If all goes well, finding UCLA's football opponents can amount to scheduled success

LSU cornerback Dwight McGlothern (2) celebrates a play with LSU head coach Ed Orgeron against Mississippi during the second half an NCAA college football game in Baton Rouge, La., Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Matthew Hinton)
Louisiana State coach Ed Orgeron, right, and his Tigers will play UCLA at the Rose Bowl on Sept. 4. (Matthew Hinton / Associated Press)

Making UCLA’s football schedule isn’t exactly a day at the beach, unless it involves a game at Hawaii.

Even then, a once-a-century pandemic might come along and wipe out those plans like the tide surging over a sandcastle moat. That's when Josh Rebholz can find himself soothing grumpy fans who want to know when they can rebook their trip to Honolulu.

Rebholz is widely known as “The Money Guy” in UCLA’s athletic department, a senior associate athletic director for external relations who has helped set all sorts of fundraising records. That’s only a fraction of his responsibilities. Among other things, he's also in charge of the Bruins’ football schedule, meaning he must find nonconference games palatable to fans, administrators and coaches, not to mention the players competing.

“Nothing is changing the fact that the student-athlete experience is still of the absolute utmost of importance for us, the chance to obviously compete against high-level opponents and the opportunity to win games,” Rebholz said.

It's a process that can be a decade in the making, UCLA's future schedules extending to a game against Wisconsin in 2030 at Camp Randall Stadium.

Fortunately, there are some parameters that help guide Rebholz through a maze of possibilities. The Bruins like to play a majority of their nonconference games at the Rose Bowl while traveling to areas that are both attractive destinations (hello, San Diego, in 2023) and can strengthen their recruiting foothold in talent-rich portions of the country (greetings, Baton Rouge, La., in 2024).

Generally, UCLA doesn’t want to overload its schedule with two Power Five conference opponents in the same season, something it last did in 2014 by playing Virginia and Texas (though maybe it should reconsider given the Bruins won both games).

To entice fans, the school has traditionally tried to schedule a heavyweight nonconference home game in years when it faces USC at the Coliseum. That will be the case again this season when Louisiana State, less than two years removed from a national championship, comes to the Rose Bowl on Sept. 4 as part of a schedule in which the Bruins will face the Trojans at the Coliseum on Nov. 20.

UCLA’s seven-game home schedule also includes Hawaii on Aug. 28 and Fresno State on Sept. 18 before the start of Pac-12 Conference play. The Bruins will pay the Bulldogs $1.1 million plus 2,000 complimentary tickets as part of a so-called guarantee game; the Rainbow Warriors will be compensated by UCLA playing in Hawaii at a date to be determined after the 2020 game at Aloha Stadium was canceled because of COVID-19 concerns.

That makeup game probably won’t be played until 2028 at the earliest because UCLA’s nonconference slots are filled through 2026, and Hawaii is already on the schedule for a 2027 game scheduled to be played at the Rose Bowl.

The Bruins’ game at San Diego State in 2023 is a makeup game from the one canceled in 2020, and Rebholz is also working to reschedule the New Mexico State game that was canceled last fall.

Games can fall off the schedule just as easily as they’re added. Michigan backed out of games set for 2022 at Michigan Stadium and 2023 at the Rose Bowl in favor of softer scheduling; they’re now playing Hawaii and East Carolina.

UCLA used those openings to make history: The Bruins will play Alabama State in 2022 and North Carolina Central in 2023, the first time the school has scheduled historically Black universities as part of an arrangement in which they will also bring their nationally renowned bands to the Rose Bowl.

Auburn quarterback Bo Nix scrambles for yardage during the second half against Texas A&M.
Auburn quarterback Bo Nix scrambles against Texas A&M on Dec. 5, 2020. UCLA will play Auburn in 2027 and 2028. (Butch Dill / Associated Press)

It's the first time UCLA will play opponents outside of the Football Bowl Subdivision, leaving USC and Notre Dame as the only major college teams never to face counterparts from the Football Championship Subdivision. Rebholz said the concerns of purists were considered as well as the possibility of those games putting the Bruins at a competitive disadvantage when it came to winning the Pac-12 or recruiting top players.

“None of those things are true,” Rebholz said, “so we were able to say, ‘You know what, let’s do something different.’ "

In another first, UCLA will play Auburn at the Rose Bowl in 2027 before traveling to Jordan-Hare Stadium in 2028. Those who want to play the Bruins must get in line given that Rebholz’s office fields at least one or two calls per week from opponents interested in playing UCLA.

“Our brand is very powerful across the country and around the world, and so I think it’s one of those things where we know that we’re very sought-after, but we also want to be very strategic in who we play,” Rebholz said. “A lot of people like the idea of playing UCLA, a lot of people like the idea of playing at the Rose Bowl.”

More people apparently also like the idea of watching UCLA play at the Rose Bowl. The Bruins have sold 2,500 new season tickets despite five consecutive losing seasons and paltry attendance in 2019, the last season that fans were allowed inside the Rose Bowl. The team averaged 43,849 fans that season, UCLA’s lowest home attendance since making the Rose Bowl home in 1982.

"I’ve been here a few years now," said Rebholz, who arrived at UCLA in 2011, "and this is as much anticipation for ticket sales as I’ve seen, and I think a lot is related to people thinking that this team is going to be really good."

Fans should resist the urge to blame the Bruins when it comes to most of the usual schedule gripes. Starts pushing bedtime are dictated by television, and back-to-back Pac-12 road games are set by conference headquarters.

UCLA’s relatively new tradition of no longer finishing its season with USC is attributable to several factors, including the Pac-12’s accommodating a Trojans or a Stanford home game against Notre Dame on Thanksgiving weekend followed by the conference championship, coupled with the desire to avoid having any school play 12 consecutive weeks.

All might be forgiven if Rebholz can find a way to reschedule that game in Hawaii.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.