Hampton likely will not leave Comcast Center tonight with a victory over No. 21 Maryland. The Pirates, however, will depart with something almost as desirable to low-level programs -- money.
College basketball's nonconference schedules often feature mismatches such as tonight's game for reasons almost entirely financial. Rather than arranging the traditional home-and-home two-year agreements between evenly matched programs, smaller schools are willing to play on the road at larger schools in exchange for financial payments called "guarantees."
This arrangement allows the larger schools to host another game the following season -- pulling in far more money than it pays in the guarantee -- rather than traveling for the other half of a home-and-home. They also likely get a victory, every one of which adds up when the NCAA tournament selection committee hands out at-large bids in March. Meantime, the smaller schools collect perhaps more proceeds than they could hosting games in what are usually smaller arenas.
Hampton Coach Bobby Collins said his team, the reigning Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference champion, will receive between $35,000 and $40,000 from Maryland for tonight's game, which includes hotel accommodations and meals.
The 11 MEAC teams have a combined 17-72 record against nonconference foes this season, the worst of any Division I league. But for small programs that struggle to draw home crowds and cannot depend upon lucrative earnings from television and merchandising contracts, guarantee games are the chief sources of income for their athletic departments. Some guarantees are practically impossible for teams to pass up.
Last month, Hampton received $40,000 to visit Ohio State, which defeated the Pirates, 70-62. The guarantee, however, included all travel accommodations for Hampton's party of 20 players, coaches and support staff, according to Collins.
"You negotiate your own contracts each time," said Collins, who is in his first season as Hampton's coach after seven years as an assistant. "You can ask for what you want and you might or might not get it. We could go to someone and say, 'We'll play you for [airplane] flights and $40,000.' Sometimes we'll get that."
Maryland Coach Gary Williams was approached by the Hampton staff when both teams were in Boise, Idaho, for the first round of the 2001 NCAA tournament. He remembered trying to schedule similar games during his first head-coaching job at American from 1978 to '82.
"When I was at American, we'd do the same thing," Williams said. "You play some games for guarantees that give you money to recruit with and things like that. I've never forgotten that, where you just don't have the budget you'd like. So you play a couple of games where you can make some money, do a better job recruiting and gradually that makes your program better."
Hampton probably has the most financially stable athletic department in the MEAC. One of only three private schools in the conference, Hampton has an endowment of more than $200 million. Plus, Hampton is the MEAC's most successful basketball program. Hampton was elevated to Division I status in 1995 and has advanced to the past two NCAA tournaments.
That is why Collins says he plays only one or two guarantee games each season. Moreover, he does not want one blowout loss after another mounting on his players.
"I understand what schools have to do, but I don't know how much it does to help kids," Collins said. "It's a confidence killer. Plus, there's wear and tear on coaches."
Ron "Fang" Mitchell cannot afford to see it that way. In his 17th season as Coppin State coach, Mitchell added athletic director to his duties this season and gained greater understanding of his department's financial hardships.
"Coppin has always been one of the most underfunded schools," Mitchell said. "We have to go out and make money."
Mitchell scheduled nine of Coppin State's first 10 games this season on the road against opponents such as Marquette, Ohio State, North Carolina State, Oklahoma, Oregon State and Illinois. He said the guarantee games will net Coppin State a total of $265,000 this season.
Three years ago, Mitchell said his guarantee income reached $285,000. According to MEAC Commissioner Dennis Thomas, revenue from guarantee games could account for as much as one-third of the annual income for an athletic department that does not support a football team. Mitchell said the budget for Coppin State's athletic department, which does not have football, is based heavily upon revenue from guarantee games.
"If it gets to a point where you get desperate to schedule a game," Mitchell said, "we take advantage of that situation. . . . All they've got to do is call me."
Such an instance happened last June when Oklahoma called Mitchell seeking an opponent after one of its scheduled games fell through. A game against Coppin State was a nearly automatic victory for the Sooners, who sought to pad their record and enhance their NCAA tournament seeding.
Mitchell knew the more than $40,000 guarantee was all the enjoyment he would get from the game. Sure enough, Oklahoma won, 69-47.
"When you accept a guarantee game, you accept a loss," Mitchell said.
Thomas, who is in his first year as MEAC commissioner, wants to temper that attitude within his conference. Thomas had been Hampton's athletic director the past 12 seasons and learned the benefit guarantee games can aid a fledgling basketball program's recruiting efforts.
But eventually, each program has to turn that money into victories. In the past 13 months, Hampton has defeated mid-level programs such as Akron, Old Dominion and Richmond. Last season, the Pirates even beat North Carolina.
"At Hampton, we took a different approach," Thomas said. "We didn't schedule eight or 10 guarantee games like most people do. We scheduled one or two and then a few mid-level programs that, if we beat them, it would help the program grow. That served us very well. When high school and junior college kids see you compete against mid-level teams and beat them, it gives your program huge exposure, instead of getting your heads beaten in by some bigger teams. . . .
"Each institution has to weigh its own circumstances. Those circumstances are financial sometimes. Do I believe other institutions need to take another look at what they do? Absolutely, because it was so successful for Hampton."