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When the University of Toledo hosts unbeaten and nationally ranked Cincinnati on Saturday, the Bearcats will be another addition to an impressive list of visitors at the Glass Bowl.
From Pittsburgh in 2003, to Arizona in 2010, to four programs in upcoming seasons with brand names, the Rockets have regularly enticed opponents from BCS conferences to its 26,248-seat stadium, a rarity that a Mid-American Conference school is able to routinely strike such deals.
Asked this week how his school has risen to double digits in home games against BCS opponents since the BCS’ birth in 1998, Toledo athletic director Mike O’Brien cited an intensive approach to scheduling, strong working relationships with administrators in the industry, and even a little “Irish luck.”
The Rockets are 6-3 in those matchups, a record that does not reflect outcomes against Ohio State at a neutral site when the Rockets were the financial beneficiary, and with non-BCS juggernaut Boise State. Toledo dropped both contests.
“There are times we are told no, and we go onto the next institution,” said O’Brien, who came to Toledo in early 2002. “We’ve been aggressive. We sell our tradition and we sell what Rocket football’s about.”
With a few notable exceptions, O’Brien refuses to sign off on guaranteed games — one-and-done — to be played at an away site. He will do it only with national powers, such as Michigan in 2008, and with Florida next season in 2013. O’Brien much prefers home-and-home arrangements, such as the one with Cincinnati. Toledo will repay the visit in 2014, with the institutions washing out the cost by swapping checks for $250,000.
In the 15-year existence of the BCS, which will dissolve after the 2013 season, the Rockets have hosted a BCS program in 10 seasons. They have played Temple twice — during the Owls’ first go-round in the Big East — Syracuse, Minnesota, Pittsburgh, Kansas, Purdue, Colorado, and Arizona.
The most notable guests, one might suggest, have yet to come. Navy, which will eventually join the Big East, arrives in 2013, and Missouri of the Southeastern Conference will visit a year later. Highlighting the 2015 home schedule are games versus the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Miami (Fla.), and the Big 12’s Iowa State. With the exception of Navy, which voided its home game in 2015 with Toledo to accommodate its league schedule, the Rockets are contractually obligated to play on the road at each school.
“One of the things that we’ve always sold here at the University of Toledo is we have a great non-conference schedule,” coach Matt Campbell said of his recruiting pitch. “I give a lot of credit to our athletic director to be able to get some of these teams to come to our school and [for us] to have a chance to play some great teams.”
Thus far, Eastern Washington (2013) and Tulsa (2017) are the only games scheduled at the Glass Bowl in the next five years against non-BCS programs.
The Navy series turned out to be a prosperous transaction for the Rockets. Toledo will owe Navy $150,000 — a dirt cheap price to host a BCS opponent — and can potentially fill the open date in which they originally planned for the return trip with a home game. Toledo’s home-and-home deals with Missouri and Miami call for the visiting team to pocket $300,000. No checks will be exchanged with Iowa State.
In what figures to be a byproduct of a captivating home slate, Toledo set records for season ticket sales in each of the past two seasons. About 3,000 unsold tickets remain for Saturday’s game.
“Our fans really enjoy that we can attract BCS opponents here,” O’Brien said. “Not to hoodwink anyone, but it helps our single game ticket sales and it helps our season ticket sales. There’s no question about it. When we have those type of opponents on our home schedule, it’s attractive.”
Whether this theme continues in the post-BCS era is a subject of interest. With the arrival of a four-team playoff used to determine the national champion, some higher tier programs may discontinue scheduling lower-tier schools as means to beef up their strength of schedule.
Ohio State already has said it will no longer schedule teams from the MAC. O’Brien, who said none of Toledo’s upcoming opponents have expressed a desire to nullify their contract with the Rockets, believes "there will be some BCS schools that still need to play the Toledos of the world, in hopefully a home-and-home."
Negotiating with quality opponents has become more challenging for another reason: Toledo’s recent success. Following back-to-back berths in a bowl game, the Rockets are off to a 6-1 start and sit atop the MAC’s West division. They are 11-4 at the Glass Bowl since 2010.
“It has gotten more difficult, but some of that difficulty is because our programs is where it is and they prefer not to play us,” O’Brien said.
Contact Ryan Autullo at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6160 or on Twitter @AutulloBlade.