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

Posted by rtmsf on October 19th, 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:

  • 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.
  • Dale Layer, Head Coach, Liberty – Layer enters his second season at Liberty after having spent a season as an assistant at the university in 2007-08. In between, he spent a year at Marquette and previously he spent seven seasons as the head coach at Colorado State. He has compiled a 118-122 record in his eight seasons as a Division I head coach.
  • George Ivory, Head Coach, Arkansas-Pine Bluff – Ivory enters his third season in Pine Bluff, where he has turned the Golden Lions into winners. UAPB turned around an 0-11 start last season by finishing 18-5 over their last 23 games, winning UAPB’s first SWAC tournament title in 43 years and advancing to the NCAA tournament before losing to eventual national-champion Duke.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Gregg Bach, Assistant Athletics Director for Communications, Akron – Bach was named to his current position this past summer after having spent the previous eight years on the media relations staff in the Akron athletic department. His new job makes him the spokesperson of the athletic department.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Jason James, Head Coach, Tennessee-Martin – James enters his second season as the head coach at UT-Martin following eight seasons as an assistant coach there. His first season was rough, to the tune of 4-25, after he was appointed head coach in the wake of scandal with the previous head coach. But James, the recruiter who brought Lester Hudson to UT-Martin, has plans to begin to turn things around this season.

For the most part, our first two articles on scheduling at the mid-major level have talked about the difficulties associated with lining up game. We mentioned that some schools see benefits to playing big-time programs with talented rosters, both in recruiting and in preparing their teams for conference and postseason play. Another benefit to playing these types of games is the money. Very few of the programs at this level have huge athletic budgets, so the money from taking a guarantee game and going on the road to face a bigger school is important not only to the basketball program, but also to the entire athletic department and the university. So while getting a chance for publicity from playing these games is a great incentive, the money associated with them is also a strong enticement.

Guarantee Games Are Not Always Guaranteed

Eric Brown, Assistant Coach, Long Beach State: The Big 12, the ACC, they’re all paying out big guarantees. It all depends on that particular school’s budget – some big schools will pay $55,000 or $60,000 guarantees. You can even get up to $80,000 or $90,000. And the later you wait, if there is a BCS school still looking for games, they may have to raise up the ante, they’ll pay a larger amount than they would have three months earlier.

Dale Layer, Head Coach, Liberty: It’s an important part for most mid-majors. Here at Liberty, the athletic department typically tries to reinvest a lot of that money back into the program, so we’re able to use it in a way that enhances Liberty basketball and the athletic department in ways that everybody can appreciate.

George Ivory, Head Coach, Arkansas-Pine Bluff: We think the money is very important, and the main thing when we play those games, you want to do everything you can to help out within the athletic department and the university. So we don’t have a problem playing guarantees. It’s a great thing for the guys to play that kind of schedule, you’re playing some of the top players in the country, some of the top coaches in the country, so I think it is a great experience for all of us.

Larry Williams, Athletic Director, Portland: We will play guarantee games. At some places there are mandates where you’ve gotta play these many guarantees and earn this much money, but we don’t do that. We’re trying to be very conscious of the growth of our program. And if an appropriate guarantee presents itself, we’re not afraid to play it, because quite frankly, we can win those games too. So, we’ve gotta be conscious of the opportunity to get a win and a paycheck.

Murry Bartow, Head Coach, East Tennessee State: I wouldn’t say we have a mandate. My AD and I have a very good relationship, and I, based on conversations with him, know what he is hoping to get, in terms of number of guarantee games, and know what he is hoping for based on the current budget and the current situation. So he and I sit down and visit and based on those conversations I know what I need to do. The bottom line is, I don’t mind playing those games.

Tommy Dempsey, Head Coach, Rider: You can ask ten different schools about guarantee games and get like five different answers. I don’t have a lot of pressure on me, on our basketball program, to play guarantee games. We do play them, but we don’t play too many of them. Last year for instance, we played one against Mississippi State, this year we play one at Pitt. It does help us with revenues within our athletic department at a school like ours, but fortunately our administration isn’t saying to me, you have to go out and play four guarantee games so that we can fund a different program. You know, I don’t have that pressure on me, I don’t have a certain number of dollars that we have to generate through guarantee games. If I choose to, if I want to maybe buck our RPI up in a year when we think we have a chance to be pretty good, maybe help us with getting into a postseason tournament, I have the opportunity to schedule them if I’d like. But I don’t have pressure from my administration to schedule them to bring in a lot of money, and I think that’s a very good situation to be in, where your program is funded enough that there’s not pressure to go take four losses, just to help out with the budget. And I’m very appreciative that I don’t have to do that.

While road guarantee games are the usual case for mid-major match-ups with BCS conference teams, there are other ways to get matchups with BCS schools in other environments, the most common and a greatly preferred way, is in the early-season tournaments like the NIT Season Tip-Off or the Maui Invitational. These tournaments often (although not always) give mid-major programs a chance to face high-majors on a neutral court.

Gregg Bach, Assistant Athletic Director for Communications, Akron: In mid-December, we’re going to play in a tournament in Vegas (Las Vegas Holiday Hoops Classic). We try to do one of those every year, which usually helps you get at least one high-major on a neutral court, which is part of Coach’s scheduling philosophy, if we can play some of those higher-major teams on a neutral floor, that can be a benefit for us.

Dempsey: We’re coming out to USC this year as part of the Hall-of-Fame Tip-Off Classic tournament that we’re both in. So you can get some games that way, like last year we played at Kentucky, we played at Virginia, but they were in the Cancun Challenge tournament.  The year before we were in the Old Spice Classic and we played Penn State and N.C. State and Kansas State when (Michael) Beasley was there, you know, games that you might not ordinarily get and certainly not on a neutral floor, but games that you can get if you can get into these tournaments. So that’s a creative way to try to find games, but again, those don’t give you home games.

The Maui and Other Tourneys Provide Opportunities for Mid-Majors (credit: SI)

Bartow: Those early season events are important for a lot of reasons. With the Cancun deal, one thing I like about that is that it is a great thing for the team. It’s a great team-building, bonding experience. Because everything we do early is getting ready. Because for me, in our league, it is all going to come down to the conference tournament, that’s what it is all going to hinge on. So anything you can do early in November or December, even if you lose some games, if that prepares you to be a better team in February and March, then it’s going to help you, because the bottom line is you’re going to have to win your conference tournament. So what I like about Cancun that is great for our team is: it gives you three games on consecutive days that is like a conference tournament, it’s great for recruiting down the road, and then of course you’re going to be playing some really good teams on a neutral floor, which for us is helpful because we’re unable to get a lot of those teams to come to us. But to get them on a neutral court and in three straight games is good. I’ve always enjoyed doing those things and we’ll certainly continue to do them. I think they are a very good thing for a mid-major team.

An added benefit to these tournaments is more national exposure, the ability to play big programs, not only on neutral courts, but also on national television. And, if you have success in these tournaments, as Portland did last season at the 76 Classic when it knocked off UCLA and Minnesota, before eventually losing to West Virginia in the final, it can be a real program booster.

Eric Reveno, Head Coach, Portland: It was huge. I can give a long-winded answer for some things, but simply it was huge. I had a lot of people this summer still coming up to me and saying, “what was that tournament you were in early, who did you play?” They could barely remember the details, but they remember seeing us on TV, like all the basketball world was watching. I sort of have to toggle back and forth between my trying to build the best basketball team this year and trying to build the program. From a program standpoint, the 76 Classic was tremendous. From a team-perspective it was also good, but from a program perspective in terms of people seeing us on national TV, talking to recruits in LA “did you see us play last year? Yeah, I saw you play early in the year, beating UCLA.” Yeah. It was huge.

Chris Caputo, Assistant Coach, George Mason: We played Kansas State in 2007 Thanksgiving night at 9:00 PM. So we’re getting the number twenty team in the country with potentially, at the time, the number one or two pick in the draft. I just don’t know that there’s any other way for us to get on national television at the type of time slot in that type of game. Last year we played in one of the early-season games against Villanova who was ranked and we almost beat them and people are much more aware of that than maybe a really close game against VCU or Old Dominion during conference play just because there were so many other games going on at that time of year. So early in the year there aren’t as many games and if you get to play a ranked marquee opponent on national TV, like a Villanova team that was a team coming off a Final Four, those are important for visibility reasons and that’s a time of the year, along with March, where we could be the story are a little bit.

Apart from just giving the program exposure, in the right year, wins over BCS opponents in neutral-site games like that could be the difference between some real March Madness or a NIT consolation prize.

Caputo: In our circumstance, there have been times when we have played ourselves into the tournament in the non-conference, just by having those types of games. Playing a BCS school on their home floor, I mean, I don’t care how good you are, it is hard to beat those kinds of schools on their home floor. So in essence, if you have the opportunity to get any team, not just a BCS school, but any team at a neutral site as opposed to playing them on their home floor, you’ve got a better shot. Because inevitably, you’re rarely going to get a chance to play a bigger school at your place, maybe once every few years.

As Coach Caputo refers to, every now and then an opportunity arises for mid-majors to schedule a home game against a bigger program. For instance, this season, Portland will host Kentucky (at the Rose Garden) in November, an interesting stop-over on the Wildcats’ trip to Maui.

Williams: I think in some respects we’re kind of fortunate, in that they were already signed up to play in Maui, and as is frequently the case with teams from back east, those teams will make a stop on the West Coast. I know that Loyola Marymount has taken advantage of that a couple of times, as has Pepperdine and Santa Clara in our league, and so, it was somewhat fortuitous opportunity for us to play them. You know, it’s not often that you’ll get Kentucky outside of Rupp Arena, and certainly this was something we were very excited about when the opportunity availed itself.

As part of the deal, Portland will repay Kentucky with a trip to Rupp Arena in 2011-12, making it a home-and-home agreement. But with such a huge and rare opportunity to get one of the biggest programs in basketball to come to your place, there is pressure on the young Pilot squad to perform.

Reveno: I focus on that it’s important that we play well. If they go undefeated and they’re the best team in the history of college basketball or something, and we’re one of the teams that lost to them, I don’t think it is bad for us to be on that list. If they come in and don’t take us seriously, and we have a chance and we don’t play well and they win, then it is a missed opportunity. So I just focus on us playing well. I think it is important that we play well because we’re going to have a lot of eyes on us and our challenge is to play well, to play to the best of our ability. If we can do that and win, then yes, it gets us more attention and its great. But if we play the best we can, if we play great, and we still lose because, you know, they’re Kentucky, and then they go from here to Maui and they win Maui, and they go on and everyone’s talking about them having five top draft picks or something ,then I think it is what it is. I’m just worried about what I can control, and it’s on the schedule and it’s coming up fast and we gotta be the best team we can be at that time. And the worst case of course is that we play poorly and they play great and we get embarrassed. I just want to play well.

It’s a situation that Long Beach State will find itself in during the 2013-14 season, when they’ll host North Carolina on the Tar Heels’ way to Maui. Prior to that game, LBSU will travel to Chapel Hill twice as part of the agreement.

Brown: What we’re doing is one game is going to be guaranteed, so we’ll go out there and they’ll pay us a guarantee and then we’re setting up a home-and-home series. When you start a home-and-home series with a BCS school, which doesn’t happen too often, you’re very fortunate to do it because it is an attractive game for your kids, but it is also an attractive game for your fans and your students. Another reason some BCS-type teams may want to schedule a road game like this is as a nod to maybe some of the players on their roster – say they have a player from Southern California – or as a way to reach out to either fans on the West Coast, or potential future recruits there.

Another bonus to these types of games, and even the early season tournaments, is the chance to get a game on national television. For some schools, the prospect of playing on national television is a priority; for others, it is just a bonus if it happens to come along.

Brown: Last year, with our schedule, we had 14 or 15 games on national TV, and that’s something that is attractive to your guys and your recruits. It gives your program, it gives your university, some exposure.

Layer: Exposure is great, certainly being on ESPN national coverage, we’ll play anytime that we can get that. I think that’s great for our team, great for exposure, great for recruiting. It’s an opportunity that’s not afforded to us that often even though we’re on a lot of regional TV, but certainly not much national.

Jason James, Head Coach, Tennessee-Martin: I don’t think getting on television is a priority. Obviously everybody likes to be on TV, but it’s not something we look at when we’re scheduling. We just try to schedule good teams in good conferences to prepare ourselves for what may happen down the road. It’s definitely a plus, but not a priority.

One thing everybody does agree with though, is that putting together a schedule with tough opponents, and getting on television every now and then, can be a plus when it comes time to recruit.

It's Unclear How Much TV Helps

James: The level of competition can help recruiting. Guys want to play at the highest level, they want to play against those teams in the BCS conferences. We don’t mind playing those guys, so it’s definitely a perk and a plus.

Williams: I think our success in the 76 Classic helped us open the eyes of a number of recruits who say “hey wait a minute, they aren’t just talk, they’re actually doing it.” And we’re on a number of radar screens that we weren’t on before. We’re not there yet, we’ve got a long way to go, we’ve got a lot more eyes to open, but I think Rev’s got it on the right track.

In the end, scheduling can have a positive effect on recruiting, and really, all three of these areas we are focusing on are interconnected. The teams you schedule affects your ability to recruit new players and your ability to market your program, just like the way you market your team affects your ability to schedule games. While we may be focusing on specific areas in different articles in this series, all three of the areas – recruiting, scheduling and marketing – are interconnected.

Williams: When the opportunity presents itself to host a major school, what is really a home game for you in your arena, that helps us in our marketing efforts. We can use that as the hook to get new folks involved and aware of what our program is doing, folks that might not otherwise have been aware of the caliber that we play, to get them in to see a name like Kentucky is a great opportunity for us to expand our marketing. But it is also, likewise, an opportunity to show potential recruits that, hey, you get to come here and you get to play against the best. And, as a matter of fact, you’re going to get an opportunity to play a lot against the best. So, you won’t be buried on the bench somewhere or only getting to play your last two years in college, but you can come here and compete against the best from the day you walk on the court.

At the mid-major level, it is truly about building a program, and that means being able to do all three of these things well. Join us next Tuesday for Part Six of In Their Words: Life at the Mid-Major Level.

rtmsf (3998 Posts)

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

  1. bevo says:

    Thank you for this series. I am really enjoying learning more about the thinking and strategy of college basketball at this level.

  2. gmuhoops says:

    Assistant Coach Chris Caputo talks about mid-major scheduling and playing BCS teams in tournaments

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