Big 12 scheduling is more art than science

Posted Sunday, Jul. 24, 2011  comments  Print Reprints
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For Big 12 scheduling guru Tim Allen, a breakthrough is welcomed after poring over hundreds of possibilities over many weeks.

A breath of fresh air, however, is altogether another deal.

In the early days while awaiting construction of penthouse office space atop the Anatole Hotel in Dallas, conference officials were housed in makeshift facilities elsewhere in the building.

"We were basically in a large broom closet," the league's senior associate commissioner recalled.

For scheduling purposes, Allen appropriated space in what he describes as a "dark, dank, cold projection room" where he organized his work materials. In addition to computer projections, Allen worked with 132 small slips of paper (for 11-game schedules) designating each of the 12 teams. These he would move from slot to slot, attempting to formulate his own schedule possibilities according to subjective -- thus unprogrammable factors -- to supplement the computerized offerings.

"The staff joked that they would throw me in something to eat every once in a while," Allen said. "But the hard part was when somebody would open the door just to stop by and say 'Hi,' and little slips of paper would fly up into the air.

"Finally, I had to say, 'Guys, just stay out.'"

Allen now works in more breeze-secure facilities in the conference's new office building in Las Colinas, but he still uses those little slips of paper, as he did last summer when he organized the 2011 football schedule under the new 10-team format. He's at it again as he, associate commissioner for basketball John Underwood and assistant commissioner Dayna Scherf try to come up with feasible men's and women's basketball schedules, due out sometime around the first of August.

"Scheduling is more art than science, though it's based on mathematical science," Allen said. "When it's done by computer, it's like checkers. When it's done by hand, it's more like chess -- because you're more methodical and you weigh more things.

"But scheduling is like officiating -- you don't ever want to be seen."

Underwood estimated that in the preliminary days, the computer might spit out more than 2,000 possible schedules that might work -- on a spreadsheet.

"Your eyes start rolling," Underwood said. "But the more you do it, the easier it is to spot conflicts [and throw them out]."

Math problem

Allen first came up with the idea of supplementing the human factor with computers about 15 years ago. To his surprise, the first few computer-science people he contacted told him it could not be done.

Dr. Tim Van Voorhis, then a mathematics professor at Iowa State, came to the rescue after reading in an academic journal about a similar dilemma and solution experienced in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Van Voorhis readily understood the situation. He called Allen, now a part of the new Big 12. Van Voorhis patiently explained that the reason the computer guys didn't get it was because this was not a computer problem; it was a complicated but basic math problem.

Now professor of mathematics in operations research/management science at Liberty University, Van Voorhis explained: "Scheduling is basically trying to satisfy a bunch of requirements that are either equations or inequalities. For example, the number of home [football] weekends is greater than the equal number of four and less than the equal number of five. So, you just put that into the program."

Suffice that Van Voorhis gets it, and his programs work.

Complications

This year's football schedule was complicated, Allen said, because of the new 10-team format and how it affected home-and-home. As a result, six teams this fall will play a certain game "away" for a second consecutive year.

But working with conference athletic directors through that dilemma -- as well as others, such as making sure that a North team makes two trips into Texas for recruiting exposure, and no more than twice a season for expense reasons -- was in his opinion "the best experience I've ever had in scheduling," because of the collective cooperation.

Other problems solved included separating opponents for both competitive and gate reasons.

Allen's policy is to try to separate Texas and Oklahoma on everyone's schedule. But he found that athletic directors were also interested in other separations.

Texas Tech, for instance, was concerned that it not play Texas A&M and Texas at home in the same season. OU wanted to separate Oklahoma State and the Aggies. Kansas State wanted to separate Kansas and Missouri.

You get the picture. Throw in the TV games and juggling those times with some consideration for fans, and you see how various factors complicate the big picture.

"We joke that because of TV," Allen said, "I've probably ruined more homecoming games than [Bluto's fraternity] in Animal House."

Basketball parameters

And then there's juxtaposing men's and women's basketball schedules -- a completely different animal that is boggling to the human brain and computer hard drive.

The degree of difficulty starts at the beginning with hard and soft parameters.

A few hard ones:

Two of the first and last four conference games must be at home.

No team will play more than two consecutive conference road games.

A Big Monday road game will be preceded by a Saturday home game.

At least three games (or 10 days) will separate rematches.

And then there are the so-called soft parameters that include, among others, an attempt to factor in the number of times a team plays at home while students are on semester break, the number of times a team faces another team coming off a bye -- and so on.

Mix in the building conflicts between men's and women's dates. That dilemma is eased somewhat by the flexibility of moving Wednesday games for the men to Tuesday, which is a TV window, and moving women's games from Saturday to Sunday.

Scherf, along with senior associate commissioner Dru Hancock, in many ways has the hardest job of all sorting out the women's schedule.

"We do kind of start with our hands tied a little because we have to wait until the men's schedule is complete," Scherf said. "Also, we don't know our TV windows, which is another constraint.

"I've been doing this for 10 years, so I have picked up the nuances. It's all one huge domino effect. Sometimes I wonder, did I go to school for this? I did well in math, but this is a whole new deal."

So, complain if you wish about how your school gets a bad deal, but be prepared to come up with a better idea when you whine -- though your idea likely has already been considered. The Big 12 office is open to suggestions.

"I have never had a conversation with a coach or an administrator where I haven't learned something new," Allen said.

Bet on that.

Mike Jones, 817-390-7760

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