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Notre Dame Mulls Shedding Its Independence

Mar 9, 2010 – 4:29 PM
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John Walters

John Walters %BloggerTitle%

John SwarbrickIs Notre Dame, an institution that for the longest time did not accept invitations to bowl games (and not just in seasons in which it finished 6-6), an institution that for the longest time did not accept female students, and an institution that in football has been forever fiercely independent, finally beginning to seriously consider joining a conference?

On Tuesday in New York City, Fighting Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick met with a few reporters and conceded that, in terms of current conference realignment rumors, "You can each come up with a scenario that would force our hand."

Such a scenario has two overriding factors: money and brand relevance. Beginning this season ESPN and its partner ABC will have the television rights to the four BCS bowls and the BCS Championship Game through 2014 (ESPN will air the BCS title game from 2011-2013 and ABC, which will retain exclusive control of the Rose Bowl, will air the 2014 BCS championship game from Pasadena). As Disney influence over college football continues to expand, Swarbrick must consider how Notre Dame's exclusive contract with NBC to air Fighting Irish home games (which runs through 2015) impacts his program.

Currently, Big Ten schools receive $22 million annually in television money, according to a recent report on ESPN's "Outside the Lines." Notre Dame, through its contract with NBC, receives about $15 million. That's correct: Indiana and Purdue both earn nearly 50 percent more in television money than fellow in-state program Notre Dame, even though the Irish dwarf both schools in terms of national interest.

Then comes the matter of Notre Dame maintaining -- many would say reclaiming -- its national prestige.

Swarbrick, a Notre Dame alumnus who earned a law degree from Stanford, said college football is in a period of peak instability, and that "we are at a point right now where the changes could be relatively small, or they could be seismic." In an environment in which a playoff is seriously being discussed -- a scenario that, to listen to the voices who dominate ESPN (and who, presumably, would not be so foolish as to directly contradict the wishes of ESPN executives on air), would be welcomed by that "family of networks" -- Swarbrick and Notre Dame president Father John Jenkins, C.S.C., must consider where a Notre Dame that has no conference affiliation and no home games broadcast on ESPN might fit.

It has been 22 years since Notre Dame, a school that won a national championship in all but one decade between the 1920s and 1980s, last played for the national title. And the truth is that when Notre Dame is not mired in mediocrity, as it has been for the past 15 years, its independence only extends its appeal: the school's many fans and alumni draw strength from it while its even more numerous legion of ardent detractors use it as the source of their vitriol. Either way, Notre Dame football receives more attention than any collegiate program, football or basketball, and most pro sports franchises.

As long as the Irish are winning. It has been a long time, however, since the Irish were consistently special (26-24 over the past four seasons). And so, within the confines of the Golden Dome and the Joyce Athletic & Convocation Center, Fr. Jenkins and Swarbrick, respectively, must wonder whether this fallow period represents a blip or if it is a symptom of the changing landscape of college football. If they conclude the latter, then expect Notre Dame to join a conference.

It is ironic that the first ESPN "College GameDay" episode to air from a campus site took place at Notre Dame (before the 1993 tilt between No. 1 Florida State and the No. 2 Irish). GameDay is emblematic of how college football has changed in the past two decades: host Chris Fowler and analysts Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreit are rock stars as soon as they step on campus. GameDay hasn't visited South Bend in five seasons (the '05 USC-Notre Dame classic). It's also somewhat funny that at halftime of ESPN football games viewers are returned to a studio that features Lou Holtz, the last messiah to resurrect Notre Dame from the ashes, while Notre Dame's NBC viewers get ... Jimmy Roberts.

Nearly two decades ago the first age of the super-conference was born, as the Southwest Conference (SWC) was sacrificed in order to create the newfangled SEC and expand the Big 8 to the Big 12. Then in 1992 the SEC, taking advantage of a loophole in the NCAA by-laws, created a lucrative conference championship game. The era of expanding conferences without regard to geography (Louisiana Tech, for example, is a member of the Western Athletic Conference) was upon us.

Swarbrick is concerned, and rightfully so -- "I'm spending 50 percent of my time talking to people about this" -- that we are at the dawn of the next age of the super-conference. When a few conferences, such as the Pac-10 and Big Ten, expand to join the economic elite of the SEC and Big 12 and separate themselves from the rest of the pack. And perhaps eventually those elite conferences become the framework for a playoff structure. At risk is whether Notre Dame passes up its opportunity to enlist with these elite and the ramifications of failing to do so.

(An aside: In 1987 Sports Illustrated had the opportunity to purchase ESPN. Really. The magazine passed. If you don't think the magazine regrets that decision every day ... some opportunities only come around once.)

The irony in all of this, of course, is that Notre Dame initially became a national brand specifically because it was spurned by the Big Ten. In 1926, as Knute Rockne and the Irish were at the height of their powers, Notre Dame's application to join the conference was voted down, primarily because the athletic directors at Michigan (Fielding Yost) and the University of Chicago (Amos Alonzo Stagg) were suspicious -- and perhaps just a little bit envious -- of Rockne's success. By spurning the Irish, the Big Ten forced Notre Dame to take to the national stage, where the school became the first of its kind to engender coast-to-coast appeal.

Earlier Tuesday a Notre Dame fan spoke for most of the school's faithful when he remarked on Twitter, "The argument for joining a conference almost always boils down to ... 'We gave up.' " There is much truth in that sentiment. An independent Notre Dame that can consistently finish in the top five makes up for in prestige and merchandising much of what it might sacrifice in television money by not aligning with the Big Ten.

The question is, can an independent Notre Dame draw and develop players who have no personal memory of a time when the Irish were the brand name in college football? Is the Irish brain-trust up to that challenge, or is it simply more expedient to abandon the attempt, to allow the school's football independence go the way of bowl-game refusals and all-male student bodies?
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