Getting Paid, but Paying The Price

Getting Paid, but Paying The Price

Playing guarantee games can be a bittersweet experience for Black college teams competing in NCAA Division I men’s basketball.These games are a godsend to smaller Division I schools looking for an avenue to fatten their athletic budgets. College basketball titans such as North Carolina, Stanford and a growing number of mid-level Division I programs pay a fee to play smaller schools at their home arena or a neutral site.
The money is good. Depending on the contract, these smaller schools can earn anywhere from $30,000 to $55,000 per game.
But there is a downside.
In many cases, Black colleges often find themselves hopelessly overmatched. As a result, they run the risk of suffering humiliating defeats.
“Getting the money is one thing,” says Thomas Trotter, coach at the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore. “But if you do too much of that (scheduling big-name opponents), you can schedule a coach out of a career.
“You might play a series of guarantee games and earn $250,000 or more. But you have to realize that the difference in talent level between teams is so great, that you really have no chance to win.”
Given the reality of losing by huge margins, why do Black colleges continue to play guarantee games? And more puzzling, how do they reconcile the need to earn money with the need for athletes to have a chance to be truly competitive?
“There are no easy answers,” says Floyd Kerr, Southern University athletics director. “It all depends on how you choose to build your program. Every school has its own formula that’s designed to fit its specific needs. We encourage our coaches to play games that will generate income to support the (athletics) program. But regardless of who you play, winning becomes an issue.
“For us, we might play one, two, or maybe three guarantee games. That’s all we feel like we want to handle. We don’t want to play five or six of those just for the money because it would be demoralizing. If you can help it, you don’t want your team to be 0-5 or 0-6 before you start conference play.”
Florida A&M coach Mickey Clayton feels there are some positive sides to playing guarantee games. But he cautions that in scheduling these games, coaches and athletic administrators should strive to achieve some balance between enhancing cash flow and helping athletes maintain their competitive spirit.
“You really have to paint it with a positive brush,” says Clayton, who guided the Rattlers to a berth in the 1998 NCAA tournament. “Those guarantee games against big-name programs give your team the chance to measure itself against the best in the nation.”
Clayton says his team does not dwell too long on the final outcome when FAMU plays prime-time opponents. To help his players maintain proper focus, he divides the season into three segments: the preseason (non-conference play in November/December includes the money games), conference regular season and the conference tournament.
“If we can win two of our three seasons, we feel like we’ve had a successful year,” Clayton says.

A Change on the Horizon?
Blowout losses have come to be expected when Black colleges play guarantee games, yet there are signs that things might be starting to change. During the regular season, Black schools tilted the odds more in their favor by scaling down and playing fewer guarantee games against teams ranked among the nation’s top 50.
For example: Hampton posted wins over Eastern Michigan, Western Michigan and Wisconsin-Green Bay, and held its own in losses to Wichita State and Kansas State. Mississippi Valley State defeated Drake and Southeast Missouri State and gave a good account of itself in losing to Creighton and the University of Oregon. South Carolina State beat Western Carolina and Tennessee Tech, and turned in respectable performances despite defeats by Vanderbilt, South Carolina and Wake Forest.
“You have to be smart about scheduling,” says Chuck Prophet, Mississippi Valley State athletics director. “We’d be crazy to go to Duke and take a really bad beating for a lot of money.
“We’ll still play some of the major schools, but now we also play teams who are closer to us in talent level. That way, we still get a fair amount of income to play and we have a chance to not only be competitive, but to win.”
Aside from the dollar factor, Black colleges have become more active in playing guarantee games because of the NCAA’s emphasis on strength of schedule. The Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) is a key tool used for determining team seeding for the NCAA tournament.
The index measures strength of schedule and how teams fare against their opposition (Division I teams only). It does not consider margin of victory or where a game is played — only wins are counted. Teams are rated individually and by conference. The lower a team’s rating, the less chance it has of avoiding being selected as the lowest seed in a 16-team region.
Historically, the RPI has not been kind to the nation’s two Division I Black college leagues — the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) and the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC). That’s the chief reason why tournament champions from those leagues usually wind up as the lowest seeded teams in their assigned regions.
Since 1981, the first-year Black college men’s teams competed in the NCAA tournament, only Coppin State and Southern have advanced past the first round. Coppin, seeded 15th in its 1997 regional, upset South Carolina in the opening round. Four years earlier, Southern, the No. 13 seed, stunned fourth-seeded Georgia Tech in the first round.
Being the lowest seed in an NCAA tournament is a curse. As the bottom seed, you always play the No. 1 seed in the first round. For Black schools, it means always facing a powerhouse ranked among the nation’s top four.
In an effort to move up the RPI ladder and improve power rankings, Black college teams have beefed up their schedules, hoping to enhance their seeding if they make it to the NCAA tournament.
This year, however, RPI takes on added significance with the expansion of the NCAA tournament to 65 teams. Under the new format, the tournament champions from the two lowest rated conferences will be pitted against each other in a play-in game scheduled for three days before the start of the NCAA’s first round regional in Dayton, Ohio.
Because of low power ratings in past seasons, the MEAC and SWAC tournament champs are likely candidates for the play-in, which means that only one Black college team will compete in this year’s NCAA tournament. To avoid that scenario, whoever wins the MEAC and SWAC tournaments will have to post a high enough RPI to keep from being slotted as the two lowest-rated teams in the tournament.
“The change in this year’s NCAA tournament could be bad for historically Black colleges,” Prophet says. “Usually, neither the SWAC or the MEAC rate high enough in the power rankings to not be in that play-in. We need to find a way to nip this in the bud somehow.” 



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