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Notre Dame and Conference Expansion: The Secret Sauce ofSuccess

This summer's winds and waves of conference expansion seemed to build to hurricane force, buffeting the island of the Irish as well as the Big East and Big 12 conferences.

The squall is now a memory amidst the blue skies and sea breezes of an impending football season. The gales of Internet opinion articles are the debris of cleanup. The two of the three winningest and the top two most profitable college football programs - Notre Dame and Texas - remain undamaged and in place due to firm anchors and renewed commitments.

Irish leadership was heard amidst the sound and fury, emphasizing points with catchphrases like "seismic changes", "musical chairs" and "core identity". In the relative quiet of the aftermath, I have come to a few conclusions - the whys and why nots of confernce membership for Notre Dame.

The Identity Anchor

Notre Dame will join a conference if membership aligns with the mission of the University, the goals for its football program and Athletic Department. Father Monk Malloy, in 1999, articulated Notre Dame's identity and its mission, comparing it with the Big Ten institutions:

"The issue of religious identity is not, as might be thought, a question of our Catholic character somehow being diminished by an affiliation with secular institutions. We alone are responsible for the vitality of our Catholic character. But that character gives a unique perspective to our educational mission and permeates our campus culture. Our most basic decisions concerning student life, our faculty, our core curriculum, even the fields of scholarship and research in which we aspire to make a significant contribution, all reflect the fact that we are a Catholic university. No other institution in the Big Ten, or the CIC, shares this distinctive educational mission, which creates a basic dissimilarity between Notre Dame and the institutions with which we would be partnered.

These differences in identity between Notre Dame and the member institutions of the Big Ten are essential, not incidental. They are not qualities that are amenable to change, nor would we change them. ... Given these realities, we have had to ask ourselves the fundamental question, does this core identity of Notre Dame as Catholic, private, and independent seem a match for an association of universities--even a splendid association of great universities--that are uniformly secular, predominantly state institutions and with a long heritage of conference affiliation. "

The University's core identity and educational mission will be the primary determinants on any question of conference membership. In the Big East, Notre Dame is one of nine private, Catholic institutions.

Nebraska - with its core identity as a state flagship school, rich football history, a large stadium, and membership in the research organization, American Association of Universities (AAU) - seems like a splendid match for the Big Ten.

Mo' Money?

Immediate future Big Ten revenue distributions are expected to be in the $20-22 million range per member institution for all sports. Clearly, adding the most popular college football team in the nation with substantial fan support in metropolitan areas outside of Big Ten country would expand the conference's imprint and exposure, with subsequent increase in cable netework revenues for the Big Ten Network. Fox owns 49% of the Big Ten Network. A conference championship will add to increasing revenue.

Notre Dame's NBC contract brings in $15 million per year, though that is for football only. Add $2 million from the Big East for basketball and a BCS member's share of $1.3 million (1/66th) and the difference is more slight. In fact, Richard Sheehan, the Notre Dame finance professor involved in past negotiations with NBC, believes that NBC figure is low. "The NBC contract is more lucrative than pretty much anyone knows."

Sheehan minimized the money factor. "We lose half a million, a million, through the cracks each year. So a million here, a million there, I don't think makes a difference." When the Irish go to a BCS bowl, then they receive an $4.5 million instead. The difference may be less than anyone knows, though Notre Dame's value to the Big Ten can be calculated.

Jack Swarbrick, Notre Dame's Athletic Director, feels money is not a major factor: "Questions of this nature are too fundamental to be about money."


In the heart of Big Ten country, some argued conference membership would increase more local rivalries, preserve the three Big Ten games as conference rivalries, allow Notre Dame to conserve on transportation, and still allow the Irish some traditional opponents out of Southern Cal, Navy, Pittsburgh, Boston College and Stanford.

Could Irish fans get excited about regional games with Minnesota, Indiana, Illinois or Iowa? Not that much. Would the Big Ten Network carry these games to accommodate Irish demand? Probably.

As the Big Ten recently announced, they will now play nine conference games with only three out of conference games. The Irish will always play Southern Cal and Navy. Pittsburgh and Notre Dame have met sixty-five times. In comparison, Michigan has played only five Big Ten opponents more times than that. Imagine the Wolverines being asked to give up games against Purdue, Iowa or Indiana.

Anyone who courts Notre Dame needs to take into account their rivalries in addition to their unique scheduling brought on by their independent status.

Scheduling Notre Dame - Contracts

Notre Dame schedules years in advance. This is necessitated by their independent status to plan their schedules with the best possible fits with BCS conference teams. Long-term contracts are signed with traditional opponents like USC, the three Big Ten teams, Navy, and shorter contracts with other regular rivals.

So, entrance into a conference would require that conference to respect those contractual agreements already signed. Notre Dame would not have been able to be a full playing partner in the Big Ten until 2017 due to future schedule commitments.

Under the previous Athletic Director, Kevin White, Notre Dame also committed to playing three Big East teams per year. Yet with the rejection of series of games by Rutgers and then Connecticut, the limitation of Irish Champs Sports Bowl appearances to one in a four year period instead of the two as in the prior contract for the Gator Bowl with the Big East, and remarks made by some Big East football teams, that verbal agreement does not seem to be a requirement for future scheduling.

Additionally, the NBC contract for Irish home games runs through 2015. Would the Big Ten have been willing to wait until the TV contract and future game contracts had lapsed to accept Notre Dame as a full member of their conference? It's certainly easier to accept another BCS conference team who needs only to shorten their future out of conference games by one.

Jack Swarbrick, as the recent announcement of the three game series with Miami showed, has been active in more than just determining Notre Dame's college football seat and in preventing a "musical chairs" scenario. Jack has now scheduled a four game home and home series with Texas in 2015, 2016, 2019 and 2020.

Evidently, Jack worked with DeLoss Dodds, Texas's AD, on more than just possible conference alliances. Throughout all this, Notre Dame may well have been centered in the calm of the eye of the hurricane, while most of the speculation raged around it often from Chicago.

Last year's ND schedule - considered soft by some Irish fans - was ranked tougher than any Big Ten team except Minnesota. Notre Dame football under Swarbrick is now finalizing its schedules to include some of the top teams in the country for the next decade. Brian Kelly said: "The addition of Texas to our future schedules is just another example of the type of high-profile programs we plan on playing as an independent. We look forward to embracing our unique status within college football and continuing to schedule games against similar programs down the road."

Will Alabama be next?

National Footprint

Few will argue Notre Dame's national impact on college football - something that makes them attractive to any conference. Yet the Irish had to answer a hard question they never really were forced to address before. Would they be better served as a member in an expanded Big Ten as the football landscape verged on "seismic changes" to superconferences or could they survive as an independent?

Swarbrick and Dodds may well have helped decide the limited conference expansion in their discussions and decision-making. Others have detailed how larger cable and TV network giants like ESPN and Fox Sports played a significant role. Discussions with the Pac-10 by Texas to retain their local TV rights broke down talks. Notre Dame confirming their ability to retain their independence may well have kept the Big 10 from expanding to a 14 or 16 teams. The Big Ten superconference would have included raiding the Big East, imperiling their survival.

While Texas received a better revenue distribution from the Big 12, Notre Dame reconfirmed a place for their non-football teams with the Big East.

Many Irish fans voiced concern that Big Ten membership would limit their national exposure through the Big Ten Network and regionalize them. Currently, the Irish play coast to coast each year, have offered prospects in thirty-one states football scholarships for the current recruiting class, have every game televised and have a national alumni and fan base.

Their independence is linked to their ability to schedule outside a region. "It's core to who we are," said Swarbrick. "It's so uniquely interwoven with the identity of the school. It played a role in bringing Notre Dame to the national conscience."


One of the plums of Big Ten membership that was advanced was the possiblity of membership in the AAU, an independent organization of research universities. Membership would not be guaranteed and must meet certain criteria. The faculty overwhelming voted in 1999 in favor of joining the Big Ten then, primarily for this reason. One of Notre Dame's primary goals has been to increase their research capabilities and funding.

Over the last decade in pursuit of this goal, Notre Dame has significantly expanded their research capabilities, partnering with city and state governments to build Innovation Center in South Bend. They have increased their funding for research and obtain many more grants. Professors have working relationships with many Big Ten schools on projects. AAU membership would help expand these roles and help meet some of Notre Dame's research goals.

Notre Dame has traditionally been known for its excellent undergraduate education and usually is ranked in the top 20 universities nationally. Their Business School has recently been ranked as the top school in the nation, moving up from number two.

But the AAU now does not have any Catholic universities in its membership. One of its fourteen founding members - Catholic University of America (CUA) - withdrew from its membership in AAU in 2005. CUA's President said: "... it has become clear that CUA and the vast majority of AAU institutions are moving forward but on different trajectories."

State flagship universities and some non-football playing schools sit in the top rank of AAU membership by research funding received. Notre Dame ranks 133rd in the latest publicized ranking. All of those have medical schools and a much higher number of graduate students than Notre Dame does.

Without adding a medical school - a valuable research source - and doubling the current graduate enrollment, Notre Dame will be on a "different trajectory". The university has recently passed the $100 million goal for research projects. They can apply for AAU membership when appropriate.

Square Peg?

Despite some very attractive aspects to conference membership including on-going relationships and respect to Big Ten members, Notre Dame in the Big Ten may well have been like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole. Some similarities and goals. Many obstacles and different missions. At times, some of the articles written were more of the tone of executing power plays on the Irish to force Notre Dame to join the Big Ten rather than of mutual respect and open arms.

The excitement of Brian Kelly's leadership and a new coaching philosophy has swept away summer's tensions. One wonders what will happen with the TV contract now that Comcast is acquiring a 51% stake in NBC. Cable has been the monetary motor behind the TV contracts with the SEC, Big 10 and other conferences.

Should Kelly bring Notre Dame back to national prominence, the ensuing contract will help cement Notre Dame's independent status in football. Kelly has recruited a top ten class filling needs and attracting four Top 100 players so far. Irish fans anticipate with relish his high-powered spread offense and a 3-4 defense that returns eight starters.

Kelly has embraced Notre Dame's unique position: "From my standpoint, being the head football coach at Notre Dame, there's nothing better than being an independent football school."

In the end, Notre Dame leadership reconfirmed their University's mission, found that the goals for their football teams and athletics did not include membership in the powerful Big Ten, and have taken steps to anchor Notre Dame for the next decade against future winds of change.