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The battle for independence

Mar 10, 2010, 12:42 PM EST

During the dredges of the offseason, the smallest quotes often times make the biggest news. And when Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick spoke to a small assembly of media and mentioned that Notre Dame could one day be forced to join a conference in college football, it created quite a stir.

“I believe we’re at a point right now where the changes could be relatively small or they could be seismic,” Swarbrick said. “The landscape could look completely different. What I have to do along with Father Jenkins is try and figure out where those pieces are falling and how the landscape is changing.”

With that, the debate begins.

I spent much of yesterday thinking about the issue and reading the rapid reactions that covered the internet. If anything, it proved that Notre Dame will forever be a lightning rod in college football.

The idea of Notre Dame joining the Big Ten has been around for a very long time. The closest the Irish ever got was in 1999, when the school rejected an offer to become the 12th member of the league. At the time, the Big Ten needed the Irish far more than Notre Dame needed them. We can’t necessarily say that right now.

The dollar amount that NBC pays Notre Dame to broadcast their football games has been thrown around quite a bit. Even working for the network, I’ve got no idea what it is, but the very high-end of estimates put the price tag at $15 million. With the inception of the Big Ten Network, conference schools are earning $22 million annually from TV revenues. That’s 47 percent more per team than Notre Dame makes from NBC. That’s a lot of money that can go toward academic progress, scholarships, non-revenue earning sports programs, or to an endowment that took a pretty big hit in the last year.

Still, the relinquishing of independence shouldn’t be over a seven-figure dollar amounts. To paraphrase the influential blog NDNation.com, the argument against joining a conference comes down to three key words: Geography, Diversity, and Differentiation.

Quoting (in paraphrases) from NDNation:

Geography: Notre Dame sits square in the middle of the [Big Ten]‘s geographic footprint, so at first glance, it might seem to be a good fit. But the value of Notre Dame’s brand was built based on national appeal. There’s a reason update and op-ed columns regarding Notre Dame’s pursuit of Brian Kelly were written for or published in… any number of other cities. You don’t waste column inches on stories in which no one is interested. But how long will that interest be maintained if the Fighting Irish end
up playing 9 of their 12 games every year in a Midwest geographic
footprint against other teams from that same footprint?

Diversity: Notre Dame has little, if anything, in common with any of them. Notre
Dame graduates about two to three thousand people per year, while the [Big Ten] factory in total cranks out numbers in six figures. Notre
Dame’s graduation rate for undergrads typically operates north of 95
percent, and its rates for student athletes leads the nation. The rates
for most of the Integer schools, by comparison, are downright
embarrassing. When you join a conference, the needs of the many supplant the needs of the few… Notre Dame will be subjected to a steady diet of being on the wrong end of 10-2 and 11-1 decisions.

Differentiation: When a recruit comes to Notre Dame’s campus, aside from being presented
with the scholastic and spiritual ways in which Notre Dame is different
from their competitors, they also see the opportunity to play a
national schedule. Why limit yourself to games against your neighbors,
the coaches can say, when you can play Southern Cal and Navy and
Tennessee and Florida State and Pittsburgh and Oklahoma and Boston
College and Arizona State, all of whom have appeared recently or will
appear on future Notre Dame schedules?

I don’t hold dear the thought of independence the way Mike Coffey and the guys at NDNation do, and as a fellow Notre Dame graduate, I can safely say my pride in my alma mater has nothing to do with avoiding membership in a football conference. Just to play devil’s advocate to Coffey’s persuasive piece, here are a few quick retorts to his arguments:

Geography: To think Notre Dame will lose national appeal because it joins a conference is a stretch. To claim that the Irish won’t receive coverage in Florida because it plays 9 of its 12 games in the same geographic footprint makes little sense because — for the most part — the Irish already do that. For the past 10 years, the Irish have played a schedule that falls within those confines, especially when you consider Pitt, a common Irish foe, is well within the reach of the Big Ten conferences reach with the addition of Penn State.

Diversity: If you just get done arguing the reach of the university, and the limitations of the Big Ten, you might consider the limitations of the conference Notre Dame actually belongs to: The Big East. Schools like DePaul, Marquette, Providence, Seton Hall, and Villanova hardly bring to mind a national feel. Schools like West Virginia, South Florida, Louisville, Cincinnati, and UConn are gigantic public schools that share little culturally or academically with Notre Dame. The affiliation with the Big East hasn’t done anything to harm the academic reputation of the school, and while it has a better mix of public and private universities than the Big Ten, I think it’s hard to just assume that Notre Dame will be forced onto the wrong side of 10-2 and 11-1 decisions. Athletically, the Irish have much more in common with the Big Ten than any other conference in the country. That should be a big reason why you join an athletic conference. 

Differentiation: My biggest argument lies here. If you’re already arguing that Notre Dame is scholastically and spiritually different than just about any school it’d partner with, what’s the fear? If you’re claiming that a conference alignment would take away a chance to play nationally, you should take a look at what the Irish have done the past dozen years?

Since 1998, Notre Dame’s schedule has hardly been as national as we’d all like to believe. There have been traditional West Coast opponents — Southern Cal and Stanford — Traditional East Coast opponents — Pitt, Boston College, Navy — Big East teams — Syracuse, Rutgers, West Virginia — and a large selection of Big Ten teams.

In the last 12 years, the only truly national away games have been match-ups against teams like North Carolina, Washington, UCLA, Arizona State, Georgia Tech, Air Force, BYU, Maryland, Texas A&M, Nebraska, Tennessee and Florida State, or roughly one national game per season. Those final three games haven’t been on the Irish schedule since ’04, and are likely not to be on in the future as long as Notre Dame clings to the 7-4-1 scheduling format. Joining the Big Ten, or any other conference, would hardly limit the Irish from doing that.

Any other claim of differentiation likely has roots in Notre Dame’s hallowed place in college football’s history, a claim that contributes to Notre Dame’s contentious place in today’s college football landscape. As the years continue to grow since the last dominant stretch of Notre Dame football, the stubborn claim to cling to football independence wreaks more of elitist entitlement than being for the actually good of the university.  

In the end, it bears mentioning that a change by Swarbrick and Jenkins isn’t any more likely today than it was last year.

“We start that process with a clear preference,” Swarbrick said. “We just have to pay attention and stay on top of the game and talk to people. That’s what I’m spending 50 percent of my time doing right now. I’ve been in and around this business for 29 years now. This is as unstable as I’ve seen it.”

As the rumors continue about a potential game of high-stakes musical chairs that could transform college football, it should be comforting that the current administration at least understands how the game is played.

The last one sitting always loses.

  1. TLNDMA - Mar 10, 2010 at 3:17 PM

    two points:
    1. NBC’s contract with ND is only for football, Is the Big Ten payout only for football, or all sports?
    2. Once you go in to a conference there will be no going back. I think I side with ND Nation on this one.

  2. jimbasil - Mar 10, 2010 at 6:24 PM

    NBC’s contract is for how many games? The Big Ten Contract for TV is for all games. Your math is wrong. Unless of course ND does not get paid for all their other appearances on TV on other networks throughout the year.
    It appears most people are wearing horse blinders when looking at this issue. ND gains nothing tangible by joining a conference. So what if and conference wants to expand. It can’t hurt ND. Seismic events? That’s Bush/Rove Crazy talk; it makes no sense whatsoever. None. Swarbrick is inventing chaos to gather in all the opinions to move forward on moving into a conference. It’s bogus time in college football once again. There is no logical argument that would conclude ND needs to join a conference for football. At least none that has been put on the table.
    Please make sane argument.

  3. Harvey - Mar 10, 2010 at 8:35 PM

    Keith – agree with the post. One Major Omission: You forgot to add that your brother was once a Steve Tasker-like special teams maverick for the University of Wisconsin Badgers. The chance to have the family divided over a football game once per fall is something you can’t pass up. Can you imagine the bragging rights at Thanksgiving?

  4. TLNDMA - Mar 11, 2010 at 5:56 AM

    Agreed. Other than scheduling becoming impossible, if they don’t join, I can see no reason to join a conference. A few more $$ isn’t as important as the control being an independent affords ND. As for other sports, being a member of the Big East, seems to work fine.

  5. Jeff - Mar 11, 2010 at 10:04 AM

    I was a student at ND when there was serious discussion about joining the Big Ten back in 1999. One of the key issues then was actually academic, not athletic. Big Ten schools are unanimously research institutions. Joining the Big Ten would require ND to adopt a more research-heavy identity than it currently has, expanding doctorate programs and likely significantly increasing the overall graduate school footprint. In fact, the ND faculty senate, keen on a more robust research focus at the University, voted to approve the move to join the Big Ten before the Board of Trustees voted it down.
    NYT’s Jere Longman wrote an interesting article on the topic back in January: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/30/sports/30bigten.html
    In short, this is not just an athletic issue, but a decision that would impact the academic identity of the school as well.

  6. Tim - Mar 11, 2010 at 5:17 PM

    Well said. Times and circumstances change. The university has to be flexible and adapt. That somehow, by joining a football conference, Notre Dame would be devalued as an institution is a canard. The greater challenge would be its reception as a peer “research university.” It still has many miles to go to match the reputations of most state university graduate departments, including the those in the Big Ten. Yes, football is an important part of Notre Dame’s history and tradition, but it is hardly the glue that holds the “spirit of Notre Dame” together. Much more important has been its religious heritage. The secularization of the university in the last couple of decades has done much more long-term harm to its foundation than the status of the football program.

  7. matt - Mar 12, 2010 at 12:15 PM

    I think that if the BCS stays as it is, the best opportunity for ND to make a BCS bowl is to join a conference that has an automatic bid, like the Big Easy (the same conference that stoned the irish with losses to Pitt and Connecticut). The independent schedule that ND has played, with the exception of USC, has been soft. And it appears that the schedule will be even softer in 2010. So what if ND wins 9 or 10 games in 2010 playing renta-victims? That should not get them a bid to a BCS game. If they played a Big 10 schedule that included Ohio State and Penn State and then won 9 games, completely different. If however the BCS can be changed into a play off format, the independent schedule wouldn’t be as much of a drawback. Lastly, I know nothing about television contracts, but $15m sounds pretty skimpy – I am guessing ND picks up a LOT more than $15m.

  8. irishfan1123 - Mar 12, 2010 at 8:40 PM

    This perception of the Notre Dame “weak schedule” is getting a little old. The final sagarin ranking of Notre Dame’s 2009 schedule was 37th, higher than every Big Ten member’s except for Minnesota (26). So you can’t say that ND’s schedule is weak unless you admit that almost every Big Ten member’s schedule is just as weak. Notre Dame schedules their opponents 2 or 3 years in advance, so its kind of a toss up whether the schedule will be good or not. The only real abysmal team that ND faced last season was Washington State, so please, lets stop with this “soft schedule” garbage.

  9. Terry - Mar 19, 2010 at 6:56 AM

    Tim – I’m with you – “the secularization of the university in the past couple of decades has done much more long term harm to its foundation than the status of the football program.”
    Well said and thank you.

  10. robertg - Mar 24, 2010 at 2:29 AM

    1. whether any notre dame fans like it or not, purcell, swarbrick, and jenkins have notre dame football already illegally signed up for the big east conference or the big 10, with the outcome depending on whether or not the big esst conference( the big least in football), after defections from the big least to the big 10. can retain its automatic bcs bid.
    2. we do not agree that anything that purcell, swarbrick, and jenkins do illegally on their own cannot be undone in the civil courts. after all, no one voted them the powers of 3 petty dictators which they have been exercising.
    3. we congratulate every student athlete on notre dame womens’ basketball team and coach mcgraw and her staff on making their way to the sweet 16.
    4. we wish the best to every student athlete on notre dame’s fencing teams and tyheir coaches with both the men and the women ranked no 1 going into this week’s national championships.
    5. if they win- there is only one national combined title for men and women combined- notre dame will have its 8th national championship in fencing.
    6. notre dame’s football program under the current management and reslife continue to be the only serious disasters at notre dame and we will have those problems fixed before the 2011 season begins.
    7. for those who can stomach the experience, enjoy kelly’s one season at notre dame.
    8. we always wish every notre dame student athlete the very best, but there are limits to what they can do with millstones like kelly and his staff hung around their necks.
    9. our national litigation project is moving along all over the us right on schedule.
    GO IRISH!!!

  11. borromini - Mar 27, 2010 at 11:26 AM

    The fact that our schedule since ’04 hasn’t been national in scope is NOT an indication that ND has no intent of going more national in future years and therefore…the misguided belief that there is no harm in joining a conference.
    Independence affords the school the opportunity to modify the flavor of their schedule, short-term or long-term…the option is always there and we Irish fans hope it does return with a greater level of consistency. There is no reason not to.
    With KW out of the picture and hopefully the demise of the absurd 7-4-1 format, we can return to more of a national platform for our games. Joining the B10 or any other football conference will for sure eliminate that option for good.
    ND’s involvement in the BE for all other sports is another weak point made by Arnold to counter NDN’s point on geographic footprint. To make a case for joining a conference by lumping ND football with all other sports is to not understand what makes ND football unique…reading it in a blog by an ND grad who mistakes this uniqueness for elitism is merely indicative that alums aren’t immune to losing or never truly ever “getting it” when it comes to ND football.

  12. Al Cramer - Mar 27, 2010 at 1:54 PM

    My preference is to remain independent. That said, I think it likely that the Big Whatever will attempt to expand to 14, divided into 2 divisions, adding 3 of ND, Pitt, Missouri, or Syracuse. If ND could be assured of being in a division with Michigan, MSU, Purdue, and Pitt, and having only the 6 games against division opponents count toward the league title, our national scheduling wouldn’t be seriously impacted.

  13. Dan - Mar 27, 2010 at 10:12 PM

    Notre Dame will never need to join a conference, not as long as there are strong-willed individuals in charge who put Notre Dame’s best interest above all else (e.g. money). Such people might not be in charge however, so I’d like to point out where your and their analysis falls short.
    Geography: Since 2005, Notre Dame has played teams like USC, Stanford, Washington, BYU, Tennessee, Syracuse, Georgia Tech, UCLA, North Carolina, Air Force, Army, BC, Pitt, Duke, Washington State & UConn. Notre Dame has upcoming games against many of those teams and other games against Utah, USF, Maryland, Oklahoma and Arizona State. If Notre Dame begins playing 9 games a year in Big Ten territory, the only likely games left will be against USC, Navy & a buy game (or maybe even 2 buy games at the expense of dropping USC or Navy). That’s hardly the kind of geographic footprint that will keep Notre Dame’s status as a national team. Games may be available on cable, but the fan base and alumni base will shrink.
    Diversity: This is perhaps where your analysis fails the most. Notre Dame is only a part of the Big East conference as far as all non-football athletics are concerned. So Notre Dame hasn’t been on the wrong side of Big East voting as it pertains to football or academic or religious matters because Notre Dame does not participate in such votes. The Big East simply houses their non-football teams. And while football, and to a lesser extent basketball, are what drive the money for each conference, academics are an important factor of conference affiliation. Notre Dame is a small, private, Catholic institution that would be voting against 10 large, public, secular universities. Even Northwestern and the University of Chicago, despite being small and private, might have a different perspective and priorities because they are not Catholic. Factor in the hard feelings that many Big Ten schools have towards Notre Dame and they’d be between a rock and a hard place.
    Differentiation: Notre Dame is scholastically, spiritually and athletically different than any other Big Ten institution. And as pointed out above, they do play a national schedule. And they need to because Indiana is not a hot bed for football recruiting, and with self-imposed limits based upon the academic and behavioral requirements that recruits must go through at ND, they need as large a recruiting pool as possible. Regionalizing their schedule will undermine those efforts and put them at a disadvantage recruiting against other Big Ten teams who have lower standards for admission and eligibility. Furthermore, the 7-4-1 scheduling model is an ill-conceived notion and should be scrapped as soon as possible. Notre Dame should not base conference affiliation upon a self-imposed restriction that needs to be lifted.
    If Notre Dame can commit to excellence on the football field, the money will follow and they can continue their independence. For now, they have more than enough money to compete with the best programs in college football and fulfill their commitment to quality education for undergraduates. Notre Dame will never be “forced” to join a conference to survive, but rather they will be “forced” to join a conference because they simply want a larger slice of the pie. Those familiar with the history of Notre Dame’s program value their football independence fiercely, and rightfully so.

  14. Bobr - Mar 28, 2010 at 4:03 PM

    Mr. Arnold unknowingly makes a much better argument for ND to join the ACC rather than the Big 10. ACC has more private schools (four to Big Ten’s one). Two religious schools (Wake and BC) to none. Better undergrad academics than the Big Ten (Duke, Wake, UVa UNC and BC). Far better olympic sports programs than the Big Ten. Far greater geographical breadth than the Big Ten (from the northeast to the deep south). All in all the ACC is a much better fit for ND than the Big Ten. That said, I hope ND stays independent in football.

  15. SamP - Mar 29, 2010 at 10:10 AM

    If the Big East remains viable, NDs best option is to retain the Big East affiliation. The Big East is unquestionably the best basketball conference and has clearly helped ND improve in basketball, both men and women. They also provide a lot of value in other sports. The Big East is a large conglomeration of public and private schools and ND has a lot in common (Villanova, Georgetown, Providence in particular as private Catholic institutions) with many of these schools. As far as football, they have several solid football schools (West Virginia, Louisville, Pitt), several schools growing their football tradition that have been going to and winning most of their bowl games (Rutgers, UConn, USF) and Syracuse which although recently has had a downturn they have a strong tradition. I believe ND should stay independent in football, but in the end the Big East offers the best opportunity for ND to compete for a BCS bid and I believe they would be flexible from a scheduling standpoint in allowing ND to retain much of their national schedule.

  16. Bill - Mar 29, 2010 at 11:36 PM

    Notre Dame is easily the biggest brand in college football. That brand has contributed mightily to its national image and reputation.
    Considering just athletics alone, it would violate every known principle of maintaining a #1 brand identity for ND to join a conference.
    All the arguments about scheduling, geography, and athletic fit are mere strawmen which can be easily knocked down if the ND administration and athletics department just act sensibly and with the courage of the convictions which they SHOULD have.

  17. Jeremy - Mar 30, 2010 at 3:22 AM

    Notre Dame has a lot more to lose than gain in joining a football conference. They already have the most unique brand in college football, the richest football tradition in the nation, a network that nationally televises their games every week, the freedom to schedule basically any team they want to play, and a coast-to-coast following of loyal fans. Why fix what isn’t broken? The only problem with ND football in recent years is that we havn’t been WINNING big games. And we havn’t been losing because we are not in a conference either; it has been the inability of the coaches to get the team to play together. The LEAST of Notre Dame’s football woes over the past couple decades has been their status as an independant.
    Besides the fact becoming part of a conference would effect more aspects of the school than just the football program, it just doesn’t make sense for Notre Dame to make that type of move. The fact is that if we field a team that can play well together and win games, we’ll make a BCS Bowl anyway, despite not being in a conference. I just think it would be a dumb move to ruin what Notre Dame has right now in terms of tradition, uniqueness, and spirit that surrounds not just the football program, but the entire Notre Dame community. A big draw to Notre Dame is that there is nothing else like it in the country.

  18. Rob - Mar 30, 2010 at 5:31 PM

    Notre Dame is becoming less relevant nationally by the year. Once considered Elite in college football, ND can hardly be considered a Top 25 program these days. So many more schools have caught and even passed ND. Florida is just 1 example – a school who in 1990 had no conf championships or Nat’l titles, now ND is not even in their rear view mirror they are so far behind UF. Super Conferences with conference Championship games, huge TV contracts, and BCS title games is what it is about today. How long can NBC hold onto the Irish?, when they can ink a deal with the new Pac-14 or Big-14 conference similar to the deal the SEC just received. Under the current system, ND leaves itself very little chance to make the BCS title game by remaining independent. Why do you think the Pac 10 and Big 10 want to expand, so they can have a conference title game, giving a 1 or 2 loss team a better shot at the BCS title. Next there is recruiting, academics rigors a side, you tell a player ND only plays for Nat’l titles, but since when, before they born. At least in a conf, there is a chance to win a championship. The mentality today in the SEC is win your league and the rest will take care of itself – it has worked for 4 straight BCS titles (3 with teams with 1 or more losses) and 5 of 7 and this does not count Auburn in 04. Times are far different than 1990 when there were about 25 independents and ND was on top, now they are lumped with the 2 remaining indp, Navy & Army, one of which they can not beat regularly anymore. Today, ND would have to go un-defeated and hope there was no SEC or Big 12 champion un-defeated, if there was ND would be out! That would have been un heard under the old poll / bowl system. ND is a great school with incredible tradition, maybe the greatest in the US, but time has come to join major college football and seek a conference affilation, otherwise ND may find themselves outside looking in with nothing to show for it.

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