Summer classes began on Monday in South Bend, and every returning scholarship Fighting Irish gridder is on campus. Taking a class or two (hopefully typing or grammar is part of Cave's curriculum) so that his autumn load will be no more than the mandatory minimum of 12 hours in some cases. Lifting weights. Participating in "voluntary" workouts. In many ways, Cave is absolutely right: Monday is the first day of the 2010 season.
However, unless you happen to be a cave-dweller, you must recognize that by week's end we might learn that the Irish are not embarking on a new season, but perhaps a new era. And I don't mean the Brian Kelly era.
The operative number here is "10" -- the 2010 season, a number 10 under center in quarterback Dayne Crist and, most important, the Big Ten. If it were only commissioner Jim Delany's conference that was maneuvering to reconfigure itself, the Irish could easily afford to remain independent. In fact, a recent release of the University of Illinois' TV revenue from 2009 following a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request illustrates that the difference in payout Notre Dame would receive by joining that conference is, while not quite negligible, inconsequential. More on that at another time, but know this: It's not enough loot to drive the Irish into Delany's welcoming arms.
Of course, expansion is bigger than the Big Ten now. Rumors that the Pac-10 is ready to invite as many as six Big 12 schools appear credible. At the very least, Texas appears to be strongly in the mix. The Longhorns, like the Irish, are a very powerful domino.
News of the Pac-10's preemptive invitation to the fair-haired gal that is the Longhorns (honestly, why do so many things in life relate to senior prom?) caused Big 12 commissioner Don Beebe to launch into full panic mode. Taking a page out of Joseph Heller's "Catch-22," the Big 12 is going Milo Minderbinder on two of its top brands (or, as they were once quaintly known, universities), requiring both Missouri and Nebraska to sign the equivalent of a loyalty oath by Friday.
Funny, isn't it, how the Cornhuskers once again have the nation's most potent option play.
If Nebraska responds affirmatively to the conference's ultimatum -- and this will be a scenario, by the way, where if the Huskers sneeze, Mizzou catches a cold -- then expect the status of the Big 12 to remain quo. That is, if the Huskers pledge to remain in the Big 12, so will Missouri. And if they stay, there's a strong chance that Beebe can keep this marriage together.
However, if the Huskers pitch, that would signal that folks in Lincoln are looking eastward to the Big Ten instead of southward to their current home, the Big 12. Suddenly, by this time next week, it would look as if Nebraska was headed to a new and improved Big Ten. And that the prospect of the Longhorns and others joining the Pac 10 is quite probable.
And suddenly Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick will have to wonder whether the Irish, by remaining independent, would risk becoming the Yale of the 21st century. The Elis, you see, ruled college football in the 19th century and to this day have more All-Americans than any other. But it's been decades since Yale was anything more than an outstanding liberal arts institution, among the nation's finest, in fact. Yale is not a serious contender for a national championship. Sound like anyone you know?
It was interesting on Sunday that when the Big Ten big-wigs met the media, Lou Anna K. Simon, the chairperson of the Big Ten Council of Presidents/Chancellors, chastised the scribes. "I have facetiously said that at the start of this process, if we had given fifth-graders the criteria, the list of institutions would be essentially the list that has been bandied about by you all," said Simon, who is the president of Michigan State University. "With much more sophisticated analysis of the sense of 'fit', but academics have not been much of the conversation. This is more than teams playing teams."
You can always trust a Ph.D. to take seven years to accomplish something that could be done in half that time. Dr. Simon, it really isn't that complicated. Notre Dame is a tremendous academic institution. Only two schools in your conference rival its undergraduate reputation and, oh, neither of them are located in East Lansing, by the way. Notre Dame also, love it or hate it, has the most recognizable brand recognition of any program in college football (you might want to consult with someone from Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management about the importance of such; or just visit a McDonald's and ask yourself how come it's always so crowded even though the hamburgers aren't all that delicious).
Oh, and by the way, even a 5th grader knows that 1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1+1=11. I'm just sayin'.
Anyway, on either side of the aisle, whether the Big Ten really is that concerned with academic reputation, or whether Simon and Delany are more infatuated with exponentially higher payouts from the Big Ten Network, Notre Dame is the most attractive option. Notre Dame est la plus belle femme.
Thus, should there be a tremor in Lincoln in the next week whose reverberations are felt in the Land of Lincoln, where the Big Ten headquarters are located, expect the aftershocks to extend all the way to South Bend. Rumor has it that Notre Dame's board of trustees are split nearly down the middle now on whether the Irish should, well, cave. Join a conference. Finally.
The Fighting Irish open the 2010 season by playing three consecutive Big Ten opponents: Purdue, Michigan and Michigan State. Could we be on the precipice of the Irish some year soon closing a season with three consecutive Big Ten opponents?
Last month Brian Kelly, the first-year head coach of the Irish, was the featured speaker at a reception for the Notre Dame Club of St. Louis. Kelly's opening line, which drew more than a few chuckles, was, "It's great to be in Big Ten country."
Will that line still be funny a month from now?