"You can each come up with a scenario that would force our hand."
That would be Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick talking about the potential of Notre Dame joining a conference.
There are a handful of quotes from Mr. Swarbrick in the article that mostly sound like your standard political non-answers, but that one quote has Notre Dame fans across the country melting down the message boards.
The question is why? Is there really a chance that Notre Dame could find itself in a position where remaining independent was no longer the best option?
Here is what I think. Notre Dame Football is an established brand in the same way that the New York Yankees and Dallas Cowboys are an established brand. Wherever Notre Dame might be playing on a given Saturday the stadium fills up and TV sets get turned on. Half of the opponents on the Notre Dame schedule consider their annual contest with the Irish a "Rivalry Game."
When they play one and done "buy games" at Notre Dame Stadium the other team makes comments about how special it is to play in "The House That Rock Built." For most of those teams it is their biggest game of the season and they treat it as such.
When the Irish have recently struggled in bowl games many lamented that they were playing in games they really didn’t deserve to be in. But for all the reasons already mentioned the first bowl with a shot at Notre Dame happily extended a bid.
That is the reason that there is no middle ground when it comes to how people feel about the Fighting Irish. There are Notre Dame fans and there are people that hate Notre Dame with every semblance of their being. There really isn’t a middle ground. It is what it is and that love hate relationship makes the Irish a media darling in both good times and bad.
Regardless of whether you love them or hate them all of those things make Notre Dame an extremely attractive option for any conference. So does the Big Ten want Notre Dame? Of course they do. Would any other conference jump through hoops to take Notre Dame should the Irish come calling? Probably so, but all of those reasons also mean that Notre Dame still doesn’t really need to join a conference.
People talk about the NBC contract being worth less money than the Irish might make from the Big Ten Network. Does it really even matter? When was the last time a Notre Dame road game wasn’t on a major network? Worst case the four true road games are regionally televised on ABC, but most are nationally televised on ABC or one of the ESPN channels. That has been true even in the lean years.
If Notre Dame ever decides that they want a new TV deal with another network they will most likely be able to sit back and watch the bids roll in. So I don’t buy Notre Dame jumping to a conference for a little more TV money.
Then why does the fan base get so riled up whenever this topic comes up? Shouldn’t we all just instantly dismiss it? At a glance you would think so but we don’t. The football program has been so mismanaged for so long that we all have a mild case of battered wives syndrome.
We no longer trust that the powers that be are going to do the right thing. The last four coaching hires (including O’Leary) haven’t panned out, the 7-4-1 scheduling model brings a fistful of less than thrilling "buy games" to the schedule, and the perceived "Disneyfication" of the on campus game day experience have a substantial portion of the fan base more than a little nervous about the future. Those feelings are further exacerbated by the stunning 16 win total amassed in the last three seasons.
There is definitely going to be significant conference realignment in the near future and the ripple effect will undoubtedly be interesting. But getting too riled up about Notre Dame joining a conference at the moment is probably a bit premature. The truth is we don’t really know what Jack Swarbrick is thinking. If nothing else he has proven to keep things close to the vest until he decides that he’s ready to let his decisions be known. Swarbrick did wrap it up with this quote.
"We’re trying like hell to maintain our football independence," Swarbrick said. "I think it’s good for college football and it’s good for Notre Dame."
To me that pretty much sums it up and that isn’t the first time that Jack Swarbrick has said that. It will take significant external factors to put Notre Dame in a position where joining a conference is the best option. In the mean time the one person that can take some heat off of Swarbrick and the university is Brian Kelly. If the Irish can get back to winning a lot of football games I think joining a conference in the immediate future becomes even less likely.