On Saturday morning, Ryan Dorchester’s weekend really got spicy.
Like most of those within the Houston football program, he was supposed to be off that day. The Cougars held a mock game Friday night in preparation for their season opener the following weekend at Memphis. But trouble brewed. Rumblings of a COVID-19 outbreak on the Memphis football team had made their way to Houston as early as Wednesday.
Around 11 a.m. Saturday, Dorchester got the call. The game against Memphis would not be played, but a new game has been scheduled: a road game, at Baylor, in seven days.
Usually allotted as many as seven months to arrange travel to a game, Dorchester, UH’s director of football operations and logistical wizard, had seven days—until kickoff. And so, on Saturday just before lunch, he sprung into action, turning first to his computer.
“I typed into Google,” Dorchester says, “‘How do you get to Waco?’”
The unscripted game between the Bears and the Cougars, scheduled for noon ET Saturday on Fox, is believed to be the first of its kind in the modern history of college football. While that’s difficult to prove, Dorchester is rolling with it.
“It’s pretty cool. No major college game has been organized that quickly,” he says. “The whole thing is historical.”
Historical, incredible, unbelievable. Pick an adjective. College football games are normally scheduled five to 10 years in advance. Administrators at Houston and Baylor secured this one in about 18 hours—and just a week ahead of the kickoff.
The negotiation timeline started last Friday afternoon and finished, at least unofficially, around late morning Saturday. The two athletic directors, Mack Rhoades at Baylor and Chris Pezman at Houston, created and signed a game term sheet in roughly two hours—something that can normally take weeks. Baylor will pay Houston $200,000 for Saturday’s game—roughly one-quarter of which will be spent on travel to Waco—and the programs also agreed to a future home-and-home to be played before 2030.
Meanwhile, the coaching staffs sprung into scouting mode, spending the weekend poring over film of an opponent they were scheduled to play in seven days. Some analysts and graduate assistants slept in their offices as they crafted scouting reports on a third different scheduled season-opening opponent. “It was crazy,” says Baylor coach Dave Aranda.
Administrators and coaches from each program spoke to Sports Illustrated about the wild 18 hours that brought together two programs separated by just 190 miles for a nationally televised season opener that wasn’t even being discussed eight days before it eventually kicked off.
“Friday night I fell asleep on the couch at 12:30 a.m. and I woke up at 3 a.m. and my mind was racing,” says Pezman, in his third year at UH. “Fell back to sleep at 5 and woke up at 7. All day Saturday, it was non-stop until we signed a term sheet. It was almost like a coaching search.”
This was all a product of playing college football in a COVID-19 world.
Baylor was originally scheduled to open its season against Louisiana Tech last weekend, but a virus outbreak on Tech’s team resulted in a cancellation. With a scheduled off date this weekend, Rhoades worked for more than a week in an attempt to land an opponent to prep the Bears before conference play began against Kansas on Sept. 26. He entered at least brief discussions with five college programs. All of them turned him down. In what he calls a “hail mary,” Rhoades called Pezman on Friday afternoon after reports of Memphis’s issues surfaced on social media.
“We had truthfully run out of options,” Rhoades says. “This was our last chance, our last hope.”
The dilemma that Rhoades faced, while somewhat new to college football, will be old by the time the season is complete. In fact, since Aug. 26, at least a dozen games have been postponed because of COVID-19 outbreaks. Multiple athletic directors are searching for replacement games this week, some of them even taking their desire public. Army was left without a game this weekend after COVID issues forced BYU to back out. Army AD Mike Buddie posted a message to his Twitter account Sunday seeking an opponent.
“Undefeated, COVID negative college football team from NY looking for like minded, disciplined team for a date next Saturday... must also be COVID negative! Twitter, do your thing!” the tweet said.
As of Wednesday, Army hadn’t found an opponent.
“This year, if you have a team that can play, go play,” Pezman says. “You don’t know when everything can turn for you or the team you’re supposed to play.”
That’s why Pezman jumped at the offer last week from Baylor. Houston officials feared a cancellation from Memphis because of COVID issues. But as of midday Friday, they still planned to travel to Tennessee for the game. Then Rhoades called.
Rhoades has deep ties to Houston. He was the athletic director there from 2009 to 2015. While in that role, he helped convince Pezman to leave the private sector and join the college athletics industry as UH’s director of football operations in 2011. “If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be in this chair,” Pezman says.
Rhoades’s offer for a potential game presented a couple of issues, though. First, Houston’s game with Memphis had not yet been canceled. Second, Pezman thought his own coach, Dana Holgorsen, wouldn’t agree to play a Big 12 opponent on the road with a week to prepare.
Is Dana going to really want to play Baylor?
A lot had to align for this deal to happen so quickly—historically quickly.
Baylor and Houston were in somewhat similar situations. Each had practiced for roughly six weeks, had endured an early-summer COVID spike and then had leveled off as a team. While they were fairly healthy, each had lost its second scheduled season-opening opponent to virus outbreaks. Their campuses were separated by a three-hour drive, their athletic directors were old pals, and their players were itching to play an actual game.
During a Friday night mock game, and as Memphis reports surfaced on social media, Houston players approached Holgorsen.
“The guys are looking at me, ‘What are we going to do?’” he says. “I just tell them, ‘Got to stay ready.’ Our guys are ready to play. We’ve been rolling for eight weeks. It’s Year 2 (under Holgorsen). We had nine spring practices.”
Is Dana going to really want to play Baylor? Pezman got an answer that night.
After the mock game, Holgorsen called his boss. “If you can make it happen, we’re in,” he told him.
“I wasn’t expecting that answer,” Pezman laughs. “I hit Mack up that night. It was exciting. You’re trying to figure out how to make a game go.”
Confidence was so high that Holgorsen called his three analysts on staff that Friday night with a message: Get your butts in the office and start breaking down film of UH’s impending new opponent. “We were off Saturday,” Holgorsen chuckles, “but the analysts weren’t.”
Holgorsen does not spend his offseason conducting advanced scouting on early-season opponents like many coaches. For instance, the staff had done hardly any work on its original season-opening opponent, Rice.
Why does he take this approach?
“There’s only so much room in this head,” he answers, a self-depreciating gesture. “If you give coaches a lot of time, they’re probably going to overdue it.”
However, the Cougars did begin scouting Memphis. Holgorsen hopes those reports aren’t wasted and that the schools can reschedule the game at some point this year.
For Baylor, the deep scouting that the staff did of Louisiana Tech is, in all likelihood, wasted. The Big 12 is only permitting one nonconference game this year. But that’s not the half of it. During quarantine in March and April, Baylor’s staff began to scout its early-season opponents, including a deep exploration of Ole Miss, its original season opener.
“This is our third different season opener to scout,” Aranda says.
In the first year of his first head coaching job, Aranda woke up Saturday feeling confident. He knew that Rhoades, despite valiant efforts, had gone 0 for 5 in attempts to find an opponent. But he had a hunch that No. 6 would work out.
He was optimistic enough that Aranda changed a planned Saturday scrimmage to a normal practice, an attempt to “tread lightly” before what he hoped would be a game the next week with the Cougars. Baylor was supposed to be off Sunday and Monday under its original schedule. That changed too.
“We thought this might be some chilling time and relaxing time this weekend,” Aranda says. “We call what Saturday was the old bait and switch.”
A verbal agreement Friday night turned into a written arrangement on Saturday. A term sheet was finalized by 2 p.m. But, oh, there was a problem. The Memphis game still hadn’t been officially canceled. The Tigers were conducting weekend testing with an outside shot—if all tests were negative—that they could still host Houston. Results were expected back by Sunday or Monday.
Baylor couldn’t wait until then. “In fairness to both teams and the coaching staffs,” Rhoades says, “we needed the cancellation on that Saturday.”
Says Pezman: “At that point, Memphis was still out there to play. I kind of sensed that if we proposed getting out of the game, it would be O.K. with them.”
At 6:03 p.m. ET on Saturday, the American Athletic Conference announced that Houston-Memphis was, indeed, canceled.
Six hours before that, Dorchester opened Google.
How do you get to Waco?
A 34-year-old originally from Ohio, Dorchester quickly learned that Waco was just 190 miles to his northwest. A relief. A bus trip.
“Check,” he says. “One thing down.”
It was the first step in what would be a furious two days of hurried logistical arrangements.
Of all the people burdened by this impromptu matchup, Dorchester carried maybe the heaviest load, along with his two-person staff of Grace Muscarello and Joe Alcoser. It’s their job to book road trips for Houston’s 150-member football family. Usually this process begins when schedules are released in spring, allowing seven months to conduct hotel bidding wars, arrange transportation, order team meals and develop an itinerary. This time, they had seven days until kickoff.
By Monday evening, the trip was finalized. The team is staying on Friday night at a College Station Hilton property because of a lack of adequate hotel space in Waco, Dorchester says. As for transportation, UH got five of the six buses it requested (they'll make it work), and the food has been ordered, too, but it will come with an upcharge for quick delivery.
“In the COVID world, things are going to change,” Dorchester says. “Times may get moved. People may be inserted in and out of the lineup. Games will be canceled. If you’re resistant to change, you’re going to struggle mightily in this COVID world.”
On a night he originally planned to be off—maybe spending time with his three kids, maybe watching the first full Saturday of college football games—Aranda found himself buried in his computer watching film of Houston’s 2019 season.
In a single sitting that night, he watched eight of UH’s 12 games from his home. Back at the office, a combination of 12 graduate assistants and analysts dissected the Cougars’ games. Baylor employs a lead analyst for each of the three units—defense, offense and special teams—and they each oversee an army of two to four graduate assistants and analysts. They input single-play data from the film to a spreadsheet-type database with an assortment of categories: personnel, formation, play side, play type, down and distance, etc. These are then compiled in an organized and neat way for on-field coaches.
Usually, advanced scouting on a season-opening opponent is at least a 10-day process that normally unfolds in the summer. Baylor’s staff conducted this version over a two-day stretch a week before kickoff. Several graduate assistants and analysts didn’t leave the building all weekend. “They slept here,” Aranda says in a phone interview Monday from his office. They ate there, too. “There are a lot of Chipotle wrappers all over the office.”
Normally, a season opener is somewhat of a schematic crapshoot anyhow, Aranda says. “You’re hoping you’ll just get in the ballpark.”
Holgorsen, meanwhile, is preparing in a week’s time for a program with a new head coach, new defensive coordinator and new offensive coordinator. And doing it with about one-quarter of the number of analysts. He shrugs it off.
“I know who’s on his staff and I know where they’ve been and through the grapevine, I know what they’re doing,” he says. “But what about them? They don’t know what I’ve been up to for the six, eight months here.”
The chess match is on.
The game is on, too, and that’s somewhat of a miracle in itself, compared to the normal scheduling philosophy. According to a database on fbschedules.com, the latest game scheduled in college football is nearly two decades away. Virginia Tech is set to play at Ole Miss in September 2037.
After the experience of last weekend, Pezman wonders aloud if that process is foolish.
“It should be like this. We don’t need to do this stuff 10 years out,” he says. “So much changes. You fire coaches. Might have a freshman QB. Bring new people in. Everything changes. We can be more nimble with scheduling. This is a lesson we can take from this. This season is going to be like this. Gotta be nimble on your toes.”
You don’t have to tell that to Dorchester, who now knows just how long it takes to drive from Houston to Waco.
“Three hours,” he chuckles.