LOS ANGELES — Western Michigan athletic director Kathy Beauregard received an unexpected phone call from a Beverly Hills billionaire on Oct. 8, 2014.
Alec Gores was on the other end to pitch a potential football game.
The previous night, Gores, a private equity investor, had met USC president Max Nikias over dinner in Los Angeles. And he had an idea.
Gores had been on Western Michigan’s football team during the 1974 and 1975 seasons, before graduating from the university in 1977 and later founding the Gores Group, a private equity firm.
When he reached Beauregard by phone on that October day, Gores relayed part of his conversation with Nikias. He wanted to see if his alma mater could play USC at the Coliseum. Could it happen?
“It was incredible,” Beauregard said earlier this month.
His call came, in part, as a surprise to Western Michigan’s athletic department. Gores recently donated $2 million toward a new video board system for the school’s football stadium, but at the time, he had little involvement since his graduation, resettled more than 2,000 miles away. So, in effect, he was also introducing himself on that day to Beauregard.
Over the following three months, the schools set in motion this season’s opener.
When Western Michigan visits the Coliseum on Saturday afternoon, it will mark the first time USC has ever faced a team from the Mid-American Conference, one of the so-called Group of 5 conferences that includes 12 teams from Illinois to western New York. Nine of the 12 schools are in Michigan and Ohio.
At first, Gores suggested the teams play last fall, but USC’s nonconference schedule had already been filled. But it had an opening for 2017.
Steve Lopes, USC’s chief operating officer and longtime senior associate athletic director, said it had already been searching for a “guarantee” game for 2017 — an instance where a major-conference team hosts a smaller program, promising a lucrative payment to the visitor, but not a return trip to its campus.
USC’s preference remains to play at least one “guarantee” game each season. It hosted Utah State last fall, as well as Arkansas State and Idaho in 2015.
The reason is simple, according to Lopes. The Trojans need the home game.
Each season, they start with 10 games already determined, including a nine-game Pac-12 Conference schedule and a nonconference matchup with longtime rival Notre Dame. For those 10 games, five are home games and five are away games.