Big Blue Nation, it’s time we learn and come to grips with the fact that we are not a traditional program. We haven’t been one for the last three years, and going forward, this will continue to be a nontraditional program.
The 25-year-old model doesn’t work anymore. It is done and blown up. We are going by our own model now: the gold standard. Everyone has to accept that.
We are going through things that no other program in the history of college basketball has gone through. No other program is losing five or six players a year. We are facing issues and having to make decisions with the thought of what’s next and where are we going, which includes our schedule.
When we schedule, there are three factors my staff and our administration must take into consideration: (1) preparing our players for the postseason, (2) our fans and (3) the financial component.
1. Preparing our players for the postseason
When we talk about preparing our players, we have to think in terms of protecting our players because no one has gone through what we’ve been through the last three years.
This is a players-first program, and you cannot put a young team into situations that is not fair to the players. In a traditional program, you can sign an eight-year deal because you may have the same team for three or four years and have an idea of what your roster will be. However, this is not traditional.
We will no longer have multiple contracts of longer than two years. Because of our roster turnover, it makes it difficult to lock ourselves into five home-and-home series. If we need to replace a team for a year or two, we will have the option to do that to protect our program. If eight guys leave and go in the first round, and we’re not the type of team that can play a ridiculously hard schedule, then we shouldn’t be locked into contracts we can’t adjust.
If the rule changes and we know we’re going to have the same team for three years, it changes how you schedule, but that’s not the case right now. We need the flexibility.
With our nontraditional approach, we are using the entire season to prepare us to compete for national titles. It’s not just about winning as many games as we can win or playing as many home games as we can play. There are no road games in the NCAA Tournament. You are in a neutral venue, hopefully with more of our fans than anybody else, and they’re in big buildings. Why not prepare for that?
Part of that means you’ve got to play in big arenas, you’ve got to play in football stadiums; you’ve got to do something to get them ready for a Sweet 16 or a Final Four. A lot of teams do not have that opportunity. We do, and we need to take advantage of it.
2. Our fans
In the past, we’ve always tried to have two non-guarantee nonconference home games added to our league schedule of eight home games. Now our league has added a ninth league home game, so we’re going to have at least one marquee nonconference game at home in addition to at least one on the road. Those will be TV games and be big games for us.
Whether the game is played at Rupp Arena or at a neutral site, you’ll be watching us against the best programs in the country. The traditions of North Carolina, Louisville and Indiana can continue, but a couple of them may have to be at neutral sites.
It’s either we do that or we over-schedule and put our players at risk. Right now we’re locked into Louisville for a few more years, so that’s one of them. Where is the other one? We’re trying to walk through that now to see who it is and what we do.
In doing so, we want the fan experience in those games to be like it was in Rupp Arena last year against North Carolina, where North Carolina’s fans walked away and said, “Wow, that was a respectful group,” and “Wow, that was great.” That’s what we’re looking for. Why eliminate the opportunity to add a new home-and-home series to our schedule every two years?
The good news is it benefits our donors as well as our fans that cannot get into Rupp Arena. For our K Fund donors, you will still have the best tickets and the best seats. For our season ticket holders at Rupp Arena, they will have the first opportunity to purchase tickets at the neutral sites. We will always have a minimum of 10 non-guarantee games with nine of those in Southeastern Conference play and at least one from our two home-and-home series. There will be times we have more, but never less, and our goal is to always have 19-20 home games for our season ticket holders even with the neutral site games.
More importantly, for the people who can’t afford to get into Rupp Arena or don’t have the opportunity to buy those tickets, they will now have an opportunity to buy all the extra tickets. Instead of 20,000 at home, we bring 40,000 on the road.
3. The financial component
There is certainly a financial component to all of this.
Our program, along with football, funds the other scholarships for all the other student-athletes on this campus. We are doing well throughout our athletics program, but we’ve got to remember that funding is important to every sport.
If we see an opportunity to generate more revenue for our program, we have to take it into consideration. If a neutral site game brings back more dollars for our student-athletes to succeed – whether it’s softball, swimming, tennis or gymnastics – we’ve got to explore that option.
We cannot underestimate that the financial component is a part of it, but it is by no means an overriding part.
As we move forward in the coming weeks, we will let you know what our schedule looks like and who our upcoming opponents are. I think you’re going to be excited about it, but remember, we are a nontraditional program, so start thinking nontraditionally.
When you talk about our schedule versus other programs, let’s take a look at the major conference programs we play like Duke, Indiana, Kansas, Louisville and North Carolina. Who are the ranked non-conference opponents that they played that were not in a made-for-TV challenge or tournament? Tell me who they played.
Many of you argued with me two years ago when I said our five guys going in the first round of the NBA Draft was one of the biggest days, if not the biggest day in the history of our program. When you look back on it, those guys were miserable they didn’t win the national title. Ask any of those guys if they didn’t want to win the national championship in the worst way. They all wanted to win it. But by five of them being drafted, what it did to transform us into a truly nontraditional program, led us to this national title. Now I’m telling you we have to reevaluate our schedule to make sure we’re worried about our program and preparing us for that tournament that really matters. Believe me when I tell you, Big Blue Nation, we’re scheduling to maintain what’s in the best interests of our players and our program.
How can anybody say that I want to back away from challenges? When I was at UMass, I saw what John Chaney and Temple were doing and adopted the motto “any team, any place, any time.” My last year at UMass, we played 10 home games and 27 games away from home, and I carried that over to Memphis.
What, have I changed over the years? Do I get nervous in big games? Come on, it has nothing to do with that. I’ll play teams on I-64. We’ll close it down. I’m good with that. But this program is not traditional. This program is in a position right now that we must protect as we march forward to try to grow it to another level.
For all the Big Blue Nation, please do not listen to someone who has never coached or listen to media who are agenda driven for another program. That includes fans from other programs. Don’t listen to those people and have them affect how we think, because they have no effect whatsoever on how I think.
We’re in this together and we will always keep the Big Blue Nation’s thoughts in mind, but I have to protect this program and these players. We’re not traditional and we’ve got to think differently than everyone else.