NORMAN — Joe Castiglione is a busy, busy man.
In addition to guiding the University of Oklahoma athletic department, the Sooners’ athletic director also serves as chairman of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament selection committee. That’s a massive time commitment that requires him to watch, study or otherwise keep up with virtually every Division I game around the nation.
Which leaves very little time for being a big-time AD, but somehow Joe C. pulls it off.
Castiglione grew up in Fort Lauderdale and was a walk-on football player at Maryland. He previously was AD at Missouri, where he struck up a friendship with his counterpart now at Ohio State, Gene Smith.
Castiglione has won several athletic director of the year awards, including the Bobby Dodd Foundation in 2004 and from Sports Business Daily in 2009.
But his greatest claim to fame will always be as the man who hired Bob Stoops.
Stoops won a national championship in his second season and made it cool again for those in Sooner Nation to donate to the program. Those donations built suites throughout Memorial Stadium renovated the players and coaches facilities three times and last week completed the bowling in of the south end zone. So many transformations have occurred at Owen Field since Castiglione hired Stoops it might someday be known as The House That Joe and Bob Built.
It may seem as though the construction projects are never finished, and that’s partly true. An infusion of energy from Stoops’ four BCS national championship game appearances, last year’s College Football Playoff journey and nine Big 12 Conference titles have made Castiglione’s job as a fundraiser a whole lot easier.
This week, before the Sooners renew their blueblood rivalry with Ohio State, Castiglione spoke with The Franchise’s John E. Hoover about Ohio State, having Buckeye fans partying in Lloyd Noble Center, the art and science of college football scheduling and exactly how many people can fit in the newly reconfigured Memorial Stadium.
John Hoover: I spoke with Gene Smith last week before the Tulsa game and he said he can’t wait to get to Norman for this game. Same for you, I suspect?
Joe Castiglione: I don’t think anyone needs to engage in any hyperbole about the magnitude of this game, regardless of rankings or implications for the College Football Playoff or any of those kinds of things. The fact that two iconic schools like this can continue to find ways to compete against each other is, I think, important.
We’ve talked about this for countless years, so you know our scheduling philosophy and what we try to do to strike the right balance in our non-conference scheduling to go with the conference portion of our schedule, and we have evidence for 18 years how that can go, if we’re fortunate to get it to work out like we want. Which is not always the case. But we’re just absolutely thrilled that the week has come to be able to be part of this great matchup.
Hoover: We all, as college football fans, love the Florida State series and the Miami series and the Tennessee series, but when the AP says the summer before you play Ohio State that their all-time Top 25, Ohio State is No. 1 and OU is No. 2, and CBS Sports reverses those, does this game take your scheduling philosophy to an entirely new level?
Castiglione: It sure does. We’re two of the winningest programs in college football history, and have had some of the best players to ever play the game, and coaches that are certainly legendary. Both play before sellout crowds each and every time they take the field. So it’s special when others covering college football and its history validate what we had presumed, I guess—we didn’t presume the ranking, per se, but knowing it would be a big game, regardless.
Hoover: The origin of the contract with Ohio State, can you recall how that came about? Gene Smith said it started before he even got there.
Castiglione: Just persistent calling. Trying to find matchups like this. A little bit of imagination, a little bit of art, a little bit of science, a little bit of working with people we know. As you know, my friendship with Gene Smith goes back many, many years — even before he was an athletics director in the Big 12. He’s one of my close friends in the business, and when he went to Ohio State, we were able to finalize some of the options we had been discussing previously.
Hoover: So negotiations begin with his predecessor, but Gene was the one who signed it?
Hoover: OK, so was there any synergy on your part — I think of the Nebraska anniversary game coming up in 2021 — to have that 40-year reunion of that big ’77 game, or was that just how the years shook out that you hadn’t filled yet?
Castiglione: Both. It was certainly a coincidence, we knew, if the games were to occur. But it wasn’t a controlling factor. We were really working hard to try and get the two programs to compete against each other and come together. And it could have very well been a different year or two. But it’s a fun coincidence now that it’s worked out.
The Nebraska series was a little more intentional. Coach Osborne and I were working on some dates to play in the future. We started talking literally in September after Nebraska announced they were leaving the Big 12 Conference. I placed a call to him then, and understandably, they needed some time to work through the scheduling challenges once they were to enter the (Big Ten Conference), whether they were to continue with an eight-game conference schedule or a nine-game schedule. So it took a few years to materialize. But we were in contact through that time and just stayed with it until they reached a point where they could make some commitments. But we were talking about back-to-back years and we said, “Well, you know, 2021 will be the 50th anniversary of the Game of the Century.” We’re talking and he said, “Wow.” Of course, we’re talking in the future where we’re all unable to say for sure where each of us will be, but we try to do the best for our program and the people around it to make some of these possibilities occur if things will work out.
Hoover: Last week’s game against Louisiana Monroe, the debut of the stadium renovations, the crowd, the new bowled-in look — how do you feel like it went?
Castiglione: Terrific. We had a terrific game, gorgeous weather, people were excited, they were happy. I spent the vast majority of the night visiting with people throughout the stadium, working from one side to the other, and they were all very, very pleased. Those that sat in the new seats, at least those I spoke with, many of them were more pleased than they thought they would be — the views, the amenities, the things they had anticipated turned out to be even better than they thought.
Having said that, it was the first home game of the season. We have a lot of new staff. Obviously, we have more area to cover, more area to serve, more area to clean, more area to accommodate. We have a lot of new staff, some different procedures, some different paths to get to places than there were before. Some people had to make some adjustments. Everybody seemed to be in a good mood about it, and I think we’ll be even better this Saturday night for the Ohio State University Buckeyes to come to town. Just getting one game under everybody’s belt is a good thing. And not too dissimilar from what a coach says from Week 1 to the second week about improvement. We anticipated a few glitches and bumps that are quite normal. Some actually went better than we thought, and we learned a few things, just getting people in the stadium and seeing how they access new areas, what they’re looking for, traffic paths, where people are gonna go. Even this year will be a little bit of a learning experience. So all in all, we were very, very happy.
Hoover: Your seating capacity was about 84,000, and you got 87,000 into the stadium. We know it’s going to be even bigger this week. What’s the limit? At what point does the local fire marshal come by and say, “That’s it. No more.”
Castiglione: Well, that’s it. We’re pretty close. That includes all of our tickets sold and all those admitted through gate lists, if you will—the band and cheer, media credentials, some seats that aren’t ticketed but are still admissions. So that’s pretty close. Now, we’ve gone through and found any kind of places where we can accommodate any more still within the allowances that we have. We’ll just have to see. It’s hard to anticipate what the number will be. But that’s pretty close.
I don’t know for sure, but back when we were working through the design, and as the project progressed, my own personal projection was that we would touch 88, somewhere around 88, based on previously large crowds and those that usually come to these games. If you think about it, we’re gonna have a significantly larger media contingent coming this game. So more cameras, more writers. We only have so many seats in the working press box, but we have to accommodate them in other ways. So those types of things would create perhaps a little higher attendance.
Hoover: Have you gotten a sense yet, from Gene or maybe from someone in your ticket office how many Ohio State fans will be at the game? I’m told 20,000 or even 25,000.
Castiglione: Well, that would be a guess. We have an arrangement to provide 5,000 seats. We’ll provide them with 5,000 and they’ll provide us the same going to Columbus next year. But you’ve traveled and have seen our crowds when we go on the road, like last year at Tennessee, a couple years earlier in South Bend at Notre Dame, certainly at Florida State. Our fans find ways to get tickets, and our in-stadium attendance is far above the allotment of visiting tickets. So I’m sure their fans are trying to do the very same thing.
They haven’t played down in this area recently. They played a couple games in the Sugar Bowl in the last few years, the College Football Playoff game was there. And of course, the championship they won was at AT&T Stadium in Dallas. But there were probably fans that weren’t able to get tickets to those games that probably will try to this year. And as you know, you’ve been here many, many times, it’s hard to put a number of the count of people that are just here for the pageantry. There will be thousands and thousands and thousands of people that are here on campus that are just tailgating and want to be part of the unique atmosphere, knowing that the only way they get a ticket is if they run into somebody trying to get rid of one going into the stadium — which would be a little more unlikely for a game like this, but there are always quite a few people that just come to be part of the atmosphere for games like this. And, for that matter, all of our games. The atmosphere, you can’t replicate it.
Hoover: Speaking of Ohio State fans, a mini, imaginary controversy arose this week when it was reported that a pregame alumni function had been rented out Lloyd Noble Center and the function sold out. How unusual is that? Is this the first time OU has done that?
Castiglione: No. That just goes to show, you can make a fictional story out of anything if you want. I heard about it and thought to myself, “What’s the big deal? What is everyone concerned about? We’re talking about a pregame tailgate party for about 800 people.” I realize the way they might have written it made it sound like Ohio State fans were going to fill Lloyd Noble Center, but come on. People gotta use their noggin a little better than that. Any of the games like this usually include huge pregame tailgate parties, events, alumni activities. Sometimes they rent an enormous tent, depending on the size of crowd they expect, the kind of tent that can accommodate 5-6-700 people. They inquired about renting just the floor of the Lloyd Noble Center early on. Often we’re going to have a concert in there on a Friday night, and it was determined there weren’t any shows passing through here at that time, and they could use that as an area for their pregame alumni event.
We do the same thing. We go on campuses. These types of activities have happened for years and years. Again, depending on the size of crowd they expect, sometimes they’ll do it outside in a tent—a big tent; I’m talking a massive tent — or we’ll give them space somewhere on campus. Quite a few of ‘em have done it down at Lloyd Noble, some of the floor of Lloyd Noble. We use the (McCasland) Fieldhouse for our Varsity O letterwinners. That’s typically not a facility we can rent on gameday because we have a volleyball match in there or we welcome back our letterwinners. They also have a tent outside on those one or two Saturdays when there’s a conflict with a volleyball match. I know we’ve done something for all our fans. Boomer Bash somewhere close to the venue where the game’s being played, if not on the grounds of the venue. Sometimes there are buildings near the venue that universities will let. I know that from my days on the basketball committee. Part of what we try to provide are areas near the venues. So the participating teams, the fans of the teams can gather before the game. So it’s very, very common.
We have a terrific relationship between the schools, and these are the kinds of things that should happen, to accommodate fans. Because we’re both passionate about our team and putting all of our energy to make it a phenomenal homefield atmosphere on Saturday night. But two teams like this get together, two universities like this, again, I’m not getting caught up in hyperbole, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that game like this celebrate the greatness of college football. With that in mind, why wouldn’t two schools work together? We’re not putting on the event. We’re just accommodating a request. I’m sure they’ll do the very same thing if they can next year when we travel to Columbus. It’s important to have great relationships with institutions. Otherwise, it’s harder to get games to occur.
One of the things want to do here at Oklahoma is for people to walk away thinking that was one of the great experiences people can have. We have a whole set of fans that haven’t been to Norman, Oklahoma, maybe ever, and we’re going to have that stadium absolutely rocking on Saturday night. But the quality of our fans and the way they make visiting fans feel — John, you know this — we get all these letters to the editor from visiting fans who come here and feel like they were treated with class. And they go away having had such a great memory, such a great feeling and a perception about the University of Oklahoma and the state of Oklahoma and the people of Oklahoma. I think anybody that has their head in the sand has a choice: leave it there or pull it out and figure out what’s happening. We’re not gonna change our approach whatsoever. It’s absolutely trying to make this one of the great places in the world, and you do that by treating people with respect.
Hoover: Do you know what it costs to rent Lloyd Noble for a day?
Castiglione: I don’t, offhand.
Hoover: Forgot to ask this at the beginning: Do you recall what year you signed the Ohio State contract?
Castiglione: It was completed in 2008.
Hoover: The scheduling part of your job is never done, I presume?
Castiglione: We’re talking about a game now, and it’s the same kind of process and sometimes the institutions are different, or characteristics about the game or the date or the year it occurs, that kind of thing, but these are the kinds of processes that we go through trying to schedule games. They’re not easy. You know, I’ve mentioned many times before, there aren’t people lined up over here on Boyd Street just waiting to play Oklahoma. It takes a lot of persistence to find the opportunities to bring schools together. And keep in mind, this was done during a time of the BCS, where people weren’t as focused on trying to strengthen the non-conference schedules, as they might have evolved to be now in the current environment. So you have to be doggedly persistent to get these kinds of games done.
Hoover: And college football fans thank you for it.
Castiglione: We have Nebraska coming up, we have a series we’re working on right now that we can’t announce yet because it’s not done. But as you know, we have Michigan coming up in the next decade, LSU —
Hoover: So LSU is finalized? What year is that set for?
Castiglione: Uh, ’27 and ’28. And we did another series with Nebraska later to make sure we could play every so often. LSU is ’27-28, Nebraska is ’29 and ’30.
Hoover: And you’re working on one for after that?
Castiglione: Yeah, we’ve got a couple that we’re working on for the decade after that. We have some options. But we’re having to wait until they work through a couple of adjustments in their own schedule. It’s like a puzzle. You know? You just sometimes have to balance your persistence with some patience.
We’ve got UCLA. Sometimes there are games that we would like to schedule, but the dates, even though both schools want to play, we just can’t get the dates to work because of other commitments. And sometimes it takes a little bit of movement. You’ll have to go back and pull out a story about how we made some games work the previous decade, this team going here and that team going there and that would free up a game for this team we can play — I mean, it was mind-boggling how many moves we have to make to make certain games happen. But, that’s what you do.
Hoover: Will we have an announcement coming in the next few months on that opponent?
Castiglione: Oh, I don’t want to put at timetable on it. As soon as we work it out we’ll announce it, but it’s not imminent. If we get a call and they’ve worked out the conflict they have, then we’ll move forward.
Hoover: You’re going through these like, “We want to get it done, we want to make it happen,” but the reality is you don’t know if you’re going to still be there, or President Boren or Bob Stoops. You don’t know if the Big 12 is gonna have 10 teams, 12 teams, 14 teams or zero teams. You don’t know if the College Football Playoff will have four or eight or 16 teams. How can you have that kind of patience and perseverance and still have forward thinking?
Castiglione: It’s just trying to juggle all the priorities. We’ve gone through the conference realignment impact on scheduling, where a few years back we lost a couple game because of conference realignment. But, you know, it happens. We had to plug it in on short notice. The options were limited. That’s why we’re doing these kinds of schedules for football 5-10-15 years in advance, to try and give ourselves the best chance to get a matchup of these programs before they start adding other games to their schedule.
We’ll get our marquee matchup on the schedule first, and then we can build our other non-conference opponents and where those games need to be once we have the marquee games set.
Hoover: The Tulsa series expired; is there a desire to get them back on the schedule as quickly as possible?
Castiglione: Yes and yes. I’m talking with Derrick Gragg about that now. We’re having a good discussion. We’re just trying to find dates that work.
Hoover: Well, thanks and congratulations on finally getting to this stage of the Ohio State series. I’m sure you’ll enjoy Saturday.
Castiglione: I will, and you will too. This doesn’t take any kind of build-up. It’s just automatic. Just mention these two programs and it sets such a bar unlike any other. So we’re excited for it to finally be here.
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “Further Review with Hoover & Rew” and can be heard on The Franchise Tulsa from noon to 3 p.m. every weekday with co-host Lauren Rew and most mornings on The Franchise in Oklahoma City. Listen on fm107.9, am1270 on the 107.7 Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page.