Whether it was the old 1960s television show “Mission: Impossible” or the updated movie version starring Tom Cruise, the imagery involved with the classic opening scene came to mind when Old Dominion University decided to leave the Colonial Athletic Association for Conference USA last May.
As many did, I saw an impossible task for Associate Athletic Director Bruce Stewart, who is charged with scheduling for ODU’s football team. It’s hard enough to schedule three or four non-conference games. To create an entire slate of non-conference games seemed, well, impossible at the time.
I envisioned the cassette tape rolling out instructions (cue the 5/4 theme song; you know the one; you are humming it to yourself as you read this):
“Good morning Mr. Stewart. Conference USA has invited Old Dominion University’s athletic program, and specifically its football team, to move from the Football Championship Subdivision to the Football Bowl Subdivision. This will involve a season in which the program is neither FCS nor FBS. The school will be hard-pressed to find teams from either division willing to play. On one hand, the Monarchs will have a greater number of scholarships than the FCS teams, and they have already proven they can win at that level. On the other hand, they will not count as an FBS opponent for FBS schools, and could thus damage a school’s strength of schedule and Ratings Percentage Index.
“Your mission, Bruce, should you decide to accept it, is to bring together a schedule that is attractive to the average fan, challenging to the players and coaching staff, yet offers the team a chance to compete each and every week.
“As always, should you or any of your staff be lampooned by the media or by the annoying message boards that exist in today’s world of the internet, the Athletic Director will disavow any knowledge of your actions. This tape will self-destruct in 10 seconds.
“Good luck, Bruce.”
I ran into Bruce Stewart with a week to go in the regular season. The Monarchs were about to head west to take on James Madison in their last official regular-season game as a member of the CAA.
Stewart exuded confidence. He was, in fact, Tom Cruise cool.
I can tell you now – seeing as the schedule is set in stone – he was in talks with North Carolina, Miami and Florida International. There would also be very serious conversations with Hawaii, Baylor, Syracuse and Clemson as well. Good thing his cell phone has free long distance calling. Had he been on the old-fashioned horn with all the people he was talking with, the bill would have been enormous.
Stewart was trying desperately to bring together a schedule that would create a buzz in a year in which the Monarchs cannot go to the postseason.
"Bruce Stewart is the man," said head coach Bobby Wilder. "We were talking about this schedule almost every day for the past five months. What Bruce did that was key to the process was he remained patient and didn't panic. We could have jumped at early offers for games and gotten something that was less practical. Instead, he waited, knowing that when ABC and ESPN started trying to line up games for special dates, like the Pitt-Florida State game for Labor Day, there would be a wave of schedule changes we could take advantage of and that's how it played out.
"As soon as it was announced that Pitt was playing Florida State on Labor Day, Bruce was on the phone with Pitt trying to fill the other void and replace Villanova on Pitt's schedule."
Seriously, who among you thought nine months ago that the Monarchs could put together this schedule?
Aug. 31, at East Carolina
Sept. 7, at Maryland
Sept. 14, vs. Howard
Sept. 21, vs. The Citadel
Sept. 28, vs. Albany
Oct. 5, vs. Liberty
Oct. 12, Bye
Oct. 19, at Pitt
Oct. 26, at Norfolk State
Nov. 2, vs. Rhode Island
Nov. 9, at Idaho
Nov. 16, vs. UNC Charlotte
Nov. 23, at North Carolina
It is unique in its challenges, attractive in its drive times to away games, and pride-inducing in the fact that the Monarchs will play three – that’s right, three – members of the Atlantic Coast Conference. When ODU announced back in 2006 that it was getting into the business of football, could anyone really have imagined a schedule with three ACC opponents on it by 2013? Had anyone been so bold as to predict such nonsense, a stay in the Cuckoo’s Nest with roommate Jack Nicholson would have been advised.
The Monarchs have propelled themselves into the upper echelon of college football while being smart about it. There are teams that would have been bad matchups for the Monarchs. No need to play LSU, Ohio State, Alabama, Oklahoma, and the likes (you know the other teams on the list).
What ODU has here are winnable games. East Carolina was 8-5 a year ago and went to a bowl game, so the opener will be a tall order. But there is no reason to fear any of these FBS opponents this coming fall.
Respect them, yes. Fear them? No way.
Maryland went 4-8 last season, with one of those wins a 7-6 victory over William and Mary.
Pitt finished 6-7, the highlights being a big win over Virginia Tech and an overtime loss at Notre Dame. But the Virginia Tech thing could play to ODU’s favor: While ODU will have a bye week heading into their game at Pitt, the Panthers must travel to Blacksburg for a rematch with Virginia Tech and the Hokies are a tough pull at Lane Stadium for any team, tougher yet when payback is involved.
Idaho went 1-11 a year ago and lost to start-up program Texas-San Antonio along the way. The Vandals’ lone win came against a New Mexico State squad that also finished 1-11.
The North Carolina game on Nov. 23 at beautiful Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill – and take it from someone who has been there, it’s very pretty – sets up as the Monarchs’ bowl game. It’s a great way to finish a season, particularly the sandwich season this fall’s will no doubt be.
Coach Bobby Wilder recently posted a reminder outside the Monarchs’ weight room. It has a simple message: “Raise the Bar.” Beneath those words are the FBS opponents for the coming season.
Suddenly, nothing seems impossible.