Mississippi Valley State coach Sean Woods doesn't need to peruse other schedules to know his Delta Devils have the nation's toughest.
They open the season at Georgia on Nov. 12. They later visit national powers Kentucky, Butler, BYU and Marquette. By the time they begin league play in the SWAC at Arkansas-Pine Bluff on Jan. 4, they'll have played 13 straight road games, traveled about 12,600 miles and faced eight teams projected to at least contend for an NCAA tournament bid next season.
Why would a coach whose program has lost 48 games the past two seasons construct a nonconference schedule so difficult his overmatched team would be lucky to win more than once or twice before league play? The answer is simple: Cash-strapped Mississippi Valley State will receive a total of almost $700,000 in appearance fees from its opponents in return for providing each of them near-certain home victories.
"It's tough on the kids to go to most of the toughest places in the country to play, but I know what we need to survive as a program," Woods said. "I've got to bring in a certain amount for the university and then I need a certain amount to get my program through the year. In order to do both, I've got to do a schedule like the one I put together."
Mississippi Valley State certainly isn't the only lower-tier program that endures a few demoralizing losses each year in return for a financial windfall, but a severe budget crunch has forced the Delta Devils to schedule more of these guarantee games than most of their peers. The recession has hit the state so hard that the governor proposed merging Mississippi's three historically black colleges last year, though it appears nothing that drastic will happen anytime soon.
Even among small-budget in-state programs, Mississippi Valley State's athletic budget is more analogous to Division II Delta State than it is to SWAC rivals Alcorn State or Jackson State, the Jackson Clarion-Ledger reports. It's bad enough that the floor in Mississippi Valley State's basketball gym was seriously damaged as a result of a leak in the roof, yet the school may not be able to scrounge up the funds to fix the roof and replace the floor in time for the start of basketball practice Oct. 15.
Though dropping to Division II would surely ease the financial strain on the school, interim athletic director Donald Sims remains adamant the school can generate the private funding necessary to remain competitive at the top level. Sims has reduced the number of complimentary tickets available to games and ramped up marketing and fundraising efforts. As a result, last year, the school raised the most money from its alumni in his three-year tenure.
"The only thing that can help us is for our friends, alumni and supporters buy into what it would take for us to have a strong Division I program," Sims said. "There are people who are interested in improving our condition here. We just need more people to buy into what we're trying to do. We need all the help we can get to offset what we don't get from the state of Mississippi."
Until the economy improves and revenue from ticket sales and alumni donations skyrockets, a basketball schedule jam-packed with guarantee games will be a fact of life for Mississippi Valley State. Men's basketball and football are typically the primary sources of income for college athletic departments, so schools rely on those teams and the guaranteed money they bring in to help fund other non-revenue sports.
Typically, two non-league teams will agree to exchange visits to each other's home arenas in consecutive years, but in a guarantee game the weaker team accepts a payout to forgo its home game. The roughly $50,000 to $100,000 price tag is rarely a deterrent for bigger programs since it's offset by a near-certain victory and hundreds of thousands of dollars in ticket and concessions revenue.
Woods said school officials told him he needed to generate between $400,000 and $500,000 from guarantee games next season in order to keep the school's athletic department out of debt. Since Woods managed to finagle almost $700,000, he can earmark the remaining money toward his own program's recruiting budget, operating costs or travel accommodations.
The downside of raising the money it takes to stay afloat is the mental toll playing so many guarantee games puts on Mississippi Valley State's players.
The Delta Devils haven't beaten a Division I opponent out of conference since Dec. 2006. They've gone just 3-34 in nonconference games the past three seasons, a record that is unlikely to improve substantially next season considering the caliber of opponents on the schedule and the fact that Mississippi Valley State doesn't have a single nonconference game at home.
"We're going to prepare to win every night like we would any other game, but sometimes reality sets in," Woods said. "North Carolina wouldn't get out of this schedule unscathed, Duke wouldn't get out of this schedule unscathed, Kentucky wouldn't get out of this schedule unscathed. It's probably the toughest schedule in the country."
Woods certainly wasn't ignorant to the financial realities of his job when he left his assistant coaching gig at Texas Christian to come to Mississippi Valley State in 2008, but he admits the annual barrage of early season losses has been an adjustment. As a former Kentucky star who scored the basket before Christian Laettner's famous buzzer-beater in the 1992 Elite Eight, Woods was far more accustomed to piling up wins than losses in November and December.
Sensing that his team wasn't gaining anything during his first season from its string of early blowout losses, Woods altered his strategy to focus less on the scoreboard in these games and more on improving in one particular area. He has also preached to recruits that Mississippi Valley State annually gives its players the chance to play in some of the most famous arenas in the nation and compete against college basketball's best.
Amazingly enough, Woods' recruiting strategy seems to be effective so far. His team improved from 7-11 in the SWAC his first season to 8-10 last year and he landed perhaps the conference's best recruiting class this season, one ranked as high as 85th in the nation by HoopScoop.
Mississippi Valley State still probably won't be strong enough to be competitive in most of its guarantee games, but the Delta Devils haven't given up hope of springing an upset or two. After all, there's no better feeling for a lower-tier program than beating an opponent who's paying you to be there.
"That's what you dream and hope for in this situation," Woods said. "Until we can generate more funds in our athletic department from other sports, basketball has to be the moneymaker. It's tough, but we just have to deal with it."
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