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September 27, 2013
The schedule maker
CHAMPAIGN -Jason Lener is one of many Division of Intercollegiate Athletics employees with a long title. He's officially known as the Illinois executive senior associate athletics director.
But a more apt title for Lener would be athletic director "Mike Thomas' right hand man." He also could be referred to as "the schedule maker" for football.
While Lener takes input from football coach Tim Beckman and the decision ultimately relies with Thomas, Lener is primarily responsible for piecing together the scheduling matrix.
"It's a challenging and puzzling process, but when it all comes together, it's fun to get the word out and announce it," Lener said. "We've been busy lately."
On Thursday, Illinois announced the completion of the football schedules through 2017, highlighted by a home-and-home series with North Carolina in 2015 (at Chapel Hill, N.C.) and 2016 (at Champaign).
For Lener, it was an unveiling of months of hard work.
Usually, scheduling starts with the browsing of an online database of schedules managed by ESPN.
"It actually is one-stop shopping that you can go out there and look at various years, various teams, various divisions of schools and see what's out there," Lener said. "It's not always 100 percent accurate because there are a lot of things sometimes that are in the works, but you go out there and have at least an idea of what you're looking for."
Then, Lener reaches out to attractive opponents. For the North Carolina contract, Illinois reached out to a familiar name: former UI associate athletic director Vince Ille, who serves the same role at UNC.
Then, the two schools hammer out the details. For the North Carolina series, Illinois had to move up two previously scheduled games, against Kent State and Western Illinois, a week to accommodate UNC.
"When you're going through these scheduling things and you're trying to piece things together, there's just so many twists and turns.
"We thought it was a great opponent for us and a great opponent for our fans and our team. We had to move some things around to make it work, but it came to fruition and we're really excited about the series."
Illinois fans should feel satisfied with Lener's work. He has created an exciting-enough yet untreacherous future nonconference path that gives Illinois football the opportunity to sustain success.
Competitive but winnable BCS opponents
Wouldn't it be cool if Illinois scheduled a series with Alabama, Florida, Stanford or Oklahoma?
Yeah, that's not happening. For one, those schools probably would have no interest in traveling to Champaign (Alabama did just cancel a future trip to Michigan State).
But Lener also has to balance marketability of games with the winnability of those games.
"Those are two components that you have to take into consideration," Lener said. "Some of the scheduling is done so far in advance that you really don't know where in fact your team's going to be, where those teams are going to be, but you want to schedule games that are going to be competitive for your team that obviously you have the chance to have success in. But you also want to put together series that your fans are going to enjoy, a home series with whoever it may be and also a road trip for the fans as well. And you also want to look at what are some areas our coaches want to recruit in? Where are we going to be trying to pull recruits in? Maybe it's a place where recruits get to go home and play a game."
Lener scheduled home-and-home series with two BCS programs who give the best of both worlds.
The Illinois-North Carolina series features two traditional basketball schools that are trying to establish their football programs. Oh, and the first meeting will be on the 10-year anniversary of the basketball programs' meeting in the NCAA Championship. Illinois surely would like to get some semblance of revenge.
South Florida has been a middle-tier Big East program, now the American Athletic Conference, for most of the past decade but is rebuilding under first-year coach Willie Taggart. And a road trip to Tampa sounds like a good time for Illini fans, especially considering it's a game Illinois could/should win - at least that's the hope.
"The thing is we're scheduling some of these things so far out that you just don't know," Lener said. "It's crazy, but it's just kind of the nature of the business. You go with the information you have at the time, and hopefully it's going to work out."
Fans won't get giddy for games against FCS opponents (Youngstown State in 2014, Western Illinois in 2015 and Murray State in 2016), Mid-American Conference opponents (Kent State in 2015, Western Michigan in 2016 and Ball State in 2017), Conference USA opponents (Western Kentucky in 2014 and 2017 and Middle Tennessee State in 2015) and Sun Belt opponents (Texas State in 2014).
But as long as games against those opponents count for bowl games, Illinois would be dumb not to schedule them - especially with a nine-game Big Ten schedule coming in 2016.
Bowl games matter for building momentum within a program, with the fan base and in recruiting. Lener's schedule gives the Illini the opportunity to annually build a bowl résumé prior to entering Big Ten play.
Even though the North Carolina series took the headlines, the Murray State game jumped out on the Illini football schedule unveiling yesterday. The Big Ten had suggested to its member schools to not schedule future games with FCS opponents, yet here were the Illini announcing a future game with an FCS opponent.
But the game had already been scheduled prior to Thomas took over at Illinois, Lener said, as is another FCS game in 2018.
"Right now, we're moving forward with the recommendation that the Big Ten gave us and not scheduling any additional FCS games," Lener said.
Home games, home games and more home games
During the next four seasons, Illinois will have 28 of its 48 games at home, seven each season. Get used to it.
"We will not have less than seven home games a year at Memorial Stadium," Lener said.
The approach is a departure from former Illini athletic director Ron Guenther.
No annual neutral site game in St. Louis against Missouri (though the Illini are open to the idea in the future). No scheduled trips to San Diego State, Southern Mississippi or Western Michigan.
Speaking of Western Michigan, Lener and Thomas fixed Ron Guenther's disaster of a contract with Western Michigan - which included a neutral site game (and loss) at Detroit's Ford Field in 2008 - by re-routing a scheduled 2016 trip to Kalamazoo (yes, a Big Ten school really scheduled a visit to a MAC stadium) back to Champaign.
Lener and Thomas wisely prefer to keep games and revenue in Champaign.
"What you'll see from us is that in the years that we have only four Big Ten home games, we'll play all three of our nonconference home games in Champaign. And in the years that we have five Big Ten games [at home] will be the year we go on the road for that home-and-home series, so we'll always have seven home games here in Champaign."
Chicago still on the mind
But what about sweet home Chicago? You know, the place Thomas wants to be "king"?
Thomas wants to increase the presence of Illini football in the Windy City, but it may be a while before the Illini host another game in the city limits. It's not that the Illini didn't enjoy their experience at Soldier Field earlier this month.
"We were very satisfied and very pleased with the way the game went, other than the outcome of the game [a 34-24 Washington win]," Lener said. "But in terms of the atmosphere, the electricity, the environment, the fans' enjoyment and quite frankly the exposure our student-athletes got to play a professional game was unbelievable."
It took Illinois 19 years to return to Soldier Field after hosting Washington State in 1994. While the wait for a return trip might not take quite as long this time around, there are no scheduled trips back to Soldier Field for the next four seasons.
Lener said the Illini would be open to future dates at Soldier Field but that the administration wants to protect a seven-game home schedule.
"If there's an opportunity to get back up there, we're surely going to pursue it," Lener said.
"What you got to look at is does it make sense for us financially, number one, to do that? If we're going to take a game away from our home stadium, does it make sense for us financially and what does it do to our season-ticket packages and so forth? What you don't want to do is take away a marquee nonconference game and take it to Chicago and take it away from campus."
Jeremy Werner is the co-host and Illinois reporter for the "Tay and J Show," which airs weekdays 3-6 p.m. on ESPN Radio 93.5, 95.3 in Champaign-Urbana and streams online at www.espncu.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @WernerESPNCU