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Notre Dame Football’s Place in College Football Innovation

Though the Irish have never been too far behind, they’ve rarely been out in front.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame Spring Game Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Connotation is an idea or feeling that a word invokes in addition to its literal or primary meaning.

Innovation is a word.

Connotation can be an undertone, an overtone, an implication, a nuance, a hint or, and this is important, an echo. Innovation is defined as the action or process of innovating, which is to say, making changes in something established, especially by introducing new methods, ideas, or products.

Free of connotation, the concept of innovation just sounds like any magnitude of change that may be an improvement, but isn’t required to be especially profound or life-changing. In the business professional world, innovation has been thrown around conference rooms, on presentations, in press releases, and all over every form of advertising and corporate recruiting you can imagine, always full of positive connotation. It’s breaking new ground. It’s being the bleeding edge. It’s change for the better. If you work in tech or watch Silicon Valley, it’s making the world a better place.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at North Carolina State
Hang in there. We’re going somewhere, I promise.
Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

In college sports and specifically in college football, the average sportswriter, fan, coach or administrator would lean toward using the concept in the same way. In a recent piece by Athlon Sports entitled “College Football's Top 50 Innovations”, the word comes with that same positive connotation, if only adjusted by how profound and significant the change each item on the list made.

However at Notre Dame, there is the perception that those same coaches and administrators (who, mind you, have shown a proclivity, in my opinion, to embrace innovation) have been forced to seemingly fight a complicated fight to balance those desires with sacred tradition, ideals, and a sense of self-importance. Like pioneering a decades-old, Fortune 500 brand into the world of high-tech business while the board screams in your ear about how nothing has been good since the industrial revolution. One could argue that, through the lens of what is considered innovation in college football according to Athlon, there is no positive connotation for the concept. It’s all bad.

The last truly profound innovation to come out of South Bend, according to the aforementioned list, is a TV contract from 1991. At number 37 on Athlon’s list, you’ll find what the author calls the “Notre Dame Broadcasting Company”. While the name of the innovation seems to be a bit snarky and tongue-in-cheek, the rationale for including Notre Dame Football on NBC, which itself has become a recognizable brand, focuses solely on the benefits that befell the university. The move allowed the football program to retain independent status, assuring TV revenues would surpass those of which schools in major conferences were raking in. We all know this story.

Discover BCS National Championship - Notre Dame v Alabama
Exposure!
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Meanwhile, television exposure, and in turn revenue for networks, conferences and schools, boomed following the deal. With the advent of College GameDay, Thursday Night Football, The Big Ten Network and MACtion (all included on Athlon’s list), many schools have come to enjoy the benefits of being on TV. Not on the list are the Longhorn Network, which can be considered similar, or the ACC Network, which has not yet fully launched.

But apparently, that’s where innovation and Notre Dame as a relationship end. Don’t forget, Notre Dame is irrelevant, has unreal expectations, and thinks too much of its holier-than-thou self.

I believe that anyone who parrots that stance has not paid attention to the university and athletic department’s willingness to adapt. And anyone who thinks resisting the change is the correct course of action is a fool.

Notre Dame v USC Photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

For example, the following are all items from the list that I’ll address. Let’s get started.

Bowl tie-ins forced Notre Dame to rely on its clout as a national program to negotiate deals for exposure and playtime with individual bowls that were already spoken for by entire conferences. Finding footing with the BCS was a similar story, but Notre Dame managed it. Teams started scheduling 11th and 12th games, and then conference championships arose, forcing the administration to find additional schools willing and available to play Notre Dame later in the season. And when teams weren’t available, the administration had to find teams willing to free up time early in the season for home-and-homes. Even now, Notre Dame relies on the opinion of a committee, if in the right position, for a bid to the College Football Playoff.

To site more instances, Notre Dame adapted to an “innovation” when they were featured for the first ever College GameDay, the 36th on the list. The Irish have kept up admirably on the football front with the “Facility Arms Race”, with the Loftus Center following not long after the first indoor facility in 1988. The Gug was constructed in 2005, right on par with many other schools’ construction of luxurious football facilities. Even the “Dress for Success” innovation, which points to Oregon’s jerseys as an innovation, overlooks the fact that Notre Dame often broke out the green jerseys for big games long before Phil Knight was interested in college football.

There are other items on the list that Notre Dame was slow to embrace, like hurry-up and spread offenses, and other things that work against the Irish. And to top it all off, the number one innovation is seemingly at odds with the Notre Dame football program: ESPN.

Tostitos Fiesta Bowl - Stanford v Oklahoma State
The worldwide leader.

But what I infer from recent progress and a track record of effective adaptation is that the administration gets it, and the resistance to change is, well, futile. The Campus Crossroads, among other improvements that signify an embrace of innovation, suggest that Jack Swarbrick has read his case studies. He knows how decades-old companies like Berkshire Hathaway and General Electric continue to be tops in revenue and cutting edge in innovation without sacrificing the things that make those brands special. This list should be a wakeup call to fans of the Fighting Irish. It’s time to embrace the waking of the echoes of innovation in South Bend.

After all, it’s innovation that leads to success in the short term while the rest of the nation catches up. And by the time they’re caught up, you’re already thinking of what’s next. It would behoove the university to get out in front.

Quenton Nelson Gets Another Preseason All America Nod, as well as Mike McGlinchey

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Texas Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

This time it’s Sporting News jumping on Sports Illustrated’s back with their own preseason All America list. Nelson showed up as a first team OL, while McGlinchey got the nod on the second team. The only Irish foe to make the list USC Trojan QB Sam Darnold.