Notre Dame avoiding Big Ten looking better by the day

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Notre Dame had its chances to join the Big Ten. And while Jim Delany’s conference might not admit they were truly after Notre Dame, it’s becoming clear that the Irish’s unwillingness to join one of collegiate sport’s proudest traditional conferences necessitated the move to bring in Rutgers and Maryland.

As the dominoes of conference realignment began to tumble, many wondered how Rutgers and Maryland could get the call to join the Big Ten. Neither athletic department was profitable. Neither played sports — namely football — particularly well.

But Stewart Mandel’s recent column for Sports Illustrated takes an interesting look behind the curtain of Delany’s expansion vision, showing not just a money grab for cable subscribers in two major metropolitan markets, but also the deteriorating population statistics that necessitated the move eastward.

While the entire column deserves a read, here’s a key snippet from Mandel’s feature:

Maryland and Rutgers went a combined 13-13 last season. The Terrapins last finished in the AP top 10 in 1976; the Scarlet Knights never have. “Ohio State fans in particular are sick of having to defend the league after winning 24 straight [2012 and ’13] and still not getting the respect it deserves,” said Luke Zimmermann, founder of the Buckeyes blog Land Grant Holy Land. “This is not in their mind anything more than adding another Indiana or Purdue.”

To which Delany says, “That’s not a compelling comment to me. If the standard for expansion is you have to bring in Nebraska or Penn State, no one’s ever going to expand. There’s only a couple of those out there.” In his vision Rutgers and Maryland will soon develop into big-time football programs in large part because big-time football is now coming to them. Season-ticket sales are up 25% at each school mainly because Rutgers is now hosting Penn State and Michigan instead of Cincinnati and South Florida, while Maryland’s last ACC home game was against Boston College but its first Big Ten visitor will be Ohio State. Nearly a half-million Big Ten alums live from New York to Virginia, and the two newcomers will add a half-million more in that area.

Most of all, Delany believes the conference had no choice. As the Big Ten’s population moves South and West, the conference’s base is rapidly shrinking: Illinois, Michigan, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Iowa all rank among the 12 states with the smallest projected growth from 2000 to ’30. Meanwhile, between June ’10, when Nebraska joined the Big Ten and Colorado and Utah joined the Pac-12, and the Maryland and Rutgers announcements in November ’12, the SEC added Texas A&M and Missouri, and most important, the ACC delivered a death knell to the Big East, poaching Syracuse, Pittsburgh and, as a partial member, Delany’s long-coveted target, Notre Dame. The Big Ten, which had long claimed the most populous footprint of any conference, suddenly ranked a distant third. And with Syracuse, Pitt and Notre Dame, the ACC had moved directly into the neighborhood. A still unfolding lawsuit filed last year by Maryland against the ACC over the league’s $52 million exit fee claims that representatives from two ACC schools, acting on the conference’s behalf, contacted two Big Ten schools about joining. “That’s when it changed,” says Delany. “Once people start getting on our doorstep and calling our institutions, then I think it’s important to be able to be offensive and defensive. We came to the conclusion there was more risk in sitting still than there was in exploring other opportunities.”

We will see what Notre Dame’s future in football looks like this fall, with the Irish starting their pre-arranged scheduling alliance with the ACC. That’ll bring the Irish to Tallahassee, where they’ll meet the defending national champs. It’ll bring games with Louisville and North Carolina, and reboot games with Syracuse, as the Irish begin to tour the conference for five games a season.

Looking outside the prism of football, other Irish sports began their ACC membership during the 2013-14 seasons. There were both good experiences and bad — The men’s lacrosse and soccer teams, and the women’s basketball and softball teams thrived, while men’s basketball and baseball and women’s lacrosse struggled mightily. But with competition levels clearly going up, the Irish athletics department can’t help but get better in the coming years.

While the Big Ten has lagged behind, Notre Dame’s migration east started a long time ago, far before any conference alignment or expansion. Whether it was playing the Big East or in Shamrock Series games in New York, Notre Dame has never struggled to attract eyeballs on the East Coast. Add to that the Irish’s fertile recruitment of the Carolinas and Florida, getting stronger and stronger each year.

But the beauty of independence also allows a foothold on the West Coast. Annual trips west for Thanksgiving make keeping Stanford and USC on the schedule a no-brainer, keeping (and building) rivalries with both historic and strategic significance.

There’s no question that the Big Ten has figured out how to financially bridge the gap, with the Big Ten Network printing cash for its member schools as long as cable service providers keep the channel in bundles that sports-lovers need and are willing to pay for. But at the same time, money can’t make up for a disintegrating brand — and as Mandel’s article points out, Michigan doesn’t win with a home conference football schedule of Minnesota, Penn State, Indiana and Maryland. (Non-conference home games include Appalachian State, Miami (Ohio) and Utah. Ugh.)

“It seems like they keep pushing and pushing to see what our breaking point is,” MGoBlog.com founder Brian Cook told Mandel of the Big Ten’s changes.  “They keep doing things they know people will hate.”

As it pertains to Notre Dame, grumbling will continue as long as the Irish have to walk away from select rivalries, some painful to lose like Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue. But keeping the ability to build a schedule that allows the team to play coast to coast and retain its national brand was essential in keeping the Irish as one of college football’s marquee brands.

So while the Big Ten builds nine-game schedules and utilizes non-conference matchups with MAC programs, the Irish will continue playing their most important rivals, while “servicing” it’s commitment to a conference that’s supporting every other athletic program at the university. All in all, not a bad trade-off.

The Big Ten’s challenges are a nice reminder that Jack Swarbrick and the powers-that-be at Notre Dame had a very clear image of the big picture. That hasn’t always been the case for the men in charge under the Golden Dome.