Kurt Dargis just might be “The Most Hated Man in College Football.”
It’s an unwitting title, and slightly hyperbolic, but Dargis is open to embrace it.
“I guess I’ve never looked at it as I’m the most hated,” Dargis said in an interview with the News & Observer this week.
He laughed when he realized there are times, and with certain passionate fan bases, that it’s probably true. But, Dargis, who is 50 and has worked for ESPN’s college football team since 2002, has more of an optimist’s view of his chosen vocation.
“The way I see it, even if 25 percent of the fan bases are unhappy with me, then that means 75 percent are happy,” he said. “And, in this job, you can never make everybody — across the board, across the entire season — happy.”
So who is Kurt Dargis? Technically, he’s the director of college football programming for ESPN. Colloquially, he’s the guy who is cursed when your favorite team has to play noon (or earlier).
He is the actual answer when any ACC coach or athletic director is asked why a game starts at a certain time and answers “because TV says so.”
It’s Dargis’ job, with a four-person team at ESPN, to set the game times for every ACC game. He also has to coordinate with CBS and Fox to hash out the SEC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 schedules.
A giant puzzle
With 17 to 19 slots on six different ESPN networks to fill each week, and an average of 45 to 50 games on all platforms to juggle, Dargis has a complicated weekly problem to solve.
A “giant puzzle” is how he likes to describe it. There’s a scene in “Good Will Hunting” when Matt Damon’s character goes to the chalkboard and solves a linear algebra problem at MIT.
From the outside, that’s what Dargis’ job feels like. In reality, making the weekly college football sausage isn’t quite that dramatic. It’s more about communication and advanced planning.
“I’m as a far from ‘Goodwill Hunting’ and an advanced math degree as you can get,” Dargis said. “There’s no magic formula. We benefit from having great partners with every FBS conference.”
For the record, Dargis got his degree in international relations from Notre Dame in 1991. He still likes the Fighting Irish but he really doesn’t hate your team. He doesn’t have time to.
The process to put together the 2019 season schedule started last January at the national championship game. Dargis will communicate, mostly via email, with the conferences and the other networks to put the games into place on the calendar. CBS gets the first pick every week of the No. 1 SEC game. Fox gets the No. 1 pick in the Big Ten, while ESPN controls the ACC schedule.
Then, there is a “draft” between ESPN, CBS and Fox that will start in January and go through May. Dargis and his network colleagues pick choices from each week of the schedule, instead of a specific games. For example, ESPN might use a pick to select “week 6, pick 1,” with an eye on airing the Texas at Oklahoma game on Oct. 12. Fox might then select “week 10, pick 1,” hoping to snag the Nov. 9 game between Oregon and USC.
The different sides map out a schedule, trying to anticipate the best games and most compelling stories of the season. That’s not easy but Dargis does it well.
“His batting average is really good,” said Michael Strickland, the senior associate commissioner for football for the ACC and Dargis’ main point of contact at the ACC.
By the middle of May, the schedules and the kickoff times for the first three weeks of the season are set.
Changing on the fly
Once the season starts, there’s a 12-day, or in some cases a 6-day window, to schedule the start times. Those pieces of the puzzle are solved each Monday. It takes about four hours to nail down all of the slots.
The game times aren’t set for the entire season, like they are in college basketball, because ESPN wants to be able to adjust as the season progresses.
Saturday’s noon national game on ABC between 8-0 Penn State and Minnesota, also off to an 8-0 start after going 7-6 in 2018, is an example of not really knowing which teams will surprise but being able to put a spotlight on that game.
“That’s the beauty of all of this,” Dargis said. “It gives us a chance to react to stories that develop throughout the season.”
About those early starts
The ACC has a 20-year broadcast rights agreement with ESPN, worth about $240 million annually. So ESPN does get a large say in how the schedule comes together and when the games start.
The early start time is the source of contention for some ACC schools. N.C. State has played seven of its past 11 home Saturday games at noon, including the first two this season.
Dargis won’t look at a specific situation like that when making the weekly schedule. But the 14 ACC schools can make requests through Strickland and ESPN will listen.
“They are responsive to trends,” Strickland said.
Boo Corrigan started his job as N.C. State’s athletic director at the end of April. When ESPN released the start times in early May for the Wolfpack’s first two home games, both at noon, he quickly realized he needed to make a request.
“For 17 years, we’ve had over 34,000 season-ticket holders,” Corrigan said. “That’s pretty remarkable and there’s an element of accountability we have to them as a group. I tried to effectively communicate our frustrations with the noon starts.”
The league and ESPN listened. Saturday’s home game with Clemson will be the third in a row at night for N.C. State. Next week’s home game with Louisville will kick off at 7:30 p.m. on the ACC Network.
The launch of the network this season has helped alleviate some of the concerns over the noon (or 12:30) kickoff times.
Pittsburgh and Syracuse have had three early starts, the most of any conference team this season. N.C. State and Boston College had five each last year. Five has been the max for any ACC team since the league expanded to 14 teams in 2013.
The weekly 7:30 p.m. slot on Saturday, and the windows on Thursday and Friday night, have given schools more of a chance to play in primetime.
UNC played in five noon games in 2013. The Tar Heels have not had any home noon games this season and a pair of primetime starts.
In six seasons from 2013 through ‘18, Duke only had three primetime Saturday kickoffs (7 p.m. or later). Saturday’s game with Notre Dame will be their second of this season.
N.C. State only had one primetime Saturday kickoff in the previous six seasons but will have three (Ball State, Clemson and Louisville) in 2019.
“We really do try to balance out all of the needs and interests of our conference partners,” Dargis said. “We can’t meet 100 percent of the requests from everybody but we’re always willing to listen.”
And sometimes that makes you unpopular and other times it just means you’re doing a difficult job.