Relax, people. Notre Dame isn’t going anywhere.
The fact that the Irish are even talking about it, though, likely means somebody else will, maybe sooner than you think.
What was supposed to be a meet-and-greet for recent hire Brian Kelly took an unexpected turn early last week, when the new Notre Dame coach was asked whether college football’s last major independent might consider joining a conference.
Spotting athletic director Jack Swarbrick off to one side, Kelly pointed in that direction.
“Go ask Jack,” he said.
A handful of reporters did. They got an earful.
Instead of the usual bland assurances, Swarbrick said Notre Dame was “trying like hell” to stay independent. College football was at a tipping point, he cautioned, and the resulting changes “could be relatively small or they could be seismic.” With the landscape “as unstable as I’ve ever seen it,” he said everything was up for discussion.
Got all that?
“You each could invent a scenario that would force our hand,” Swarbrick said. “It’s not hard to do.”
It’s a fascinating offer, to be sure, even if only half the rumors floating around are true.
According to several reports, the Big Ten Conference, flush with cash after launching its TV network, hired an investment firm to explore expanding beyond its 11 teams. The possibilities included adding just Notre Dame, or as many as five other schools, which would be accomplished by cannibalizing weaker conference rivals.
The invitation to Notre Dame, if true, hardly qualifies as news. The Irish and the Big Ten have been flirting for years.
But the courtship heats up every time talk of a major realignment in college football does, which might be the real news in Swarbrick’s surprisingly dire response. The last time Notre Dame felt the landscape shifting below its feet, the shaking was caused by conferences gouging one another in a headlong rush to get to the TV payola trough first.
That was a half-dozen years ago, when Atlantic Coast Conference commissioner John Swofford kicked things off by trying to steal four football-playing schools from the Big East and settling for three. By the time the chain-reaction thieving was finished, more than a dozen schools had shifted allegiances with a predictable result: The rich got richer.
The underlying dynamic hasn’t changed. There is even greater strength in numbers when time comes to negotiate TV deals. That’s why the Big Ten and Southeastern Conference – thanks to a long-term TV deal with ESPN – wield more influence and Notre Dame wields less.
Going it alone is never easy, but Notre Dame won’t have to stage a bake sale to hold onto its independence. The Irish haven’t been serious contenders for a national title for going on two decades. But such is the lure of their storied past that they continue living off it, anyway.
A television contract with NBC pays $15 million a year through 2015. Notre Dame collects another $1.8 million every season, thanks to its unique arrangement with the Bowl Championship Series. Every time the Irish qualify for a BCS bowl, they pocket another $4.5 million that unlike the rest of the BCS participants, they don’t have to share.
All that money still falls short of the $23 million every Big Ten member raked in last year, but it’s plenty enough to guarantee Notre Dame’s independence. At the moment – or until Kelly figures out how to make the Irish relevant on the field once more – that’s their biggest selling point.
“That was what Notre Dame always stood for … a team would go any place and play anybody at any time,” former coach Dan Devine said the last time the Irish seriously considered joining a conference. “I don’t think it should change now.”
It won’t. What might change is the membership of the Big East, where most of Notre Dame’s other sports teams compete. Not quite five years after the ACC raid, the Big Ten is said to be considering adding Big East members Pittsburgh, Rutgers and Syracuse, and Big 12 member Missouri.
Big East commissioner John Marinatto responded to the ruckus that Swarbrick’s remarks stirred by saying he wouldn’t stand idly by and watch his conference get ripped up again. Good luck with that.