The battle for independence

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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.