In Their Words: Life at the Mid-Major Level (part three)

Posted by rtmsf on October 5th, 2010

Andrew Murawa is the RTC correspondent for the Pac-10 and Mountain West Conferences and an occasional contributor.

To read the entire In Their Words series, click here.


Over the summer, we’ve spent time hearing about some of the next big-name recruits on their way to college basketball: Jared Sullinger and Harrison Barnes, Anthony Davis and Michael Gilchrist. We’ve heard the big-time schools announce their high profile games on their upcoming schedules: Kentucky going to the Maui Invitational and visiting North Carolina, Michigan State hosting Texas and going to Duke. But for the vast majority of Division I programs, they’ve been flying under the radar. There are at present 73 teams that participate in basketball in the six BCS conferences, but there are 347 total programs in Division I. Of those other 274 programs, there are certainly quite a few big-name programs: last year’s national runner-up Butler comes to mind immediately, as does Gonzaga, Memphis and a handful of other schools in conferences like the Atlantic 10 and the Mountain West. But, we were also interested in how the other half (or really, how the other three-quarters) lives, so we spent some time talking to coaches, athletic directors and other people around the country affiliated with some of those other schools — those non-BCS schools, those “mid-majors” — and we asked them about how they recruit, how they create a schedule, how they market their programs, and quite a few other things. Over the next eight weeks, we’ll let them tell you their story, in their own words.

To begin, let me introduce and thank this week’s cast of characters:

  • Tommy Dempsey, Head Coach, Rider – Dempsey enters his fifth season as the head man at Rider, following two seasons as an assistant. He has compiled an 83-75 record over that time and coached NBA lottery pick Jason Thompson during his time there.
  • Murry Bartow, Head Coach, East Tennessee State – Bartow is entering his eighth season as the Buccaneers head coach, after having previously succeeded his father Gene Bartow as the head coach at UAB. Bartow has posted a 118-72 record in his years at ETSU and has racked up 241 total wins and four NCAA appearances in his 13 seasons as a head coach.
  • Larry Williams, Athletic Director, Portland: Williams has been the AD at Portland for six years now following a five year stint as the head of licensing and product marketing at his alma mater Notre Dame. Williams was a two-time All-American offensive lineman with the Irish before starting 44 games in the NFL.
  • Eric Brown, Assistant Coach, Long Beach State – Brown enters his fifth year as an assistant on head coach Dan Monson’s staff, after previously having spent time on coaching staffs at Cal-State Northridge, USC and Iowa State.
  • Chris Caputo, Assistant Coach, George Mason – Caputo is entering his sixth season as an assistant coach for the Patriots after spending the previous three seasons as an administrative assistant and video coordinator under head coach Jim Larranaga.
  • Eric Reveno, Head Coach, Portland – Reveno heads into his fifth season at Portland having turned around a program from a team that was 18-45 in his first two seasons to a team on the rise with a 40-24 record over the last two seasons. Reveno spent his previous nine seasons as an assistant at Stanford, his alma mater where he was a Pac-10 Conference All-Academic Team selection as a senior.

Last time out, the topic was recruiting. This time around, we’ll take a look at how mid-major programs feel about putting together their non-conference schedules and the different strategies that are used in order to line up games. It’s a part of the sport that doesn’t get talked about a whole lot, but it can have a big impact on how the program is perceived, and in turn, can impact a program’s ability to recruit successfully. One theme emerges as pretty unanimous: this is not a part of the job that is a lot of fun.

Tommy Dempsey, Head Coach, Rider: It’s brutal.

Murry Bartow, Head Coach, East Tennessee State: It is tough. Recruiting is number one certainly, but scheduling is not an easy thing.

Larry Williams, Athletic Director, Portland: It really is, next to recruiting, the hardest thing we do in trying to run a basketball program.

It's Not Easy to Get Teams to Visit Places Like the Chiles Center (Portland)

While just about everyone at the mid-major level agrees that the scheduling process ranges from unpleasant to demoralizing, each program is able to develop their own strategies for filling in a schedule.

Eric Brown, Assistant Coach, Long Beach State: Different programs have different philosophies. You have home-and-home series where a school will come to your place one year and you agree to go to their school the following year. There are guarantee games where the larger school will pay you to go play them or you can pay a smaller school to come play you. And there are tournaments. There are different ways to do it.

To begin with, a school has to decide what it wants from its non-conference slate, and what it can reasonably get. Non-conference schedules are generally filled in with a combination of home-and-home agreements (where each school in the game will agree to play one game against the opposing team on their own home floor and the opponent’s home floor), guarantee games (where one team, usually a bigger school, will pay another team to come to their arena for a game), early season tournaments and other neutral-site events. At Long Beach State, they have shown over the past couple of years that they aren’t afraid to take on a scary-looking schedule. Last season they played the toughest non-conference schedule in the country, with games at Notre Dame, Texas, Kentucky and Duke and neutral site contests against Clemson, West Virginia and UCLA. It doesn’t get any easier for the 49ers this season, with road trips to Washington, Utah State, North Carolina and Arizona State combined with neutral site games against St. Mary’s and Clemson (with two others to be determined by the results of an early-season tournament), and a home game against San Diego State.

Brown: We try to play some home-and-home series with teams in our region and then Coach (Dan) Monson’s philosophy is, given that the way our conference is set up and that every year only one team from our conference is going to the NCAA Tournament, his philosophy is to go play bigger schools so that when we get into our conference or into the NCAA Tournament, we’re not shell-shocked. We’ll play three guarantee games against three bigger schools, three BCS conference schools, where they’ll pay us to go play them. We also like to get into a tournament because they can guarantee three games where they only count as one game against your schedule. Like for instance last year, we were at the 76 Classic in Anaheim and this year we’re going to the Paradise Jam in the Virgin Islands.

Chris Caputo, Assistant Coach, George Mason: As far as Coach (Jim) Larranaga’s philosophy, he looks for balance in the schedule. You’ve got to play a certain amount of home games, a certain amount of road games and some sort of preseason event that is on a neutral site. I think that’s the key thing for us.

Balance in the schedule is the ideal for most mid-majors, mixing a handful of tough games with games against teams that they should beat, and finding a relatively equal number of road games for every home game on the schedule. But it is hard to achieve balance in a schedule when it is very difficult to get high-major and BCS-conference schools to come to your place, especially when you’ve had some previous years of success.

Bartow: It is very difficult to get home games. It is not hard to fill your schedule with games, you can go get all the road games you want to get, but what’s difficult is getting people that are good to come in and play you at home. And if you’re pretty good, or if you’re perceived that you’re going to be pretty good the upcoming year, it is pretty hard to get anybody to play you, whether it is a team that is maybe perceived as being as good as you or not, because people look at the computer, look at who you’ve got coming back and they just don’t want to start a home-and-home with you. So recruiting is tough, but scheduling is right behind, maybe a close second.

Williams: We’re sort of in scheduling hell right now. Inside of basketball circles, they know that Coach Reveno’s got a really good team and Rev’s team could beat any team on any given night, yet there’s no marquee value to it because as of yet we haven’t elevated the brand of Portland Pilot basketball to the point where the regular public would understand “no, that’s a good team or that’s a good loss or that’s a good win if we get it.” So we’re kind of in the point where, when we were bad anybody would play us because we were essentially a win, you could just chalk it up as a win, but now that win is not so automatic and so teams are much more reticent to play us, especially since they can’t fall back on an argument that says “no that’s a good team and everybody understands it’s a good team.”

Everyone's Thinking RPI All the Time When Scheduling

Eric Reveno, Head Coach, Portland: It’s a tough place to be in scheduling-wise. You appreciate the teams that are willing to play you even though they know that you could be pretty good. The teams that will play us, you appreciate them because they’re not afraid of you, for lack of a better way of saying it. It’ll look bad for them if we beat them, but they know that they’re trying to get to the NCAA Tournament and be a better basketball team, so they’re not afraid to play a good, well-coached team. We beat Washington at home two years ago and they wound up winning the Pac-10. I think you talk to their coach and they learned a lot about themselves and it sort of got them back to work early in the year, so I appreciate those coaches that do that. I’m hopeful that it gets easier for teams to recognize that too, since the day of trying to schedule 20 wins is no longer that relevant, since RPI and that kind of stuff is more important now.

Dempsey: We can still find games, like – here’s a good example: we’re playing at Pitt this year. Now Pitt, their philosophy in scheduling is a little bit different, when they schedule, they look at the RPIs of their potential opponents, and they don’t want to play a team with a low RPI because it will hurt their strength of schedule, it will hurt their RPI and it could hurt their seeding. So some teams take a philosophy that they’re going to play, in their non-league games, some pretty good mid-majors, because at the end of the day, it’s not really going to hurt their RPI to play us, because normally we’ll end the year with a relatively good RPI.  But it is also a game where, should they win? Absolutely. But they might also have to play for a while. They might have to play for 30 or 35 minutes, as opposed to being up by 15 early in the game and gliding the rest of the way. So it all depends on what the philosophy is of the team scheduling. I think if you look at who Pitt has played over time in their non-league game, they have played good hard mid-majors. So, we kind of look around and try to find out, you know, who is willing to play us, among the high-majors.

But Dempsey admits that while having success against some of the BCS opponents is one goal of mid-major programs, wins like that can make it harder to schedule similar teams in the future.

Dempsey: It’s difficult right now. We’ve had a couple of pros, and we’ve had some recent success, both of which have helped in recruiting, so I would say right now we fall in the category of team that not a lot of people want to play. When you are the Big East program and you’re going to sit there and say we need to get X amount of non-league home wins, and you go through the list of, say, MAAC teams, and say who do we want to play, I don’t think we appear on the list of who you want to play. Like last year, Mississippi State had us down for their opening night. They had won the SEC the previous year, so they raised the banner and they handed out the rings and they did the whole thing, and then we were able to go out and win the game. I don’t think they lost but one more game the whole season at home – they lost to Kentucky in OT at home, but I think that was it (ed: note, in fact, Mississippi State also lost to Tennessee at home in the last game of the regular season) – but we went down there and won by 14. So, if people start to see that, they may say, “we’d better be pretty careful with a team like Rider, because, you know, they could beat you.” And really, that’s the type of team we want to be. So you really almost can’t win. You want to be a team that nobody wants to play, but then once you become the team that nobody wants to play, well, nobody wants to play you.

Sometimes BCS Schools Pay the Price (AP/R. Solis)

In order to solve those problems, programs need to get imaginative to find ways to fill in the schedule.

Dempsey: We’ve been fortunate, in that we have a lot of traditional non-league games that we play more years than not –  the Drexels and Delawares and Monmouths – teams that we’ve played over time. So we always try to keep a long series going with those teams because it ensures that we don’t have to start from scratch with our scheduling because we know that these are games that we play every year. I think you have to be creative, you can’t just do home-and-homes, you have to do things like four-year series and even beyond that, if you can, because it just becomes too difficult to look at your schedule every year, and then all of a sudden you have a special player or people know that you’re going to be good, and then you can’t get any games. So you try to lock in as many long-term series as you can, and some of them have even become almost gentlemen’s agreement from a standpoint of, say Monmouth for instance – we play Monmouth every year. If they’re going to be great, we’re playing them. If we’re gonna be great, they’re playing us. I guess people probably don’t think there are many gentlemen’s agreements in Division I college athletics anymore, but I think we have good working relationships with some of the schools in our area, and it’s just a game that you know is going to be on your schedule every year, and that helps. And our location helps some too, since we are so close to so many schools.

Geography is definitely one of the variables in scheduling. In the east, there are a lot of leagues and schools close to each other, so much so that you can put together a schedule based entirely around bus trips for transportation. Out West in the wide open space with less schools and more space between them, finding schools to play and finding money in the budget for transportation can be another difficulty.

Brown: You look at our location and part of the thing that is tough for us is we have the WCC, the WAC, and the Mountain West nearby. There’s even the Pac-10, although it is really tough to get one of them to come play us. But if you’re back east, there are so many more conferences from which to target opponents. We don’t have that flexibility out here because of our geography. It’s not easy.

Next time, we’ll look at some of the potential scheduling pitfalls that come with being a mid-major and the associated difficulty in booking home games.  Join us next Tuesday for Part Four of In Their Words: Life at the Mid-Major Level.

rtmsf (3998 Posts)

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4 responses to “In Their Words: Life at the Mid-Major Level (part three)”

  1. Andrew says:

    I had a lot of fun talking to all of these people in preparing for this article, and I think I got a lot of great lines, but by far my favorite quote is this one from Coach Dempsey at Rider: “You want to be a team that nobody wants to play, but then once you become the team that nobody wants to play, well, nobody wants to play you.”

  2. rtmsf says:

    Echoing Yogi… That restaurant got too crowded. Nobody goes there anymore.

  3. gmuhoops says:

    Chris Caputo talks about Jim Larranaga's philosophy on scheduling (via @rushthecourt)

  4. RT @gmuhoops: Chris Caputo talks about Jim Larranaga's philosophy on scheduling (via @rushthecourt)

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