Monday, April 19, 2010

Conference Membership Inevitable? I'll Call That Bluff...

Over the last couple months there has been quite a bit of chatter regarding Notre Dame possibly joining a conference for football. This new wave of speculation has been driven by the Big Ten's renewed desire to expand in order to put on a conference championship game at the end of the season. At the very least their actions will shake up the Big Ten's world; at most it could send shockwaves through the entire college football universe. The notion that Notre Dame may be on the brink of giving up its independence has been fueled further by Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick's comments as reported by ESPN.

This entire situation is being overblown by people picking out certain lines of Swarbrick's remarks and not looking at the entirety of what he was saying. There are a lot of rumblings going on right now so of course Notre Dame is "monitoring the landscape." At the same time Swarbrick understands the history and tradition of Notre Dame Football and how important its success is to the rest of the University (something Mike Wadsworth and Kevin White never grasped). He's "monitoring" the landscape in case something absolutely crazy happens that really would force ND into a conference. The only thing big enough to do that is if there's a total realignment where D-I suddenly becomes 5-6 super conferences with the champions getting automatic bids into a playoff and if you're not in a conference you're left out in the cold. Frankly, there isn't a chance in hell that's going to happen--and, ironically, one reason is the Big Ten resisting a playoff and clinging to the tradition of Rose Bowl berths.

Swarbrick is far sharper than Kevin White. Over the course of his tenure as athletic director, White did everything he could to give away leverage little by little instead of showing a spine and holding ground. One example is the absolutely moronic BCS deal he cut that's already cost us $10mil. Another is how he allowed ND to be bullied by Purdue (PURDUE!?!?) into a long-term playing arrangement deal on their terms. Kevin White did more long-term damage to our football program than the previous four coaching failures--three of which he was in charge of hiring by the way.

We need to adopt the Augusta National attitude of sticking to our guns and not feeling the need to grab at every dollar that becomes available to us. Bill Simmons wrote (correctly) that Augusta could charge $79.99 to get all-access coverage on the internet so that you can see every hole of every round and they would've probably made MILLIONS more. They don't need the money though, just like we don't need the Big Ten's money. And let's be real: the ONLY reason to join the Big Ten would be for (short-term) financial reasons.

The biggest myth of this entire scenario is that somehow Notre Dame could be "forced" into joining a conference. That's absolute non-sense. People infer that in the new BCS there won't be a spot available for an independent such as Notre Dame. Really? If stipulations are put in so that minor conference teams like Boise State and TCU can qualify what makes people think an exception for the sport's premier brand won't continue? This argument has ZERO merit unless some sort of totally new playoff system develops where only automatic bids get to play (which is as likely as a Kevin White statue going up next to Notre Dame Stadium).

Others say that with a major conference realignment Notre Dame will be frozen out of scheduling any games of consequence once the conference seasons start, pointing to this year's slate (filled with five non-BCS conference games) as proof of how difficult it is to schedule even before this huge shakeup. The reality is the difficulty we're experiencing in attracting quality opponents is due to a self-created hurdle. The only reason we're having issues finding higher profile games is the newly adopted 7-4-1 format. The neutral site game is a fantastic idea to provide even more exposure for the football program in different locations across the country, but if we wish to do it then our scheduling needs to be 6-5-1 to allow the flexibility to play higher-profile opponents more consistently.

You better believe there's still a long, long list of teams that would be ready to come to South Bend and play in September, October, or long as the Irish promised a home-and-home series. Using the 7-4-1 model doesn't allow for that because we're locked into three road games each year (Michigan-Purdue-Stanford in odd years, Michigan State-Navy-USC in even years), meaning there is only one away game open and three home games to fill with teams not requiring a return game.

That is where the real shift in the college football landscape as it relates to Notre Dame has been; the allure of coming to South Bend without a return trip the next year just doesn't exist for major conference schools anymore. That is where Notre Dame must adjust and it's philosophy must change. Instead of attempting to bully teams like Rutgers and UConn into playing "home games" at neutral sites off-campus Notre Dame should do the fair and reasonable thing and schedule the games at their normal home stadium. Swarbrick also needs to return to a more national and diverse schedule instead of locking ourselves into arrangements like the mini-Big East slate through 2020 (thank you again, Dr. White). One of the major reasons Notre Dame has remained independent is it allows the ability to schedule whoever we want to play. White's philosophy during his time as AD pigeon-holed Notre Dame more and more. That's the trend Swarbrick needs to stop.

This entire debate has only been rekindled due to the fact that the Irish have been irrelevant in the national title race for so long. When ND is on top we have more clout than anyone, we make more money than anyone, and no one can force us to do anything. The Big Ten is circling Notre Dame right now because the program is going through the first prolonged dry spell in its history. Make no mistake, Notre Dame Football will be back. Will it be soon? All Irish fans hope so. But even if Brian Kelly doesn't prove to be the answer eventually there will be someone who brings the Irish back to the summit.

The key to Notre Dame weathering this most recent storm as the product on the field gets back on track is remembering who we are and not allowing others to chart our course. Recently we've been using our clout in all the wrong places (bullying smaller programs) and not exercising it where we should (with the BCS). Notre Dame needs to change with the times; but that means adjusting it's scheduling philosophy, not joining a conference. When it comes to overtures from the Big Ten, Big East, and whoever else Notre Dame must stand it's ground.

The reality is there will never come a day where the NCAA totally freezes out Notre Dame. If we call their bluff they'll show a hand that has no true leverage. I trust Jack to know that.


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