Marcus Freeman did not want Notre Dame to take one of its two weeks off in 2023 on only the second week of the season. Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick had long wanted to put a historically Black university on Notre Dame’s football schedule. The Irish men’s basketball team showed how well doing so can be executed and received with their Martin Luther King Jr. Day game at Howard University this past January, a game postponed by a year due to the pandemic.
And, crucially, Tennessee State had the appropriate gap in its schedule.
Thus, Notre Dame will play an HBCU, let alone an FCS program, for the first time in its modern era on Sept. 2, 2023.
The first piece of the logistics was the 2023 schedule. With Ohio State, Clemson and USC already on the docket, Swarbrick was not going to go looking to add another powerhouse. When the Irish moved their home game against Navy to Dublin, replacing the scrapped 2020 rendition, which would have qualified as a Midshipmen home game, the transatlantic trip left a gap both in elongating Notre Dame’s season and in having at least six true home games.
Taking an idle week on Labor Day weekend is not ideal, even if that is exactly what the Irish had planned in 2020. Rather, the NCAA exception to begin the season a week early due to the trip abroad could be turned into an advantage if it created a second off week in the thick of the season, something Freeman saw value in.
“A little bit had to do with the annual exercise of working with Marcus, in this case, to say when do we want the byes to fall,” Swarbrick said Wednesday. “What should that look like?
“We originally talked about a bye on this date, but to take your bye so early in the season isn’t a great idea. As we started to talk about this, we said what if we moved the bye and used this date.”
Finding an opponent to open its season at Notre Dame on relatively short notice — and yes, in college football scheduling, 17 months is exceptionally short notice — was not going to offer the largest pool of options. Even when the 2023 move to Dublin was announced in November, that left less than two years to fill the schedule after adjusting for that five-hour time change.
But Swarbrick had already been considering playing an HBCU. He worked as the chairman of the Indiana Sports Corporation from 1992 to 2001, one of the two entities responsible for the annual Circle City Classic in Indianapolis, a game each year featuring a pair of HBCUs. By the time Swarbrick left Indianapolis for Notre Dame in 2008, Tennessee State had played in the game six times, but more notably, the game itself had stuck with Swarbrick.
“That was one of the best events of the year,” he said. “The excitement around that event, their alumni coming to our city, the bands, the game, and it had always been a goal to bring some of that here if we could figure out a way to do it.”
The men’s basketball aspect of this recipe was likely minimal, but Notre Dame traveling to Howard University in Washington, D.C., and playing a game in front of a full crowd resonated both locally and broadly.
“The success of that and all the benefits we saw from our student-athletes and the university accelerated the desire to get this done,” Swarbrick said.
A time restriction, a shallow pool of possibilities and a recognition of the value of playing an HBCU all made this Irish first the logical conclusion for Swarbrick, but why choose Tennessee State?
Swarbrick said he looked into the current state of HBCU football programs. It makes for a nice sound bite that the Tigers have won 12 Black college football national titles, but those are about as relevant to this matchup as Knute Rockne’s championships at Notre Dame. The more pertinent piece of Tennessee State football is head coach Eddie George and what he represents in terms of the athletic department’s growth.
‘The thing that struck me the most as we considered our options was the trajectory of this program,” Swarbrick said. “What they’re achieving, whether it is the valuation of adding hockey in partnership with the [Nashville Predators] and the NHL, (or) the investments they’re making in the football program, it just felt right. This was a program at the right position at the right time to do it.
“We’re really excited about the additional programming we think we can do around this game. There’s opportunities for our presidents to do some things together, faculty, certainly the bands beyond halftime. We have to take advantage of that.”
If the Irish had sought any FCS program whatsoever to fill the unique hole in the schedule, those opportunities would not have turned the guarantee game into an event. If they had continued with playing only FBS programs, that Sept. 2 date likely would have turned into an idle week, minimizing the possible perks of playing abroad. (Just as an example, a team quite literally drawn from thin air: Louisiana-Monroe plays Army on Sept. 2, 2023. To add another, UMass plays at Auburn. Those were the first two examples looked at.)
Instead, Notre Dame found an opportunity to elevate an HBCU onto a national stage, naturally something that Freeman values as the second Black head coach in Irish history.
“It’s a huge honor,” he said. “I understand I’m a representation of many others. This game represents opportunities for all individuals. … I take it with the utmost respect and the utmost appreciation for this opportunity.”
DEFINING THE MODERN ERA
Of the current FCS programs, the last one that played the Irish was Penn in 1955, but at that point, Penn and Notre Dame were only a few years removed from being the two programs to spur the NCAA to restrict live television broadcasts. The Ivy League had not yet formed. Penn was more an equivalent to an FBS team, so to speak, back then than it is now. Penn was ranked No. 12 in 1951 when it played the No. 10 Irish to a 7-7 tie, after all.
Go back further than that, and No. 5 Notre Dame beat Detroit Mercy 40-6 in 1951. That can probably be considered the last non-FBS program the Irish faced, though the Titans did lay claim to the 1928 national championship, coached by former Irish quarterback and Knute Rockne teammate, Gus Dorais. One half of the pair that anecdotally invented the forward pass, Dorais coached at Detroit Mercy from 1925 to 1942.