It only took a few minutes for Seibert, the 52-year-old video coordinator for Iowa’s men’s basketball team, to get his first phone number, from a coach at Colgate. Seibert wasn’t settling for one number, though. He ambled over to two coaches from Saint Francis University and made a compelling offer.
“You guys looking for a game? … We’ll pay 100,” Seibert said, meaning $100,000, a once unheard-of-figure now routinely spent when a big program such as Iowa needs to land a home game with a small program such as Saint Francis, a Catholic university in tiny Loretto, Pa.
Seibert was racing through the 2015 National Association of Basketball Coaches Convention’s Schedule Session, a sort-of “speed dating” event Friday afternoon for coaches who make schedules. Seibert was one of several dozen assistants working the room in the Indiana Convention Center, where the national coaches association held its annual conference, like every year, in conjunction with the Final Four.
The fact this event exists speaks to the convoluted process – some call it a science, others call it an art, all call it a chore – of putting together a Division I men’s college basketball team schedule.
“It is long and tedious, and it’s completely behind the scenes,” said Jerry Krause, director of basketball operations at Gonzaga, where he’s made schedules for 20 years. “It’s one of the biggest things that determines a team’s success, and its really in the background.”
As money has flooded college basketball, a process that used to involve a handshake and a few phone calls has become more transactional, with contracts and cold financial realities. Powerhouse programs pay big money to fill out their schedules with winnable games. Smaller programs expect big paydays to cover their budgets. Some hold out for more money, or try to incite bidding wars.
For Seibert, the goal Friday was simple. One “guarantee game,” the name given to games between bigger schools who pay to get smaller schools to visit. Iowa needed one on Friday, Nov. 13.
One of the Saint Francis assistants texted the head coach, whose plane had just landed in Indianapolis, and awaited a response.
“When I started out doing this, it was a handshake, we’ll pay you $20,000, and you were done. Now it’s ‘Can I get $100,000 and five iPads?’” Seibert said later. “Things have changed.
In March 1999, Nels Hawkinson noticed something as he took a break from the coaches’ conference in St. Petersburg, Fla.
A big bulletin board was covered in handwritten notes, tacked there by teams who needed games for the upcoming season. Ingenuity struck Hawkinson.
“I said, ‘Are you kidding me? Guys, they’ve got something now called the Internet,’ ” he said.
Hawkinson, 57, is executive director of Basketball Travelers, a Washington company that organizes tournaments and foreign tours for college and high school teams. He decided to launch a scheduling message board on Basketball Travelers’ Web site, a place where coaches could list open dates and contact information. The private message board is free. Hawkinson views it as a way to promote his company.
A few years later, Hawkinson had another idea. He was on the national coaching association’s “worship team,” a group of Christian men who, Hawkinson said, try to “clean up” some of the problems in their sport. Scheduling was becoming a problem.
Men’s college basketball has undergone big changes in the last 20 years. There are more teams than before, there’s more money in the sport, and more programs expect to make the tournament every year. As the tournament selection committee has prioritized strength of schedule, smaller schools have acquired leverage.
“Everyone wants to win, so they’ve got to play a team that they’re going to beat, but they don’t want that team to be awful, so it ruins their strength of schedule. So that’s where coaches start pulling their hair out,” said Erik Evans, vice president of Basketball Travelers.
“The first time I heard someone ask for $100,000 was back when I was paying $60,000,” said Larry Keating, 70, special assistant to the athletics director at Kansas. “It’s become competitive to get these games, and it’s become exacerbated as conferences have created rules. Some conferences tell their schools they have to play good [nonconference] games … driving the price up.”
Every coach who has done scheduling for years has stories of handshake agreements dissolving when the other coach realized he could get more money. Some have been particularly irked in situations where they knew the guarantee fee paid the other coach’s salary.
“That’s one of the ways to get around budget shortcomings” at a smaller school, said Keating. “If you want to pay your coach $300,000 instead of $150,000, tell him to go play two $75,000 games.”
To try to make the process more honest, Hawkinson decided to host an event every year at the coaches convention, to put people who do scheduling in the same room. The premise was simple.
“It’s harder to lie to somebody face-to-face,” Hawkinson said.
The room Friday was lined with tables covered in calendars and stickers. The calendars listed time periods like “Nov. 30 to Dec. 6,” and schools in search of games that week. The stickers were color-coded. Light blue meant desperation – “OPEN MULTIPLE DATES.”
There are other factors in scheduling than finances and competition. Mike McGarvey, the Colgate assistant who traded business cards with Seibert, said he thought a game might work because the head coaches – Colgate’s Matt Langel and Iowa’s Fran McCaffery – share Philadelphia roots. Class time could be a hangup, though.
“We’re a serious academic school,” said McGarvey, 31. A Friday game in Iowa would require Colgate’s players to miss at least two days of classes traveling. McGarvey would have to get back to Seibert.
The Saint Francis assistants were more optimistic about locking in a game at Iowa City.
“It would certainly make my life easier,” said Mike Summey, 39, Saint Francis associate head coach.
Saint Francis needed a season opener, and needed that opponent to pay. Summey declined to say how much money Saint Francis expects yearly in guarantee games, but did say he usually tries to schedule about three, which would mean the school typically earns about $250,000 to $300,000 per year in road games against heavily favored opponents. The money goes to the athletic department, Summey said, and helps pay for non-revenue sports.
Guarantee games don’t always end in blowouts, but upset wins by small schools can come with a price. The buzz around the room Friday was that New Jersey Institute of Technology, which shocked Michigan in December, was having a hard time finding opponents for next season.
About halfway through the hour-long event, a man with a green “Nov. 30 – Dec. 6” sticker on his Portland Pilots track suit stood off in a corner by himself. Michael Wolf surveyed the crowd in frustration. He was coming up empty-handed.
“No one wants to travel,” said Wolf, 41, a Portland assistant in search of a home game on Dec. 5. “My D-Day,” he called it.
Portland has a modest budget for nonconference home games, Wolf said, but he’d spent it. He needed a home-and-home series with a team in their competition range. That meant Wolf would have two sets of negotiations – one with the opponent, and another with his head coach, who he’d need to convince the game was winnable.
“It takes massaging on both ends,” Wolf said.
Home-and-home contracts have also become more problematic over the years, as some coaches have reneged after playing their home game.
“It’s been a nightmare,” said Gonzaga’s Krause. “We have gone from something like a non-appearance clause of $10,000 to $100,000, which is an indication of the difficulty of getting people to honor their contractual obligations.”
As the “speed-dating” event ended Friday, Wolf leaned against a wall, catching up with a colleague. He had found a school interested in a home-and-home, he said, but it wasn’t finalized until he had a signed contract.
“The ink is not dry yet,” he said.
The matchup between Iowa and Saint Francis was also uncertain. In response to a text message late Friday night, Saint Francis assistant Summey replied that, after a day of traveling, his head coach needed time to think about it.