By Matt Cohen
This is one of Auburn football’s weirder road trips.
When Auburn kicks off against Cal on Saturday night, it will be the team’s seventh game all-time in the Pacific or Mountain time zone. Auburn hasn’t played a regular season game in California since 2002. Its last trip to California was the 2013 BCS National Championship game against Florida State.
“I don’t like it,” Auburn head coach Hugh Freeze said in his press conference Monday. “I don’t like scheduling teams on the West Coast. I just as soon play somebody over here on the East Coast but it was done. Me complaining or not embracing it is not the proper response.”
So why is Auburn playing this game?
Auburn’s trip to Cal this weekend will be the farthest Hugh Freeze has ever had to travel for a game. Will you be traveling to California Tiger fans?
AL.com acquired a copy of the contract for the Auburn-Cal football game, which was signed by then-Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs in August 2014 and completed by the signature of then-Cal athletic director Mike Williams in September 2014.
Both schools have reshaped athletic departments with new athletic directors and each has had at least one football coaching change since this game was agreed to almost a decade ago.
But this game was actually supposed to have happened years ago.
The home-and-home series was originally scheduled to begin at Jordan-Hare Stadium in 2019, with the return trip to Berkley, California in 2020. In 2015, Williams and Jacobs pushed the series back a year, starting at Auburn in 2020 and then going to Cal in 2021.
Auburn ended up playing another PAC-12 team, Oregon, to open the 2019 season in Dallas and played Texas A&M in College Station in the slot originally slated to be the Cal game.
Auburn and Cal then rescheduled the game again in 2019 pushing the series back to set up that begins this weekend: Sept. 9, 2023, in Berkeley and Sept. 7. 2024 in Auburn.
That change occurred because of Auburn’s home-and-home series with Penn State. Auburn ended up playing Penn State at Beaver Stadium on the weekend it was supposed to go to Berkeley, per the 2015 reschedule.
The schools had no idea when they signed the amendment in July 2019 to move the series back to its current dates, but that change may have saved Auburn a lot of money.
The original contract has a force majeure clause, which addresses what happens if the game had to be canceled for some sort of extraneous circumstance like “power failure, strikes, severe weather, riots, war, strikes, labor disruptions or other unforeseen catastrophes or disaster beyond the control of either party.”
The rescheduling in 2015 meant the two schools would have played in 2020 and Jordan-Hare Stadium, leaving Auburn likely on the hook to cancel the game during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Given the scheduling chaos during that season, it’s likely the two schools would have come to a settlement in such a situation. But the original contract states whichever school canceled the game would owe the other $1,250,000 in damages. That likely would have been Auburn paying out to Cal given the location of the game in Alabama, unless Cal decided it wouldn’t travel during the pandemic.
Moving the games to 2023 and 2024 almost a year before COVID-19 was ever a thought in scheduling avoided that issue.
For this weekend, Cal will pay Auburn $450,000 for the trip. That helps cover travel expenses but isn’t the type of payout Auburn or other big schools might give to a lower-level program in an early season game.
Cal will also provide Auburn with 5,000 tickets to sell for fans and 350 complimentary tickets.
Auburn will return the same payout to Cal and the same ticket allotments for next year’s game at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
What prompted these two schools to schedule? Unclear. The only mutual connection between these schools appears to be their apparel sponsor: Under Armour. Auburn is currently in search of a new apparel deal, and is free to negotiate with any company, including Under Armour.
AL.com contacted Under Armour to inquire if the company has had a role in organizing games between teams in its apparel network including this Auburn-Cal series or any other in-network matchup. Under Armour did not respond to multiple requests for interviews.
Auburn currently has a home-and-home series set up with UCLA in 2027 and 2028. UCLA was sponsored by Under Armour when that series was agreed upon but is now a Jordan brand team.