PROVO — Scheduling games as an independent football program has been more difficult than BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall expected.
But it has been more gratifying, too.
“It has required more work than I had anticipated,” he said. “However, now as we're progressing, I think we're making significant strides.”
As an independent, BYU must schedule 12 regular-season games every year. For Mendenhall and athletic director Tom Holmoe, the scheduling process takes up a significant amount of their time.
The day after he attended the National Football League draft in late April, for example, Mendenhall was in his New York City hotel room working on the 2015 schedule.
BYU is entering its third year as an independent, and Mendenhall is encouraged by what has been achieved.
“The schedules are growing in difficulty and intrigue,” he said. “As difficult as it was to begin, we're ending up with more opportunities of depth and difficulty than I ever imagined. Really, it's becoming the art of saying no, and balancing the opponents, and the venues, and the travel at a higher level than what I thought we would have the opportunity to do. In a nutshell, it's more difficult than I expected, but now more opportunities than I dreamed of."
Looking at future games that have been announced, the Cougars have scheduled teams from nine different conferences, including the Big Ten, the Big 12, the Atlantic Coast Conference and the Pac-12. Those featured on upcoming schedules include Virginia, Texas, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Michigan, Arizona and West Virginia.
Holmoe has described the scheduling process this way: “It's like missionaries knocking on doors,” he recently tweeted, “lots of conversations, not a lot of takers. But when it comes together — Awesome!”
BYU has plenty of help with scheduling thanks to its broadcast partner, ESPN. Dave Brown, who is ESPN’s vice president of programming and acquisitions for college football, works closely with Holmoe and Mendenhall.
While many coaches get involved with scheduling by talking to fellow coaches about setting up a series, Mendenhall's approach is “kind of the opposite of that,” the coach said.
“Dave Brown brings most of the possible games to Tom. Tom then sifts through them. (Recently), I got a list of three or four teams per conference that are available for 2015 to fill the remaining spots. What I'm able to do, once Tom sends that to me, I'm able to prioritize the teams that are available, which teams I'd like to play and in what order. I have final approval on who we play and when. Tom will take that information back to Dave, and he'll work on it and get it back to Tom and back to me. There's some partnership between the three of us, and at the end of the day, I have the ultimate say on who we play and giving that approval."
Holmoe said effective scheduling requires a strong working relationship with Mendenhall and ESPN.
“I work on football scheduling several times each week. Opportunities come along and I have good dialogue with other schools and on occasion conferences,” Holmoe said. “Bronco and I talk quite a bit. We talk through issues such as home versus away games, travel distance, placement of games and bye weeks. So much of scheduling is a matter of finding balance. As a former coach, I understand the importance of scheduling, and make sure Bronco and I are on the same page before finalizing a series. Our contacts at ESPN call regularly about potential schedule opportunities and to discuss possible matchups. This is another example of how the ESPN contract is a win-win situation for BYU.”
There are times when Mendenhall will inquire about games that interest him. “I've met coaches that I thought, 'This would be a good game,’” he said. “But I haven't had any success yet with the coaches saying, 'Yeah, let's play.' In most cases they say, 'No, I'm not interested in playing,' which is a compliment to our program. So really, Dave has had more success in generating momentum through the ESPN and national exposure. ESPN has certainly helped us do that."
Mendenhall added that he is impressed with ESPN’s ability to get deals done. "The power of ESPN has absolutely amazed me to this point, of what teams will do to get on ESPN,” he said. “Balance is what I'm seeking in our schedule. It's difficult, but my biggest challenge now is saying no to all of the great opportunities. Dave is really helpful and he's bringing opportunities to us all the time. Tom and I are bringing our contacts to him all of the time. ESPN is ESPN. People move games to be on ESPN. They'll move from a date to get on ESPN. Dave has a huge influence."
In addition to receiving help from ESPN, the renewed emphasis on strength of schedule, as it pertains to the new college football postseason format, benefits BYU in terms of its scheduling. It will help the Cougars set up more high-profile games with opponents from all over the nation, Holmoe said.
"The really good teams don't have trouble scheduling. They're like, 'We'll play BYU.' The great teams don't back away from people,” Holmoe said. “They won't play us if they've already scheduled a really, really good team outside of their really, really good conference. They'll catch us on another year, and that's why we're doing games into the 2020s. That's a long ways out. As strength of schedule comes more into play, teams will realize BYU is a good (option). Right now we’re not a top-10 team. It’s a recognizable name, a good name, gets good ratings; there's a lot of positives about it, but quite frankly, those teams think they can beat us."
Holmoe knows that to be nationally relevant, BYU — especially as an independent — needs to have a perennially attractive schedule.
“We’re aiming to have a really good schedule that will look good and feel good, where the pundits and the people that are going to be determining who goes to the playoffs feel that it’s a good enough schedule to have a great season," he said.
"You can’t have a great season if you don’t have a good schedule. There are a lot of factors that go into having a great season, and one of them is the schedule. This year has a better schedule maybe than next year. But I don’t think we can put together the perfect schedule every year.”