Big Ten might solve ND's big headache
All the carefully crafted, well-meaning, politically correct conciliatory statements four years ago couldn't take the bite out of the fact that Notre Dame had rejected membership in the Big Ten Conference.
Conference commissioner Jim Delany stopped talking like a lawyer and started sounding like a jilted would-be date who had just been told that Notre Dame would be washing its hair that day and every day for the foreseeable future.
It still stings.
Which is why Delany doesn't leave much wiggle room in his anti-expansion statements these days for people to read something contrary between the lines.
It's also why former media schmoozer-turned-prepared statement distributor Kevin White, Notre Dame's athletic director, has become even more reclusive in recent weeks when it comes to open mikes.
Actually, beyond the measured-but-minute press releases, what could White possibly say?
The Big East's apparently imminent implosion with the defection of Miami, Syracuse and Boston College to the ACC, doesn't leave Notre Dame with any clear-cut options. If it were only about football -- and certainly football drives any decision -- the headaches would be minimal.
But there's a basketball layer to worry about -- two programs (men's and women's) that became perennial NCAA participants in large part through Big East membership.
And then there's a layer the casual college football fan dismisses, but White and the people who sign his paycheck do not.
Baseball, softball, men's swimming, women's tennis, women's soccer, men's track and field, etc.
When ND joined the Big East, beginning competition in the 1995-96 school year, Olympic sports came along for the ride -- for better, for worse. Former ND athletic director thingy Rosenthal had started a movement to upgrade the mostly non-revenue producers in the late '80s, even giving them a fancy moniker to replace what most people referred to as "minor" sports.
The movement continued during Mike Wadsworth's watch as athletic director and has added octane in White's three-plus years.
"We believe we can be a top 5 Sears Cup school every year," The Sears Cup has nothing to do with shopping and everything to do with having a strong, broad-based sports program. The Irish currently sit fifth in the national all-sports standings, the highest position ND has ever held at this point of the school year. Only Stanford, Michigan, Penn State and Texas currently rate higher.
And there is no indication from White that ND has plans to backtrack on its commitment. Not after White insisted that all ND's Olympic sports be pushed to the NCAA limit of allowable scholarships. Not with the huge capital investments in facilities, many of which bear the name "Eck."
If you're not serious, for example, about men's soccer being a national power, then you give Chris Apple more than a year as interim head coach instead of plucking Bobby Clark from national power Stanford.
"Being good in sports across the board is a function of having a lot of good coaches in place," White said, "and dreaming big dreams."
At Notre Dame, it's also about making nightmares go away. Or never letting them take root in the first place.
None of the options that ND is reportedly considering in the wake of the Big East defections -- joining the Big Ten, joining the ACC or hanging around in the Big East to see what it can scrape together -- satisfies all three layers.
On the Olympic Sports level, the Big Ten is clearly the best fit.
"It makes sense in every way," said former Irish softball coach Liz Miller. "When we had to make up a rain out in the Big East, it cost us $5,000-$6,000. In the Big Ten, it would cost around $800. And in the Big East, because of missed class time rules, we could only make a league game up on a weekend. In the Big Ten, there are a lot of schools we could play on a weeknight and come back."
In men's and women's basketball, the Big East still makes the most sense -- even without Miami, Syracuse and Boston College.
Football is the most ticklish situation. The Big Ten has made it clear it would not take ND without football. ACC commissioner John Swofford recently echoed those sentiments about his league. Conference USA has reportedly told ND they can come without football, but ND isn't even considering it as a last resort at this point.
Preserving football independence remains at the top of the wish list in the big picture. As long as ND has access into the Bowl Championship series and collects checks from its NBC contract, remaining independent makes sense.
But the charge for White isn't to decide what's best for ND in 2003. It's to project into 2006 and intuit his way through that vision. ND's NBC contract ends after the 2005 season, though NBC Sports president Ken Schanzer was thrilled with the ratings bump this past season after years of decline. And the buzz in the TV sports world is that if NBC ever dropped ND, there's a good possibility another television outfit would pick the Irish up.
The year 2005 is also the last season the BCS is contracted to be in existence. So there's a possibility 2006 would bring a playoff. A 16-team format would seem to leave plenty of room for the Irish to earn an at-large berth, but an eight-team playoff might leave ND on the outside looking in too often.
The ND visionaries have been short-sighted in the past. They didn't listen to Digger Phelps' pleas about getting into the Big East in the 1980s, and the men's basketball program suffered for a decade because of that myopic thinking.
And that is why Notre Dame should give the 11-team Big Ten a second glance -- not necessarily go sprawling into full membership, but at least give the idea some serious thought, knowing seismic changes in the college sports landscape have rarely shaken the numerically impaired league.
There are caveats, even beyond giving up football independence. When ND was looking at the Big Ten in the late 90s, something former ND football coach Ara Parseghian said to then-AD Wadsworth at a luncheon stuck with Wadsworth.
Parseghian had been a head coach in the Big Ten -- at Northwestern -- prior to coming to Notre Dame.
"Ara said to me, 'Northwestern is the only private institution in the Big Ten among those major state schools. And let me tell you, we were always on the wrong end of a 9-1 vote. And I'd be very concerned that Notre Dame, like Northwestern, would prize certain things, and you'd wind up on the wrong end of a lot of 10-2 votes.'
"There is a difference between the smaller private institutions and the very major big state schools," Wadsworth said. "It's not to say that the big state schools are not great academic institutions. They are. But they're totally different cultures and they look at things a totally different way."
Notre Dame may have to look at things in a different way to navigate its way through what could quickly become a crisis.
It needs to consider the Big Ten averaged 70,505 fans per home football game last year. It needs to remember Big Ten membership comes with an academic benefit -- a consortium of resources that had the ND faculty excited. It's a geographical fit, if not a philosophical one.
It may not be the answer, but it might not be a bad idea to think of clever ways to say "I'm sorry" to Delany just in case.
Staff writer Eric Hansen: