To come to our place, teams want huge guarantees, you are only able to pay so much and if one of your competitors can pay more, they are going to go to the highest bidder.

Michigan head coach Rick Rodriguez – Western Michigan (Sept.5), Notre Dame (Sept.12), Eastern Michigan (Sept.19), Delaware State (Oct.17)

Badger Nation: What's your philosophy when you start scheduling your non-conference games? What do you look for and try to piece together?

Rodriguez: Well, I first like to talk to our administrators about it. For us, having seven home games is critical for us, being a self-sufficient athletic department, paying the bills and all that. We've got Notre Dame for a long time, so that's one home-and-home. Now you have to find at least two more home games, maybe three.

You want either a game that they come to us and then we have to go to them, and that's a challenge nowadays. For us, with the Big Ten schedule we have and Notre Dame every year, we want to try to find something attractive to our fans, beneficial to our team's success and financially able to benefit our department. That's why in 2010, everybody had these ideas of who we can open up with and a lot of good schools that would do it. But for us to have an immediate home-and-home would be tough to do without the right fit.

Badger Nation: Is it tough with your environment of Michigan and the success you've had their to convince people to come to Ann Arbor?

Rodriguez: I think it's tough for anybody to find a BCS home-and-home or what we're trying to do is a one-and-none. Last year when we struggled, you would think that we'd find more people that would want to come. To do one game now and return in years down the road is tough to do. All we have scheduled is the Notre Dame series. We are always actively looking, but that's not as critical for us because we would rather have a one-and-down or something to return three or four years down the road.

Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio – Montana State (Sept.5), Central Michigan (Sept.12), at Notre Dame (Sept.19), Western Michigan (Nov.7)

Badger Nation: Did your philosophy change for scheduling your non-conference games after moving from Cincinnati to Michigan State? What do you look for and try to piece together?

Dantonio: Those games are pretty far out in advance. Really at Cincinnati, I don't think there was one game were I said that we needed to play these guys or those guys. They'll ask me different things, but we work on the three tier system.

The first tier are teams that want to play us and maybe we want to play, I don't get involved in that. Second tier from an interest standpoint, an alumni standpoint and a financial standpoint, these are the teams we are interested in playing. The third level is who we can play in these spots and that's where I weigh in, what do you think? Then I tell them what I think. We try to be solvent economically by scheduling seven games at home.

Minnesota head coach Tim Brewster – at Syracuse (Sept.5), Air Force (Sept.12), California (Sept.19), South Dakota State (Nov.14)

On the matchup with USC next season and scheduling tough non-conference games

Brewster: We at the University of Minnesota have chosen a more aggressive path. It's a path that's going to allow us to reach our ultimate goal and that's to win a championship in the Big Ten. For us to win a championship in the Big Ten, we've got to play a higher quality and caliber of non-conference opponents. For us, without question, it's the right thing to do.

(Athletic Director) Joel Maturi and I sit down and look at what we can do to make our program better. We want a non-conference schedule that recruits are going to be excited about. The opportunity came up, and I was excited about the challenge. We're going to play a home and home with USC, and that's down the road. That's next year. I don't want to think too much about USC.

But from a recruit's perspective, I think that's what they want. When I talk to recruits on the phone, they say, Hey, coach, who are you playing in the nonconference schedule? They want to know. When I say, we're playing USC, you can sense an excitement in a young man's voice. Kids want to play in marquee nationally televised games.

To be honest with you, I want the University of Minnesota to be on that stage. I want to play nationally televised games where a tremendous exposure is put on our program. And when you play USC, that happens. We're going to play some other teams also that are going to give us exposure. I don't think there's a downside. I really don't. We're an ascending program the way I look at our program. We're going to keep getting better. We'll be up to the challenge of playing the type of schedules that we're going to play at Minnesota through the next couple of years.

Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald - Towson (Sept.5), Eastern Michigan (Sept.12), at Syracuse (Sept.19), Miami (Oh) (Oct.10)

Badger Nation: What's your philosophy when you start scheduling your non-conference games? What do you look for and try to piece together?

Fitzgerald: We are just wrapping up some of the series that were set before I was head coach. Moving forward, philosophically, I want to play seven home games, and that means we'll have to play a couple Championship Subdivision schools every year. Number two, I want to play academic comparable schools, like Rice, Vanderbilt, Boston College, Stanford, Cal and Duke, who is coming on the schedule in the near future. That makes sense to me. Third, I would like to continue to play MAC teams. There's a great standing tradition between the Mid-American Conference and the Big Ten. I think that's good for our teams to understand that tradition because a lot of those coaches have gone through the Big Ten. I like doing the 2-for-1 or getting the chance to play at Ford Field and not travel too far for a non-league game.

Badger Nation: Although fans aren't big fans of FCS teams because they aren't the big name, what do you like about scheduling those opponents and what do you get out of it?

Fitzgerald: For us, it gives us a chance to play seven home games and that's the motivation for us. Our payouts may be a little different than other schools here. For us, it allows us to instead of playing six at home and six on the road to play a seventh at home.

Badger Nation: Can you talk about the chance of playing a game at Wrigley Field?

Fitzgerald: We are in preliminary talks with the Cubs about moving one of our home football games to Wrigley. We thought it might be a fun idea to have a rivalry game down there and we had Coach Zook go down there and take a look at it. Obviously based on what I read, he thought it would be a good idea. I am not set on having that game down there yet. It's a great idea and to see the success of the NHL Winter Classic involving one of my favorite teams, the Blackhawks. I think it would be a great opportunity for our student athletes and our fans to experience that game, but there's a lot of work that needs to be done.

Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel - Navy (Sept.5), USC (Sept.12), vs Toledo (Sept.19 in Cleveland), New Mexico State (Oct.31)

Badger Nation: What's your philosophy when you start scheduling your non-conference games? What do you look for and try to piece together?

Tressel: Our first philosophy started when we had three games to work with. We wanted to have a big stage September game when the whole nation had their eyes on us, whether it was a home game or an away game. It gave us a chance to be under the gun, a chance to prepare for the Big Ten and a chance to be under the national spotlight if we happen to do well. After that, we want two games preferably home because we have 36 sports, and part of our charge as a football program is to help fund the other programs.

When they added a 12th game to it, we were already deep into the other philosophy of scheduling out. Add a 12th game, in our opinion, what we needed to do was schedule another home game. That's why they created a 12th game – for revenue purposes for both the home team and the guarantees of the visiting team. We just piggybacked off the philosophy we had when we were working with 11 games.

We were very conscious that we wanted to offer the opportunities to the other Ohio teams. That's something we felt it was the right thing to do, but not necessarily the easiest thing to do because of the expectations to be successful in those games. That's all anyone talks about and to me, that's very dangerous. The upside to it, I think, outweighs the landmines if you will.

Badger Nation: When you have a big non-conference game and it doesn't go particularly as well as you hope, do the positives outweigh the negatives with getting to learn about your team and getting the exposure?

Tressel: Obviously every time you line up, you have the risk of not succeeding. Some say why would you schedule that so early in the year because there's a higher percentage of risk? Take '06, we beat Texas so boy, we must be good. There's as many psychological disadvantages should you win that game or lose it. I think instinctively, human beings handle adversity when things don't go there way. We all kind of know how to do that or are willing to do that when we don't do what we are capable of. I am not sure you always know how to handle success.

We felt that by scheduling outstanding teams, there's going to be a chance for lack of success there. So our awareness is going to have to be high and there will be years when we have to handle tough times. Every game is a lesson and I am not one to think that an early season loss means the world is ending. There are some people in this room that think so sometimes, but I have to got back in and coach them on Sunday. You have to be in that moment and handle whatever situation it happens to be.

Penn State head coach Joe Paterno - Akron (Sept.5), Syracuse (Sept.12), Temple (Sept.19), Eastern Illinois (Oct. 10)

Badger Nation: What's your philosophy when you start scheduling your non-conference games? What do you look for and try to piece together?

Paterno: I try to stay away from the scheduling because we schedule so far ahead, and obviously I can't be looking who we're going to be playing in the year 2020. I'm dumb, but I ain't that dumb. And I'm optimistic but I ain't that optimistic.

Badger Nation: Do you ever get tired of defending your non-conference schedule for this year, the fact that the four teams all had losing records last year?

Paterno: No, I really don't – I couldn't tell you what their record was. I know Syracuse, we scheduled Syracuse, they were doing really well. You know, you don't know. I was anxious to reschedule Syracuse because at that time Paul Pasqualoni played for me and was a GA on our staff and was the head coach, and I was hoping that we could have a good thing.

We're playing Temple, and the head coach at Temple is a former player of mine, was captain of one of our teams and it's a Philadelphia game. We don't have to make excuses for that. We'll have our troubles with Akron. Akron is a well-coached football team. They do well. They're recruiting well. You don't know. Look at what's happened the last couple years with people in their opening games, that they've gotten licked because somebody thought that the team that they were playing wasn't very good. I don't know how good anybody else is. I don't know how good we are right now. We haven't played a game. I haven't seen these guys play a game yet. The fans have got to put something on those -- what do you guys call those things, Twittle-do, Twittle-dee? I haven't got the slightest idea what you're looking at, either.

Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema – Northern Illinois (Sept.5), Fresno State (Sept.12), Wofford (Sept.19), at Hawaii (Dec.5)

Badger Nation: What's your philosophy when you start scheduling your non-conference games? What do you look for and try to piece together?

Bielema: We have the formula that we use with our athletic department to make sure we have a certain number of home games. For us ideally, we have one non-conference game on the road, three at home and get the best possible opponent we can to Wisconsin. It's hard to matchup the dates and the times with teams so many years down the road. We've been trying to get one home game or the one road game to be a home-and-home with a BCS team. A game like that is good for the players, good for the coaches and good for the fans. The part is intriguing with bowl games is you get to play someone that you don't get to play in the course of the year, an opportunity to go to a different part of the country and it's like a home-and-home. The problem is that we can't get people to come to Madison. Over a five-year window, we've lost three games. Coming to Madison isn't the most appealing as coming to other places.

Badger Nation: Is that one of the most frustrating aspects of your job – getting something set up and then seeing it fall through?

Bielema: We've tried everything. ESPN has been great. Sometimes the best way to get people to agree to things is TV. Everybody wants for us to agree to go there in the next two years, but nobody wants to agree for them to come here. I am not going to do that. I don't think it's right for us to go play someone there and not have an opportunity for them to come here.

Badger Nation: Can you envision a season where you have eight home games?

Bielema: I can see it. I know schools do it. The ideal situation that I want to see is I would love to play a home-and-home, but both be at a neutral site with our game being at Lambeau. Then see how the other three games play out. We had a discussion a certain team about opening the 2010 season on national television on a Thursday night being the first game of college football. I thought it would be able to happen, but it didn't, and it wasn't on our end.

Badger Nation: What do you like about scheduling the Hawaii game?

Bielema: It's very intriguing and we're in the process of scheduling a game for them to come here. One of these we'll use in recruiting is that we'll play at Hawaii in every four year window. For a kid that's never been to Hawaii, that's another feather in the cap for Wisconsin. We'll take kids to see Pearl Harbor and different things. I had never been to Hawaii before. I was 37 years old when I went there. They are a good football team. They were in the BCS two years ago and it's another high quality opponent.

Not available for this report were:

Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz - Northern Iowa (Sept.5), at Iowa State (Sept.12), Arizona (Sept.19), Arkansas State (Oct.3)

Purdue head coach Danny Hope - Toledo (Sept.5), at Oregon (Sept.12), Northern Illinois (Sept.19), Notre Dame (Sept.26)


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