CFB: Notre Dame must explore Big Ten bid because conference now good fit
By David Haugh
For the good of the Notre Dame community, somebody athletic director Jack Swarbrick respects should open his office door and urge him to open his mind regarding possible Big Ten membership.
Swarbrick responded to the conference’s announced interest in expansion by telling the Chicago Tribune: “Independence is a big part of the tradition of the program and our identity. We sure would like to try to maintain it.”
The only thing Domers are prouder of than their distinction as a football independent is their devotion to that stand-alone status. Almost every discussion of what Notre Dame football is circles back to what Notre Dame football was.
In a way, Swarbrick sounded like the guy everyone knows who doesn’t have an e-mail address because he hasn’t yet embraced the Internet. The world has changed dramatically since 1999, the last time Notre Dame seriously discussed the pros and cons of Big Ten affiliation.
It’s time for another conversation.
Notre Dame cannot risk ignoring this opportunity to explore making a historic move. Likewise, Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany cannot risk the conference getting snubbed again. The Irish need to pick up the phone. Don’t make the Big Ten wait because Delany won’t.
With due respect to Missouri, Pittsburgh and Rutgers, no potential additional member benefits the Big Ten more than Notre Dame. It would be naive for Swarbrick, on the job just 17 months, to dismiss how mutually beneficial that relationship might be.
The recent coaching search suggested the Notre Dame football program possesses a realistic view of what it currently is. And, of more importance, what it isn’t. Brian Kelly represented the ideal, compatible choice after it was determined neither Urban Meyer nor Bob Stoops would drop everything just to coach Notre Dame.
The Notre Dame that Swarbrick and other idealists describe is a place where no coach could have resisted the chance to walk the same sideline Rockne and Leahy and Parseghian walked. But it hasn’t been that place since Davie and Willingham and Weis walked there too. That’s the point.
University leaders need to learn from the lesson of hiring Kelly and let it guide them in deciding whether to pursue Big Ten membership. Out with self-aggrandizement, in with self-awareness.
It won’t be easy. One Notre Dame professor contacted Thursday said he polled his class of 75 students about joining the Big Ten. Only three students were for it. Alumni sentiments likely would reflect that opposition. Everyone minors in nostalgia at Notre Dame.
There is no guarantee the faculty would support the move either. But Notre Dame needs to discuss this for reasons that have little to do with academic consortiums or alumni clubs.
Don’t kid yourself. This is solely a football argument.
Those under the Golden Dome who cling to the idea that Notre Dame is independent overlook that the university has belonged to the Big East for 15 years. That philosophical bridge has been crossed.
A key thing Notre Dame must consider: Realistically, the Irish could gain easier access to the Bowl Championship Series games as a member of the Big Ten than as an independent.
“The BCS redefined success at Notre Dame,” said Gerry DiNardo, a former Notre Dame All-American who is an analyst for the Big Ten Network. “Prior to BCS it was national championship or bust for Notre Dame. Not now.”
Now, a middle ground exists that not every Irish fan or alumnus wants to acknowledge. As DiNardo pointed out, an independent Notre Dame team with two losses by midseason — the rule more than the exception lately — struggles to find motivation the remaining two months. A Big Ten team with two losses by midseason after expansion still would have a shot to win its division and play in the lucrative conference title game.
Other issues that influenced Notre Dame’s decision in 1999 no longer appear to be deal-breakers. Its exclusive NBC contract runs through 2015, but nobody can predict what the future holds now that the network has been sold. Besides, Big Ten affiliation would generate even more TV revenue for the university.
Fears of losing traditional rivals USC and Navy from the schedule seem unnecessary as Notre Dame still will have to play at least two nonconference games.
The biggest obstacle remains identity.
When Notre Dame looks in the mirror, it sees the image it desperately wants to see. As its football program enters a new age with the Big Ten offering this rare opportunity, it behooves Notre Dame to take a second look.
At this juncture in history, Notre Dame may need the Big Ten more than the Big Ten needs Notre Dame.