Lyons Interview, Part 4: There’s A Fine Line To Football Scheduling
Each summer dating back to Fred Schaus, I’ve gotten a chance to sit down with West Virginia University’s director of athletics for an in-depth interview on a wide range of topics. From conference realignment to coaching changes to facilities renovations, we’ve covered an extensive landscape over the last three decades.
This summer I got another chance for a lengthy one-on-one interview with Shane Lyons, who was hired as WVU’s A.D. in January of 2015. As usual, the questions involved a variety of subjects. In a series of articles over the course of the next few weeks, we’ll look at Lyons’ view on those topics. We kicked off this series with a recap of Phase 1 of facilities improvements, then followed that up with details on Phase 2 of West Virginia’s athletic facilities renovations, which Lyons will reveal publicly in the next month. Part three of the series covered his thoughts on the expectations surrounding the Mountaineer football team heading into the 2018 season.
In today’s part four, we dive into the sometimes tricky aspects of football scheduling.
* * * * * *
West Virginia director of athletics Shane Lyons admits there is a fine line when it comes to putting together a challenging football schedule and one that goes too far.
WVU is certainly stepping right up to the edge of that line.
The Mountaineer football team will face 11 Power 5 opponents during the 2018 regular season, as it meets Tennessee, N.C. State and nine Big 12 foes to go along with Youngstown State from the FCS level.
West Virginia is one of 13 college teams that will play 11 P5 opponents during the 2018 regular season. But WVU is doing so not only this year but every season through at least 2024. No other program in the country plays such a P5-heavy schedule on annual basis.
Lyons, who took over as WVU’s A.D. three and a half years ago, didn’t schedule all the Mountaineers’ current games, as former West Virginia A.D. Oliver Luck also scheduled some of these. But Lyons has doubled down on the 11 Power 5 opponents per season by signing a four-year contract with Pitt from 2022-25.
“The scheduling was done strategically,” explained Lyons. “With the College Football Playoffs, it should give us an edge if we are fortunate enough to be considered for that opportunity. The strength of schedule weighs heavily in that discussion, and by playing 11 of 12 games against Power 5 institutions, we have a schedule that should be in our favor in those discussions.
“There has been a lot of discussion within the College Football Playoff committee about continuing to focus on the strength of schedule and what schools are doing,” added Lyons. “If you look at the Big 12, we’re at nine conference games and most of us, if not all of us, are playing at least one non-conference Power 5 game, so you’re at 10. And we chose to play 11. There are some leagues that play eight conference games and then maybe one non-conference game against a Power 5 opponent, so they are at nine. They have three other non-Power 5s on their schedule. The Playoff committee has to look at that and realize that extra Power 5 on your schedule makes a difference. It is harder and more difficult. That should be given some weight. My understanding is they will continue to place weight on that as they move forward.”
West Virginia has non-conference games against Tennessee, N.C. State and Youngstown State this year and then will meet N.C. State, Missouri and James Madison in 2019. After that, the Mountaineers will start to face old rivals each season, as they have games scheduled against Maryland (2020-21), Virginia Tech (2021-22), Pitt (2022-25) and Penn State (2023-24) in the years ahead.
Right now the renewal of the Backyard Brawl is under contract for just four years, but it appears likely additional games will be added between the Panthers and Mountaineers.
“There have been some discussions with them about extending that beyond the 2025 season,” said Lyons of the series with Pitt. “In looking at that, it’s a matter of matching up their schedules with ours. I’ve always said this series is good for us, good for them and good for college football. I think our fans want it. The last year we played them was 2010, and we’ll have a 12-year gap in that rivalry. Being 70 miles apart from each other, we need to play. It’s a great rivalry. Now we want to make sure everyone behaves to make it a fun rivalry. Games like that have made college football the great sport it is over the years. Texas-Texas A&M, Missouri-Kansas, the shift in conference membership has changed some of these rivalries, but I think bringing them back is good for the sport.
“It could potentially be annual,” Lyons said of the Brawl. “But we also have the desire to throw some others in there at times. For instance, Virginia Tech is a good game for us. We don’t want to miss out on those opportunities. And you also don’t want to overschedule, so you have to balance it. If you look at it to say Pitt more frequently than someone else like a Virginia Tech, Maryland or even potentially an Ohio State, that makes sense. But I’m not sure if Pitt would be an annual game. I don’t know if they would want that either. There could be years when we don’t play, and we plug in another regional rivalry game in there.”
If WVU continues to try to fit in two Power 5 non-conference opponents each year, to go along with its nine Big 12 games, West Virginia is going to continue playing a very challenging schedule every season.
“Some of that (playing 11 P5 teams per year) came about because we added Pitt,” noted Lyons. “Our fans were anxious to get them back on the schedule. We already had some other Power 5 opponents on the schedule with the Penn States, the Marylands and the Virginia Techs. They were already on the schedule, but we wanted to find a spot for Pitt too, so this is something we chose to do. We’re up for the challenge. You can overschedule, and you can underschedule. You have to find a balance. I hope we didn’t overschedule, but we feel good with where we were at.”
Where West Virginia is at in terms of football scheduling is different than any other school. It was WVU’s choice to go above and beyond, but Lyons thinks there should be a standard for Power 5 teams. It’s one that currently not everyone meets.
“We talk a lot about ‘equality’ when we make rules to make sure everything is equal in things like recruiting to level that playing field,” noted Lyons, who is a native of Parkersburg. “But one thing we have yet to talk about is a level playing field when it comes to scheduling. If you want to schedule eight conference games, you should be able to schedule eight, and if you want to schedule nine, you should be able to schedule nine. But should everyone have a total of 10 Power 5 institutions on their schedule? Yes, I think it should be that way. I realize that’s a strong statement, but if you want to be a Power 5 institution, you should play a competitive schedule. It was our choice to go to 11, but should everyone be at 10 as a minimum? Yes. Commissioners have talked about it before and they will continue to talk about it, but so far they haven’t come to an agreement. But if we want to level the playing field, that needs to be done. These teams that are underscheduling – have eight plus the one, and then three against the Group of Five or FCS schools – we have to question whether that’s good enough to make it to the College Football Playoff. That’s what the committee needs to look at.
“We were told when we went from the BCS model to this (CFP) model that scheduling was going to be very important. The first year they said it was. The Big 12 was left out because they said the strength of schedule was not very good for Baylor and TCU. Well, you know what, things evolve. There are some teams making it into the top four who have nine Power 5 institutions on their schedule. Why not 10?”
* * * * * *
In our next installment, which is slated for July 20, we’ll talk to Lyons about what the future of sports on TV will look like.