By the time No. 7 Notre Dame took the field against Indiana to open the 1991 season, the panic around NBC broadcasting Irish home games had begun to subside. That 49-27 Notre Dame victory stands now as a footnote in history, the first game in an exclusive deal that will reach its 30th year exactly 30 Saturdays from now when the Irish meet Arkansas, but that footnote lingers for a reason.
Beating the Hoosiers marked the implementation of a reality that would supposedly spell the end of times for college football. As Sports Illustrated quoted Arkansas athletic director Frank Broyles, the five-year, $38 million contract elicited “Surprise, shock, greed and ultimate greed. That’s the reaction I’m getting from people.”
Perhaps the only phrase to linger across three decades more than Broyles’ “greed and ultimate greed” was the SI headline, “We’re Notre Dame — And You’re Not.” That, Broyles’ summary and Penn State head coach Joe Paterno’s quip aside (“We got to see Notre Dame go from an academic institute to a banking institute.”), William F. Reed’s five-page spread spent more time accurately projecting what the NBC deal foreshadowed than it did wailing for the lost times of little televised football.
That article came out 30 years ago this week — available in full via the wonder that is the SI Vault, see pages 56-60 — and it completely failed to mention the Indiana footnote. One can thus be forgiven for not realizing Wally Pipp-esque quarterback Trent Green threw four interceptions on Sept. 7, 1991, not the last crumbling passing performance captured by NBC’s cameras.
Of course, Irish head coach Lou Holtz credited neither his defense nor the national broadcast for getting to Green.
“I don’t think we’re tackling well as a football team and I’m really worried about our strength up front,” Holtz said. “They did some things we had trouble adjusting to, but you expect that from a young football team.”
Maybe Holtz’s focus was on getting Rick Mirer (11-of17 for 209 yards and one score) into Heisman form, and the country’s focus was, by then, on topping Florida State or halting the Miami dynasty, but the initial reaction to Notre Dame and NBC pairing up was as vitriolic as Broyles and Paterno made it seem. Even in his retroactively-reasonable article, Reed opened with “Jeer, jeer for old Notre Dame,” before finding the forced turn of phrase, “greediron.”
The Irish were leaving the College Football Association’s negotiated deal with ABC, something the Big Ten and the Pac-10 had already done, though history tends to gloss over those conference choices. Notre Dame was doing so to the tune of many millions of dollars, all of which would go to either opponents or the scholarship fund. And the Irish did this logically, its rationale largely overlooked at the time, making this decision following the 1989 season when they were featured in the three top-rated games in the country (vs. USC, at Michigan, at Penn State).
That was the driving logic for the University. The CFA’s newest deal would result in significantly less reach for everyone’s games, many becoming regional broadcasts. That would not fit a school with Notre Dame’s national reach; and frankly, no regional footprint would have welcomed the Irish in such a fashion as to accommodate a network’s wants. The deal was fraught in many respects.
Instead, Notre Dame and NBC came to terms.
“People are entitled to their opinion, and we assumed there would be some negative reaction,” said University Executive Vice President Fr. Bill Beauchamp, also the secretary-treasurer of the CFA. “But Notre Dame was in a unique position with some unique problems, and people have to understand that.”
Thus, Irv Smith’s 58-yard touchdown catch from Mirer was seen from coast-to-coast, a memorable score when four Indiana defenders could not bring down the tight end.
Smith’s rumbling through those Hoosiers into the end zone may have been as inevitable as the Irish leading the way into the current era of college football despite their peers’ complaints. To Reed’s credit, he recognized that right away.
“Strange as it may seem, the Irish may have done college football a favor by breaking away from the CFA, which now has 63 members in its TV package,” he wrote. “Notre Dame’s defection may encourage some other members to step out on their own, too, thus forcing the sport to undergo the massive overhaul it sorely needs. … The day soon may be at hand when traditional conferences are revamped.
“… So jeer, jeer for old Notre Dame if you must, but also understand that Joe Fan might benefit from the Irish’s power play.”
Joe Fan has. This 30th year of Notre Dame on NBC should underscore that, highlighted by a trip to Lambeau Field to face Wisconsin and a visit from title favorite and Heisman frontrunner Clemson and Trevor Lawrence.
Before then, though, 29 more Saturdays await the Razorbacks’ visit. In other words, 29 more chances to remember a moment broadcast by NBC, the rest assuredly more dramatic than the last time the in-state opponents met, an afternoon in which Indiana was out-gained by 160 yards despite punting just once. That may not have been a game of much renown, but what it represented played a pivotal role in changing the sport.
“Money is the name of the game, and people want to see Notre Dame,” former Irish star Paul Hornung told Reed. “That’s the bottom line.
“But there’s plenty of room out there for football on TV, and I think we’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg.”