How to remake an entire college football schedule in just one month

  • Covers the SEC.
  • Joined ESPN in 2012.
  • Graduate of Auburn University.

  • Senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com
  • 2-time Sports Emmy winner
  • 2010, 2014 NMPA Writer of the Year

Army athletic director Mike Buddie has compared this offseason to a never-ending game of Whack-a-mole.

“There were some days I went to bed with 12 games and woke up with five,” he said.

When BYU AD Tom Holmoe was asked to describe the challenge of scheduling football games amid a pandemic, all he could come up with was “Wild and woolly.”

The Black Knights and the Cougars, two of the seven FBS independents, only four of whom are playing this fall, will meet on Sept. 19 after kicking off their seasons over the weekend. Army shut out Middle Tennessee 42-0 on Saturday. BYU will play at Navy on Monday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN). The path to their matchup has been as arduous as it has had to be creative. The scramble to salvage their seasons has been mighty, and as they continue to traverse the Hogwarts staircase that is 2020, that scramble might not be over yet.

Here’s a look back at their efforts to make it to kickoff. And yes, we wrote it all in erasable marker.

Early March: Gearing up

On March 1, BYU opened spring practice with even a little more enthusiasm than usual, excitement powered by a 12-game fall 2020 schedule that was arguably the greatest any Cougar team had faced during the school’s near-century of playing football. After opening with archrival Utah, BYU was slated to face Michigan State, Arizona State, Missouri and Stanford. It would also host in-state foe Utah State and another trio of Group of 5 powers in Houston, Boise State and San Diego State.

Head coach Kalani Sitake was already talking about the challenge. “There are six bowl teams from last year, and there are six games again Power 5 schools, from the Pac-12 to the Big Ten to the SEC,” the fifth-year head coach said. “I think it would be difficult to go back and find a more challenging BYU schedule than this one. This is a national schedule. We couldn’t be more excited about it.”

BYU fans were touting its 10th schedule as a college football independent as being as close to a masterpiece as Holmoe had ever painted. Then his artwork was doused with a bucket of turpentine. The first drops of which were flung on March 13.

The announcements heralding the cancellation of spring sports came one after another after another. And right as many football teams were being taken off the practice field, Army’s Buddie called Bob Beretta, his senior associate AD in charge of strategic initiatives.

“Hey,” Buddie told Beretta, “we probably need to start planting the seed.”

Beretta knew what he meant, and he was on it. He’d been in charge of football scheduling at Army since 2005 and was already working the phones trying to find opponents to fill out the 2020 schedule. So as he had those conversations, he laid the groundwork with athletic directors about putting “soft contingencies” in place in case things went haywire in the fall.

“As an independent, we had 10 games we had to look at if things broke in a certain direction,” Beretta said. “We had the Navy game and the Air Force game we felt confident we would play, but everything else, we weren’t sure.”

The sport was at a standstill for weeks while Beretta worked behind the scenes. By the time he was finished, he said he had conversations with around 80% of the athletic directors of teams playing football on the FBS level.

Mid-July: The first dominos fall

On July 8, the Ivy League became the first conference to cancel fall football, and Army lost its game to Princeton. Then, five days later, the Patriot League followed suit and suddenly Bucknell was out, too.

That same day, Northern Illinois announced that its Oct. 24 game with BYU had been moved from Chicago’s SeatGeek Stadium to NIU’s on-campus stadium because of the pandemic safety concerns. Holmoe was in total agreement with that decision. The next two days, not so much.

On July 9, as the Cougars were in the middle of voluntary summer workouts, the Big Ten announced that if it played college football in fall 2020, it would do so with a conference-only schedule. BYU immediately lost two games, a Week 2 visit from Michigan State and a Week 4 trip to Minnesota. The following day, the Pac-12 also announced a conference-only schedule and BYU lost another three games, the Sept. 3 season opener at archrival Utah, a Week 3 trip to Arizona State and a regular-season finale Nov. 28 visit to Stanford.

In less than 24 hours, BYU’s 12-game schedule had been slashed to seven.

Nothing happened for a while after that, at least not that the public saw. Holmoe preached patience, even as AL.com reported that Alabama was in negotiations with BYU to play a season-opening contest that would replace Alabama’s lost game with USC and BYU’s canceled Utah matchup. There were other reports linking BYU to Texas A&M, Oklahoma State and Notre Dame.

In an interview with BYU Sports Nation, Holmoe was asked about those possibilities, especially against fellow independent Notre Dame. He only smiled and said, “Maybe.” Then he quickly reminded everyone that Notre Dame’s association with the ACC had protected a large chunk of its schedule and also warned that the remaining three Power 5 conferences might still follow the conference-only path laid by the Big Ten and Pac-12, and that included the ACC with Notre Dame.

“Everyone who had games canceled, athletic directors and coaches, all had to start sprinting,” he said on July 20. “So I’ve had a lot conversations with a number of people. Some [rumors of games] have been reported from their side. I think this will continue into today and tomorrow and wherever this goes until we’re playing football.”

At Army, Buddie and Beretta also spoke of patience. They didn’t need to panic. They had laid the groundwork with a number of other programs. Among their options: play home-and-homes with independents UConn and UMass in the same season.

Problem solved.

Well, not so fast.

Keeping up with all the moving pieces was a dizzying chore. At one point, Beretta was making and taking 75 to 100 calls a day and then relaying all pertinent information to Buddie.

They had a group of 10 schools they looked at as Option A, followed by another they viewed as Options B and C. Some opponents written in ink. Some were written in pencil.

Navy, Buddie said, “That’s tattooed.”

“It’s like recruiting,” Buddie said. “You put some on simmer, you put some on boil and then you offer contracts. I bet you we signed 30 term sheets with schools whether it was New Mexico State or UConn or UMass, and then we had to tear them up.”

July ends, August begins: Contingencies collapse

On July 29-30, the ACC and SEC did exactly what Holmoe had predicted. The ACC announced a plus-one conference model that included Notre Dame as a full-time member for 2020 only, essentially taking them off the board as a potential BYU opponent. The SEC announced it was moving to a delayed, full conference-only schedule.

That took Missouri’s Week 6 visit to Provo off the board. It also torpedoed any possibility of adding other SEC schools to the schedule, aka the reported Bama and A&M games. BYU was down to six games. Holmoe said of that time, “It’s rather wild and woolly. It might take six months to 18 months, maybe two years, to really put together a game. And now it’s been two weeks and you have to get those games back on the schedule.”

On Aug. 3, the Big 12 announced its teams would play only one nonconference game this season, and that game must be played at home. So, Army had to say goodbye to its marquee matchup against Oklahoma. What little truth there might have been to the Oklahoma State-BYU matchup vanished as well.

BYU scored a win on Aug. 6, moving its game count back to seven with the announcement that it had replaced its lost Week 1 bus ride to Utah with a flight to Navy. It was a big scheduling coup as it also replaced what the Utah and theoretical Alabama games would have been, a Sept. 7 Labor Day weekend showcase game on ESPN. The network is a not-small part of Holmoe’s scheduling process, thanks to an extension of their media rights deal, announced in January, that runs through 2026.

“They’re trying to make sure and see where we are,” Holmoe said in July, describing a phone call with Bristol, Connecticut, to discuss scheduling strategies, conversations that included input even from competing networks as they worked to piece it all together for fall.

Aug. 9-11: All hell breaks loose

The good feelings around the Navy addition didn’t last long. Only three days later, on Sunday, Aug. 9, the MAC announced the postponement of all fall sports and the Mountain West announced the same the following day. That meant BYU was saying goodbye to Northern Illinois, Utah State, Boise State and San Diego State. When the sun set behind Lake Mountain on Aug. 10, BYU had only three games scheduled, Navy, Houston and North Alabama, spread out over three months. The season was slated to start in only 24 days.

Those announcements reverberated at West Point, too, especially the MAC, which sent Miami (Ohio), Eastern Michigan and Buffalo off Army’s schedule. To make matters worse, in between the Big 12’s announcement of its “9+1” format and the MAC becoming the first FBS conference to postpone its season, UConn canceled its season entirely.

The following week, on Monday, Rice delayed the start of its season because of COVID-19, meaning Army’s original Sept. 12 trip to Houston was out. Then, on Tuesday morning, UMass canceled its season. Five hours later, the big boys followed suit. At 2:10 p.m., the Big Ten’s announcement dropped. An hour later, the Pac-12 said it was postponing, too.

Buddie said it was as if they kept retreating and retreating and retreating during those couple of weeks. “We just kept pulling into a backup position that, ‘Well, we can replace Princeton and Bucknell as long as we don’t lose the Independents.’ Then the Independents pulled out and we had to pull out a little bit more and say, ‘Well, as long as we don’t lose the MAC.’ We had three MAC opponents. And then the MAC went away.”

“After the MAC made its announcement,” Buddie said, “we stopped retreating and went on the offensive.”

During that time, scheduling became a 20-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week job for Beretta. His wife and daughter were saints putting up with his frequent phone calls, stepping out into the garage to talk shop. It was frustrating, though, with so many athletic directors still in a wait-and-see mode while, Beretta said, “We were anxious to make moves.”

“I would come in during those weeks, and I was on Twitter, on the internet and on the phone all day long,” he added. “I was fully consumed. That’s all I did for those three weeks when everything was happening.”

Buddie said a weird part of him actually enjoyed the hunt. Beretta compared it to the thrill general managers must feel right before the trade deadline, scouring the landscape for deals and taking them to management for approval.

Mid-August: Amid chaos, a partnership

Date by date, BYU and Army started restocking their schedules, a Jenga puzzle of pulling out pieces and replacing, all while holding one’s breath to keep from knocking it all down again. BYU announced a 2020/2026 home-and-home with Troy of the Sun Belt, a Halloween game with Western Kentucky of Conference USA and another two October home games with UTSA of Conference USA and Texas State of the Sun Belt.

“This is quite literally like trying to find that one piece that will fit into the right spot of your puzzle,” Holmoe explains. “We were fortunate that where we had open dates to fill, so did UTSA and Texas State and those gave them a chance to travel to Provo. It wasn’t just BYU that had large chunks of the schedule taken away. It was everyone. Then, you had to wait to see what conferences were going to do with their own in-conference schedules. Then, it became a matter of finding common openings.”

Every year, Army tries to find at least one headline game against a big-time Power 5 opponent. And that’s hard enough to do years in advance since, let’s face it, no one wants to play the triple-option. Still, Beretta and Buddie reached out to Power 5 schools. Sometimes the dates didn’t match. Sometimes they got the sense there was more to it than that.

“Frankly,” Buddie said, “it’s no secret that preparing for the Army offense is not a lot of coaches’ favorite pastimes.”

Said Beretta: “There were several schools that went a different direction rather than speak to us.”

In the end, Army found a match in — drumroll, please — BYU, providing a solid Power 5-feeling opponent for Week 3 of the season, scheduled for Sept. 19. Likewise, BYU received a recognized brand-name opponent draw (no offense, UTSA and Texas State) and essentially filled out its once-empty September with the month’s third game.

The fact that the game could appear in the SEC’s afternoon slot on CBS (the SEC doesn’t kick off until one week later) made the deal that much sweeter, offering exposure neither team is used to receiving. It will be the first half of a home-and-home 2020/2032 agreement and the first meeting between the two programs.

“The opportunity for our players to visit Michie Stadium, that’s not a bad replacement game is it?” Sitake said about the new addition to his schedule, triple-option or not.

Buddie and Beretta locked up the BYU game and held on to Air Force, Navy and Tulane. They got creative by adding Georgia Southern, where Todd Monken last coached, and The Citadel, which shares their military academy mindset.

At double-digit games, it was feeling like an actual schedule. Other programs could offer athletes the chance to come back and play another season. At Army, where redshirts aren’t allowed, that wasn’t an option.

“They finish their 47 months, they begin service to their country,” Buddie said. “Personally, I thought back to last year and the loss to Navy. The thought of that being the last taste of college football for this group of seniors was not something I wanted to embrace.”

Present day: Cautious optimism

Beretta laughs when he’s asked how he’s doing.

“It’s been a good day,” he said one afternoon last month. “We haven’t lost any games. That’s been my measuring stick the last few weeks.”

A few days earlier, on Aug. 24, Army announced its amended schedule. And two days after that, Cincinnati jumped on board after a phone call to the Bearcats AD John Cunningham led to a deal within 48 hours.

In the end, there were at least 200 versions of Army’s schedule. Beretta kept an intense, color-coded Word document to track the revisions. Buddie scribbled on his notepad and dry-erase board.

The phone calls between the two, which began every morning and capped off every night, have subsided for the time being.

The ink has barely dried, but the only hangup Buddie has is that BYU and Cincinnati — two perennially strong programs — appear in back-to-back weeks.

“It would have been great to put a little more separation between those two,” he said. “But if that’s my biggest complaint, then we did pretty well.”

With that said, if the coronavirus has taught us anything, it’s that all situations are fluid.

Beretta has spent the past few weeks looking at Major League Baseball and the adjustments it has had to make, whether that’s canceling games or entire series on the fly. He said he will spend the season constantly looking two weeks ahead to see who they’re playing and who else might be available in case a cancellation occurs.

He doesn’t think — “I totally expect,” he clarified — that the schedule the team has now won’t be the same when he looks back on it in December.

“We have to anticipate unforeseen events because you don’t know from which angle they’re going to come,” Buddie said. “We’re just hoping to steer this ship with the light at the tunnel being that game in Philadelphia on Dec. 12.”

Before Army and Navy get to that day, they will have both faced BYU, whose schedule currently sits at eight games. That word “currently” is an important one. As the only FBS team left standing west of the Mississippi for fall 2020, BYU isn’t likely done adding dates. At least it hopes it isn’t done.

Holmoe doesn’t plan on turning off his phone until the final week of fall games have been played. With nearly half of the college football world planning to play in winter and/or spring, perhaps not even then. Holmoe’s deep contact list and great reputation, paired with the seeming inevitability of pandemic-forced game cancellations and quarantined teams, means the pieces of the Cougars’ 2020 Jenga puzzle aren’t likely to ever stop moving.

“We’re ready to play whoever he puts in front of us,” says BYU offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes. “I know he’s working hard to put a great schedule in front of us. I’m just thankful that we’re in a position to play right now. We’re feeling very blessed and fortunate that we’ve got an opportunity, and what a great opportunity it is in the geographical landscape of things, that we’re in a position to play football this year. I’m ready.”

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