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Lyons learns scheduling lessons from COVID-19

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Recent events have changed the thought process for many in college athletics.

Certainly, the potential conference realignment could alter numerous facets of college sports, including scheduling.

Even before Texas and Oklahoma began sneaking behind the bleachers with the SEC, though, the global pandemic already was forcing many athletic directors to take a deep examination into how they scheduled for their athletic teams.

That included West Virginia’s director of athletics, Shane Lyons.

In an exclusive interview with the Blue & Gold News this summer, prior to the surprising news about the potential departure of the Longhorns and Sooners from the Big 12, Lyons was already thinking about changes to the schedules for his teams.

“You have to keep in mind what we learned from COVID. We don’t necessarily have to go back to the way things were just because that’s the way we used to do it,” explained the WVU A.D.

“I’ve challenged our coaches, especially in our Olympic sports, on whether there is a need to travel X amount for non-conference contests,” he continued. “We do enough travel the way it is for conference games, so why can’t we get closer bus trips in Olympic sports for the non-conference? Why can’t we do that?”

He ponders the same for the Mountaineer football and men’s basketball programs.

“We can ask that same question of our revenue sports,” he said. “My model for football is to get drivable non-conference games. We can play the Marylands, the Pitts, the Penn States and the Virginia Techs. We can even expand out to Ohio State and those types of places.

“Every time you get on a plane, it costs you more money. Is the competition changing by traveling further, being on a plane for a couple hours rather than being on a bus for a couple hours?

“I can make the argument that if you look within a four- or five-hour bus ride of Morgantown, you can find a lot of great institutions and a lot of great competition,” he added.

While college football schedules pivoted quickly last fall, typically those slates are made years in advance. But most other sports have schedules that are more year-to-year, and thus some of that changing philosophy can be implemented relatively quickly.

For instance, in the pre-COVID seasons of 2017-19, West Virginia’s women’s volleyball team had non-conference matches in San Diego, Hawaii, Provo, Fort Myers and Minneapolis. This year the non-conference road trips for Reed Sunahara program are all bus rides – Norfolk, Annapolis and Buffalo.

Scheduling for WVU men’s soccer is also adjusting. From 2014-19, that program traveled to non-conference matches in Orlando, Santa Clara, Albuquerque and Charleston, South Carolina. This coming season, the longest non-conference trip for Dan Stratford’s squad is Lexington, Kentucky with three other non-MAC matches in Pennsylvania and one to Huntington, West Virginia.

“That’s what I mean when I talk about being smarter as we’re coming out of (COVID),” noted Lyons. “We have to be smarter moving forward. We have to look at some non-conference games that are a little closer. Now there are some times in some sports where you may want to travel to certain areas. It’s not to say we’re never going to travel. It’s just a matter of do you need three long trips compared to maybe one or two? That’s what we have to look at.”

As for West Virginia’s future football schedules, there are about to be a couple major shifts there as well.

The Mountaineers are embarking on a five-year stretch in which they will play old rivals on a consistent basis. Starting this season, WVU faces a string of historic foes – Maryland (2021), Virginia Tech (2021-22), Pitt (2022-25) and Penn State (2023-24).

“We’ve been in discussions about renewing some of those contracts, but I don’t want to go out further than about 10 years,” said Lyons, who also has scheduled a home-and-home with Alabama (2026-27).

“We’ve scheduled out to ‘28 with the latest being the game in Charlotte against Tennessee,” he continued. “There are discussions about what we’re going to do after the next three or four years. Are we going to renew some of the old rivals we currently have scheduled, or do we try to get some others we haven’t played in years – Virginia, Kentucky and others like that? We looked at extending Virginia Tech, but they are scheduled out to like 2038.”

West Virginia, Purdue, Colorado and Stanford are the only college football programs who play at least 11 games against other Power 5 opponents in 2021 – Stanford actually plays 12. That’s been the way the Mountaineers have scheduled the past couple of non-COVID seasons, and they are slated to continue with the 11 P5s until 2024. But at that point, Lyons says he plans to adjust WVU’s non-conference football schedule.

“When I first took this job (in 2015), my predecessor (Oliver Luck) and I were on the same page in that we both thought we needed a tougher schedule to be considered (for a spot in the four-team playoff). We didn’t want to be left out because of strength of schedule, so that’s where the idea came from of playing 11 games against other Power 5 institutions. We wanted to be in the mix of the (four-team) playoff discussions,” noted Lyons. “The likelihood that college football is moving to a 12-team playoff, though, has changed my thought process a little bit. I still believe that with nine conference games, we will want to play one other Power 5 institution, but I think we can also play a Group of 5 opponent as well as an FCS program. That will be my (non-conference) scheduling philosophy for the future – a Power 5, a Group of 5 and an FCS.

“Our schedules are filled for a while, so ‘25 is when I can start to put that into play,” he explained of the change in his football schedule philosophy. “We’ll have 11 Power 5s on there until then.”

Putting together a college football schedule is always a delicate process. WVU doesn’t schedule as far out as some teams, but still it does so well into the future; the Mountaineers don’t currently show any openings in their football schedule until 2025. Then 2026 is full with further openings coming in 2027 and beyond. On top of corresponding openings, West Virginia also wants to get the right non-conference opponent, according to Lyons’ scheduling philosophy, which moving forward will mean one non-conference Power 5 foe, one Group of 5 opponent and one from the FCS level.

“It’s not as easy as many think, where you just make a phone call and get a game scheduled,” explained Lyons. “They each have their own schedules, so it can be a little like putting a jigsaw puzzle together. What dates work for you, and what dates work for them? Sometimes it matches up, and sometimes it doesn’t. That’s why I like to look 10, 12 years out max. Then I give it a couple of years, and then go back and try to figure out what things look like at that time.”

Certainly, circumstances do cause many changes to scheduling philosophies … and even more changes could be coming down the road.

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