Deseret News graphic by John Clark

Solving a Rubik's cube can be a grueling, mind-numbing task. Each move made on the cube affects the entire outcome of the puzzle. One wrong move can make a person pay with hours of undoing the mistake.

For athletic directors Chris Hill of Utah, Tom Holmoe of BYU and Scott Barnes of Utah State, their livelihoods depend on solving that puzzle. One flick of the wrist can cause either elation or irritation for a given fan base. It takes time, mental energy and a little bit of luck to make a cube of different colored squares turn into a six-sided, solid-colored masterpiece. Picking four teams to play on NCAA '09 and moving on, it is not.

What goes into making a nonconference football schedule? The majority of athletic directors around the nation use their name and prestige to set up appointments with other schools. Some contact conference headquarters for help, while others contact representatives of the schools themselves. Then, it's handed off to an assistant, who does most of the legwork before the ADs at both schools can sign on the dotted line.

"Scheduling is important, but I can't do everything," Barnes said. "I try to cast the net out there and create opportunities where we can get some good games. It's important to incorporate our philosophy in there."

BYU's Holmoe has a more hands-on approach.

"I get together with Coach (Bronco) Mendenhall," Holmoe said. "We have an agreement where we won't sign contracts without working it out together. I was a football coach and I understand how important that is to be involved in that."

Sometimes an idea from Mendenhall gets nixed because Holmoe has a better offer; other times Holmoe's scheduling idea does not fit Mendenhall's vision of what the football team is ready for.

Scheduling philosophies

How competitive the school's team is, as well as the clout a given school has nationally, usually determines how teams schedule. Two away games and two home games is the preferred model, but that's where the philosophical similarities end.

Barnes says Utah State's ideal nonconference schedule is to play one big-money game against a BCS school for nearly $1 million, play Utah or BYU (although not necessarily both in the same year), play a team that USU feels it has a chance at beating (such as a lower-tier MWC or MAC school), and play a I-AA team.

Hill feels scheduling is more about getting lucky and having teams come to Salt Lake.

"It's mostly about who has an opening when you have an opening," Hill said. "We want to have as representative a schedule as we can, but not so tough that we don't give our team some chance at success. We don't want to play Florida, Tennessee, Alabama and Michigan all in the same year, and we've got to get teams that are willing to come to our place.

"That's usually not the top 10 teams in the nation, but a lot of Pac-10 teams like UCLA will play us a home-and-home. What we try to do is play two schools that have automatic BCS tie-ins. Then we play Utah State, and figure out another game to play."

Holmoe's philosophy is similar, but with a few key differences. The Cougars also try to schedule two BCS teams, one at home and one on the road, as well as USU and one other school. But for BYU, while the Pac-10 makes the most sense geographically, there are more options it looks for because of its religious affiliation and academic standards.

"One of the things I love to do is play teams that are similar to us in terms of academic reputation," Holmoe said. "Your players are doing the same things in the classroom. You're recruiting the same kind of players that have to do really well academically. Northwestern would be a great game because of that. We've played Boston College and Notre Dame, which have been a pleasure to play. Those are important things, and Bronco likes it, too."

Other things Holmoe says he has to consider are the pockets of football-hungry Mormons around the country. With the new television package, a road game in a distant part of the country may be the only time members of the LDS church will be able to see the Cougars play in person until bowl season.

"Our alums are all over the country," Holmoe said. "There are a lot of people all over the place that the only time they'll get to see BYU is if we come to them. We want to play where we recruit, so that's why we play in the West a lot, but we have pockets of people in different places. Like when we played Georgia Tech, the people from the South in various states came out because that might be the one time they get to see BYU. We played BC, a lot of people from New England got to see the game, and that's something we keep in mind, trying to get to different parts of the country."

These two variables, unique to BYU when compared to Utah State and Utah, make it a little easier to commit to a 2-for-1 series with a historic program. Holmoe said BYU rarely, if ever, OKs a one-time "buy game."

"That's another thing we have that's a huge advantage for us," Holmoe said. "When we played BC, we had about 7,000 people at the game. They don't draw a lot of people to Chestnut Hill. The BC AD told me, 'Wow, you fly a lot of people out here,' and I told him, 'No, they live right here.' So wherever we play, we bring fans. I'm trying to get a game with Hawaii, get this rivalry started up again. They know that if we play (at Aloha Stadium), it will sell out.

"That's a game for us where our fans out there are saying, 'thank you, this is so great.' They don't get to see us on TV. There are so many fans in Hawaii, and we recruit a lot out there, so it is a very good game for us. It's good for Hawaii because it's one of the best rivalries we have. It's too bad that we haven't played them in quite a while."

The "cupcake" game

When March rolls around, fans are excited for one thing: the release of next season's football schedule. Fans from every Division I team flock to see which teams will come to their home stadiums.

There is some letdown, however, when fans' searching eyes see the "cardinal sin" of scheduling: a I-AA "cupcake" on the schedule. With ever-increasing ticket prices, most fans don't understand why their school's athletic directors would do this to them.

But according to ADs around the state, there are many reasons for scheduling I-AA teams.

"I think it's a stopgap. We don't try to," Holmoe said. "I came in my first year and had to find a game in a short period of time. This year, Nevada dropped us and we had to quickly find another team that would come to Provo. I don't make excuses for it; I'd prefer not to. But I'm sure glad those schools are willing to play us when we get into a situation."

Hill agrees.

"If Michigan won't come back to Salt Lake, we've got to find someone who will play us at home," Hill said. "It's not that simple, but sometimes we play a I-AA school for those reasons. We try not to do that too often, but sometimes you get stuck because you want to have enough home games."

Hill also said the financial viability of a I-AA home game far outweighs any of the negatives associated with having a cupcake game. It's the same reason Notre Dame and Michigan can schedule Utah the way they did.

"Notre Dame pays us $1 million to come to their place, and they make $4 million every home game," Hill said. "They net $3 million, so they don't need to come to Salt Lake. That's why they have seven home games."

In Logan, Barnes said another reason to schedule these games is to give a program confidence coming into the season. Being winless coming into conference play, he argues, does not do well for a team's morale. I-AA wins count toward the requirement for bowl berths, and losses to Division I behemoths do not count against a I-AA school's run for the playoffs.

Each of the ADs said schedules mature with the direction of the program, meaning fans may see schools with less luster attached to their names until the programs have whatever they term "sustained success."

"But that doesn't mean that we won't schedule someone that people think, 'They're out of your league, why did you schedule them?"' Holmoe said. "I'd love to play Florida, and Auburn would be great. We've played Texas, Michigan, Ohio State all in bowl games, but during the regular season would be fun. We've never played Virginia Tech. We'll find the teams that will be good for our program. That's the bottom line."

The scheduling rivalry

Another issue is whether to schedule each other, as has happened traditionally. USU's Barnes has said he may have to postpone the series with each school to build up the schedule for the Aggies.

"One of them (Utah or BYU) brings balance," Barnes said. "But both doesn't at this time, especially like next year, when they're on the road. Eventually, we'd like to get to a point where we have one of them at home and one on the road each year."

Cancellations of games have caused some speculation that BYU-Utah State and Utah-Utah State are not worth it any more because of the lack of competition Utah State has given the other two squads for the greater part of the past decade.

But don't mention that up on the hill or down in Provo.

Holmoe agrees that sometimes USU's priorities and BYU's "don't jibe," but insists the rivalry is helpful to both schools and the LDS populations that follow them because of the tradition of playing the game on the Friday night before LDS General Conference. Holmoe says this is beneficial because if the Cougars don't get that game, they have to play a road game after the Saturday priesthood session of conference ends, which means a game played well into the October night on the road with fewer fans than usual.

"Utah State is a great game for us and for the LDS players and fans at Utah State, because we have no conflict that weekend," Holmoe said. "For our culture, that is a great thing."

Hill said playing USU still remains a priority, despite postponing the series to be able to play Notre Dame in 2010.

"We have traditions that we want to keep in football," Hill said. "We don't want to get too big for our britches."

The sacrificial lamb

Another thing that irritates local fans with a superiority complex is when their school schedules a game against a top-notch team, but it's a one-time deal on the road. Fans either feel their schools have enough clout that they should get a home-and-home, or they see it as a sign of disrespect that the BCS schools won't come to Utah.

The ADs just don't see it that way.

"It's not disrespectful; it's just they can do it," Holmoe said. "I'm fine with it because it's economically good for us. Going back to South Bend, every fan should do it. We won two of six games, one at home and one there. Was it worth it? I think it was a great opportunity and our kids won't forget that. Chris felt the same way about Michigan. It's good for us and it's good for Utah."

In those cases, money matters, says Barnes.

"It's all about finances. The income allows them to do it," the USU AD said. "It's somewhat difficult to get people into Logan, but we begin chartering our first flight directly to Logan at the end of the month. This will open a new door for us, because teams will no longer have to fly in to Salt Lake and then drive up."

"There's nothing I can do to talk them into playing us in Salt Lake," Hill said. "If you're playing poker and you have no cards, there's nothing I can offer them to make them want to come here. It's because they don't need to."

Solving the puzzle?

Spending mass amounts of energy on scheduling can be a taxing, thankless exercise, especially when there's more than one way to solve the puzzle.

"It's an inaccurate science," Hill said. "You're guessing and trying to put the best games out there in the future ... it's difficult to put the pieces together. But we really do consider our fans when in it comes to playing certain teams."

But making sure each square is in its correct place brings satisfaction to the leaders of football schools in the Beehive State.

"Scheduling is a huge part of your success or failures," Holmoe said. "You have to know what you're doing because it can be costly to make a mistake. A week doesn't go by that I'm not working on the football schedule."


E-mail: nnewman@desnews.com