Conference realignment has been the hot topic of the off season. Major media outlets, blogs and message boards have all been talking about it. There are infinite possibilities as to how the whole thing might go and the only thing that seems to be certain is that it is going to happen.
What we don’t really know is what "it" will actually consist of when it does finally come to fruition.
The Big Ten has been the driving force behind all of this. We know that they want to expand to at least 12 if not 16 teams. As of today the speculation on who their top targets are became a reality. Our friends at Better Off Red alerted us that Sports Radio 810 WHB in Kansas City is reporting that the Big Ten has offered invitations to Notre Dame, Nebraska, Missouri and Rutgers.
Notre Dame has continued to come up in these conversations and the general consensus on what the Irish should do seems to depend on who is talking about it. Notre Dame Alumni, Subway Alumni, and other Irish supporters appear to be united in the opinion that continued independence is a must. Should the Irish join a conference the revolt from that group might be unprecedented. Meanwhile the anti Notre Dame contingent seems to be of the opinion that the Irish need to get off their perceived high horse and join a conference. But do we really have any idea what the powers that be at Notre Dame are actually thinking? Below is a brief chronology of what has been said in the last few months.
In early March Athletics Director Jack Swarbrick caused a server meltdown with the following quote.
"You can each come up with a scenario that would force our hand."
In the same article Swarbrick also made the following statement that received considerably less attention.
"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."
A month later Swarbrick made some further comments on the matter that added some clarification to his previous remarks. Below is an excerpt from that USA Today article.
Swarbrick says remarks he made in New York last month were incorrectly interpreted. Asked then about staying independent, he said a drastic shift in the college athletic landscape could prompt him and the university’s president, the Rev. John Jenkins, to "evaluate the landscape."
That, Swarbrick insists now, was not a signal that Notre Dame is more open to finding a home for football in the Big Ten or any other league.
"The only things that could make it happen are the sorts of radical change in the industry that would cause upheaval and impact a lot more (schools) than Notre Dame," he says. "You wind up with only three conferences. You wind up with two tiers of conferences. Now, all of a sudden, it’s not three divisions in college; it’s four. It’s the big change.
"I don’t see that happening."
Just in case anyone missed those remarks Swarbrick reiterated his thoughts again last week in a Q&A session with WNDU sports director Jeff Jeffers.
On conference realignment: "It is going to happen. There will be realignment. We will find out soon." Swarbrick says he consistently makes three points on this topic. One, independence in football is critical to who Notre Dame is as a university. Two, the BIG EAST is a great partner for Notre Dame, and it’s the best basketball conference in America. Three, Notre Dame will monitor what happens and watch what is a "very dynamic environment."
From my perspective that is a clear and consistent message. It is a priority for Notre Dame to stay independent. The loophole that lends itself to ongoing speculation is the acknowledgement that there is some potential scenario out there that could eliminate continued independence as a feasible option. But what is that scenario exactly? The horrible truth is that we really don’t know. If we have learned anything about Swarbrick at this point it is that he has the ability to go completely off the grid. If and when a decision is made about joining a conference you can bet we won’t know about it until he is in front of the cameras telling us. Case in point are the comments below on his hiring of Brian Kelly.
On the hiring of Brian Kelly: "It was the best ten days I’ve had in the job. It restored my faith in football in this country." He said he went completely "off the grid," traveling under an alias and making his own plane reservations. He said his own senior staff had no idea where he was, nor did his wife know (said Swarbrick with a smile, "The difference was, she didn’t care"). Swarbrick said he told the candidates, "If your name leaks, it’s because you leaked it." He said of all the media reporting that took place in that 10-day period, some of it was close to accurate, but, at the end of the day, "not a word was factual."
So as I sit here contemplating what the future might hold for Notre Dame Football I feel fairly confident that the Fighting Irish will only join a conference in the event that a cataclysmic shakeup of magnanimous proportions takes place. From my perspective that would mean a shakeup that creates a situation where Notre Dame is unable to schedule regular season games against anybody decent or more importantly lose any shot at ever again playing for a national title. That is theoretically possible if we end up with four superconferences feeding champions to the unknown future form of the BCS. The wildcard in all of this is that Swarbrick and University President Rev. John Jenkins could quite possibly have to make that decision before the music stops. Father Jenkins has acknowledged as much himself.
"It's like musical chairs," Father Jenkins said. "You don't want to be left standing when everybody else has a seat."
Therein lies the rub. That and the history of bad blood between Notre Dame and the Big Ten that dates back to 1909. Hat tip to HLS for putting that together. It is going to be an interesting off season.
What do you think?
**EDIT** A few hours later Better Off Red reports that Nebraska is the first to claim that they have been extended no such offer. I expect there will be many more of these reports as we push through the off season. I will be a little slower on the draw going forward. Regardless I think everything above applies to Notre Dame whether they were formally offered today or not. This issue is not going away any time soon. Stay tuned.