MATCHMAKER: With upheaval in the college football landscape, including an expanding Southeastern Conference for the 2024 season, LSU’s football schedule maker Verge Ausberry has encountered his share of challenges

LSU's executive deputy athletics director and lead on football scheduling Verge Ausberry. PHOTO BY: William Weathers

In his 21 years with LSU’s athletics department, former LSU linebacker Verge Ausberry has seen a little bit of everything, and in being one of the guiding forces of football scheduling for the Tigers, it’s been unprecedented times for all stakeholders in college football. Ausberry has tried to navigate LSU’s scheduling process through difficult waters that recently included an eight-game mandate from the SEC for the ’24 season with an eye toward possible expansion in the future. Tiger Rag assistant editor William Weathers caught up with Ausberry for an extensive June 1 interview.

TIGER RAG: Your thoughts on direction of SEC’s eight-game schedule.
VERGE AUSBERRY: “Either way we’re prepared for it. Other than the big games, we kind of slowed our scheduling down a little bit. We didn’t want to have to buy out of a lot of games. Right now, we’re really good. We didn’t overschedule. We scheduled for eight SEC games. We’re set for next year. The following years, if we have three nonconference games all the way out, we’re in very good shape there. The thing we’ve been very careful of, if they go to nine games, you’re going to have that five/four (format) for home and away games. You just want to make sure that we hopefully don’t fall under that six (home) games. At LSU, we don’t like to fall under that seven games if at all possible. Anything lower than that puts us in some financial things like having higher ticket prices, things of that nature. We try to keep it at seven
games at home. Those are things with future schedules we try to hold a bit because we just don’t know what’s going to come out. We don’t know (in the future) if it’s going to be eight or nine games. We don’t know where we’re going to be. We like the nine-game SEC schedule. Both (athletic director) Scott Woodward and (head) coach (Brian) Kelly have said that. But you have to have everybody on board throughout the whole conference.”

TR: With LSU trending to a top 10 program, how often does phone ring for a game?
VA: “I don’t think it’s people saying they don’t want to play LSU. I think a lot of people are trying to figure out what’s this thing is going to look like. Is realignment over or is it just starting over again? We don’t know. Everybody says they’re good in their conferences. Nobody in the conference knew Texas and Oklahoma were walking through the door. We thought it was a joke one day and all of sudden, Oklahoma and Texas were coming into the SEC, and you were like, ‘wow. OK.’ Commissioner (Greg) Sankey has done a great job of leading us through these waters. We’re at an advantage in the conference because of his leadership. He’s put our conference in a powerful position. The SEC speaks and we lead. When we say things, people take notice. This is a powerful conference in every sport. It’s going to be tough in all sports. This is going to be a powerful conference. That’s the way it’s going to go. Twenty years from now this thing may look totally different from what we’re talking about now. We may be talking about a massive conference where all the powerful teams are playing each other.”

TR: How far in advance can you schedule?
VA: Utah in 2032 is on the back end of that. With Oklahoma coming to the conference, we had to go find an opponent. We’re going to have Houston in a neutral game and I’m trying to find somebody to fill another void. We have some teams we’re talking to. We’re just not sure how this (new SEC schedule) works itself out. If we’re going to do a home-and-home or do a neutral site game or a one-and-done. It’s not the big games that are the problems. It’s the buy games. We don’t want to go out and buy three other games with the other Power Five schools we play non-conference and say you’re stuck with four games and have to get rid of one. If you get rid of one, you have to negotiate with that school, move them back or buy them out. I don’t want to put us in that kind of financial bind.”

TR: Relationship with head coach Brian Kelly in scheduling?
VA: “Overall, he’s been great to work with, not only with the schedule. You have a guy like coach Kelly who knows what he wants. He knows the direction of the program. We don’t have to micromanage the program and be there every day. I trust he’s a pro. He’s the winningest coach in college football. What am I going to tell him about making decisions in football. There are very few guys like that where you don’t have to worry. He gets the car and drives it, and you don’t have to worry about the car. He knows how to make adjustments when things aren’t working. He knows how to make changes. There’s a reason why he wins games. He’s very confident and I like that. He’s never told me don’t play this team or that team. The schedule’s made out so far (in advance) anyway. It’s made out longer than his contract. When he was at Notre Dame he played around the world. He’s not like, ‘That’s who we’re playing. That’s who we’re playing’. As long as everyone’s doing the same thing, he’s fine with it. We’ve never had deep conversations about scheduling.”

TR: Has scheduling philosophy changed with College Football Playoff format going to 12 teams?
VA: “Once we see what we have then the philosophy will be guided by that. It’s hard to say right now. We’re definitely going to play a Power-Five school outside the conference whether it’s eight games or not. People today want to see those type of games. They want to see the big games. Losing a big game nonconference doesn’t hurt you. It helps you in the power ratings and how it’s going to be set up. We lost to Florida State last year and we lost to Tennessee. If we beat A&M, run the table and do what we’re supposed to do, you’re talking about us being in the (CFP) playoffs. We’re at least in the Sugar Bowl and you beat Georgia (in SEC Championship Game), you’re in the playoffs. It didn’t hurt you. You’re still in line for a national championship. People are talking about us playing a tough game the first game and what if we lose it. What if? You win the rest of the games in the SEC, and do what you’re supposed to do, you’ll be OK. I don’t worry about that big game. Last year the LSU-Florida State game didn’t have the magnitude of this year. It’s going to be a top 5-10 game in the country and everybody in the world will be watching. It’s a Sunday night. It puts LSU on that map. It shows that you’re very unique and you’re special. Everyone will be watching, and the interest will be through the roof. What it does for your program, what it does for recruiting … Everybody in the country is watching that game. They get to see you play in big games in big arenas against big teams. Players want to play in those type of games. When I played (1986-89), we played Notre Dame, North Carolina, Miami. We played them all in one year, plus the SEC schedule. You get up for those types of games. Great players want to play in those types of games in those types of venues.”

TR: What’s future of signature season openers/neutral site games?
VA: “It depends. Money has a big part to do with it, the opponent and where we’re playing at. The Vegas thing (2024 opener vs. USC) came to us and it was like wow, ‘There’s an opportunity to play in Vegas on a Sunday Labor Day weekend and in that (Allegiant) stadium against Southern Cal. What’s bigger than that? That’s going to be a huge game. That’s going to be a tough schedule because then we come back and have UCLA at home. You’re going to have two Big 10 teams, one at a neutral site and one at home. We wouldn’t have done it if we didn’t think we could handle it. UCLA at home is a good matchup for us here. USC in Vegas is a good matchup for us. The philosophy kind of changes to kind of what kind of team do you think you’re going to have and who you’re going to have. In 2011, I think that was the hardest schedule. We put a hard on them and we were in the national championship. We beat Oregon in Dallas and West Virginia in West Virginia. I think we played something like four conference champions that year and we played in the bowl game and SEC Championship Game. You have to have a team that can handle those schedules and I think that’s what we’re building toward. I feel very comfortable doing two like that with the right timing.”

TR: What part of the fan enjoyment goes into putting together a schedule?
VA: “This is about the fans. If we’re going to travel somewhere, it may as well be somewhere exciting. I’ve been very happy and proud of the places we’ve played. We went to Seattle to play Washington (41-3 win in 2012) and you have 30,000 LSU fans at the game. Fans from California were able to get to that game. There was LSU purple and gold all over the place. We went to Lambeau Field (16-14 loss in 2016) to play Wisconsin. We also played them in Houston (28-24 win in 2014) which is one of our richest and biggest fan bases. Houston is a second home to LSU. We’re always going to try and do something in Houston because there are so many (LSU) fans there and so much wealth there. It’s one of our largest alumni bases. We have to be in Houston for recruiting. Lambeau Field was a great venue to play in. When you talk about football, you talk about that type of place. We’ve played at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta (defeated North Carolina 30-24 in 2010). ‘Jerry Jones World’ with the Dallas Cowboys (defeated Oregon 40-27 in 2011). It’s good to do that. We’re doing this to help keep the program at the top. The brand is there. With the attention spans of young kids today, you want to be seen on TV and in those prime-time games. That’s what recruits are looking at. Some of these buy games, there’s no paying attention to that. Tiger Stadium is special. It’s exciting and the best place to play. Kids today, the younger generation, they have aspirations to play in NFL stadiums and we want to have the opportunity to play in those big-time games in a big-time stadium in a prime-time situation.”

TR: Importance of trying to have one of the schools from the armed forces on schedule?
VA: “People don’t like to play Army because of the type of offense they run. We have an open date after we play them and have them down another year in the future. You kind of have to change the scheme on defense you play because they’re very disciplined. We have better football players. We have better athletes, and we should win the game. You don’t like to do that but let’s be honest, LSU’s a military school with our history and the number of men that have fought in wars, we have more than any school in the country along with Texas A&M. That’s going to be a great, big game. A game they get to come to LSU, and we have so much surrounding that game with our rich history.”

TR: Any particular schools you may be trying to schedule in future?
VA: “We’re talking to a lot of people. It’s how it fits and falls into our schedule. We also have to think about it being somewhere our fans would want to go. Sometimes you make that call and they don’t want to play. Everybody thinks, ‘Play Michigan, play this team.’ Sometimes the timing’s off for them and their schedule’s made up. It’s not that they’re scared to play us. It’s how it fits in their schedule. It’s what they have open and when they’re playing. What type of teams do you want to play? Some of them don’t want to line up against SEC type schools. We’re going to play good teams. We have Clemson in ’25-‘26. We have Houston in ’27 .We’ve been talking to some people in ’28 to fill that slot it (where LSU had Oklahoma). We have Arizona State in ’29-’30 and have Utah in ’31-’32 and we just held it right there. We’ll be going out pretty soon for ’33-’34-‘35-’36, but by then we’ll know what our schedule format is. We’ll have a better feel of it.”

TR: Takeaways from hosting Southern in 2022 and opportunity to host Grambling this year?
VA: “It’s very important to us and Louisiana. We’re the flagship institution and those were two schools in the state that we hadn’t played. It was time for us to do it. You saw the crowds and the fans that were excited to be here. It was a first and made history. We should make history, not only in athletics, but in academics and everything. It created partnerships with institutions from the president’s office. We should have those great working relationships. We have Grambling coming in this year, a historic HBCU. You’re talking about Eddie Robinson, one of the greatest and winningest coaches in college football. Coach Kelly’s won his (Coach of the Year) award a couple of times and it’s important to him. It was time we should do it, not just for the Southerns and Gramblings, but for all the state schools. We’re the flagship, we’re the leader. It helps those programs out. It doesn’t make sense for those programs to go play a school in the Big 10 when we’re sitting right here and can help them out, keep the money in the state. That’s why it’s important to do that. It was historic that a HBCU played in Tiger Stadium, two historically great programs in the SWAC. Before integration those were two powerful football programs.”

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William Weathers

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