Before anybody gets on my case about the below article being dated, two year old, I know that. Obviously, things change some in a two-year period. Other than a historical note, it does show the "thinking on conference affiliation", directly from Notre Dame itself. Since that time, however, Notre Dame's general views on conference joining in "all sports", probably has changed little.
Notre Dame Magazine, John Heisler, Associate Athletic Director at Notre Dame, Jan. '04. Athletic Conference Affiliation:
Is Notre Dame Still in a League of Its Own?
By John Heisler
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"Don't feel bad if you're confused about who plays in which college athletic conference these days.
It was one thing in 1978 when old-school leagues such as the former Pacific-8 Conference became the Pac-10, and the Southeastern Conference in '91 added teams. It was yet another in '93 when the Big Ten added Penn State as its 11th school, and in '96 when the former Big Eight absorbed some schools from the old Southwest Conference to form the Big 12.
But now the Big East Conference, traditionally an East Coast association, has teams from Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Wisconsin and Kentucky, while the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) now extends from Boston to Miami. Conference USA? Check your morning newspaper to see if anyone has been added or subtracted today.
Amid all this, Notre Dame has been rumored in the media to be joining the ACC for all sports except football, then joining the ACC for all sports including football, then finally announcing it was "staying the course" when in early November the Big East added five schools.
That means Notre Dame continues to be a member of the Big East for most sports other than football (though it remains eligible for secondary bowl games through the Big East), and that leaves the Notre Dame football program with its independent status.
Notre Dame Athletic Director Kevin White has read all the position papers and heard all the impassioned philosophies about the importance of maintaining Irish football independence. For those alumni, fans and others who believe strongly that independence provides Notre Dame football with its distinctive identity (in part through its national scheduling philosophy and its 15-year television contract with NBC Sports), there's no room for negotiation. Former Athletic Director Mike Wadsworth heard a similar chorus when the prospect of Notre Dame joining the Big Ten was debated in 1998-99 -- and he admits no subject prompted a more emotional response than that one did.
With all that in mind, Notre Dame has promised to "continue to monitor the landscape." Eeven though Notre Dame has existed and generally flourished as a football independent for the last 90 years, ever-changing conditions suggest there's no guarantee the same will automatically hold true for the next 90 years.
A brief history lesson may be in order to appreciate how the terrain has evolved since 1980, when Gene Corrigan succeeded Moose Krause as athletic director. The Irish football program, not far from its 1977 national championship, thrived as an independent. Access to bowl games came early and often. The introduction of the Bowl Championship Series (BCS), however, was an unforeseen development. Men's basketball, having made a Final Four appearance in 1978, was riding the crest of success with eight consecutive NCAA tournament appearances from 1974 through 1981 as one of only a handful of independents. It was perhaps a sign of things to come, however, when DePaul, Marquette and Dayton helped form the Great Midwest (soon to become Conference USA), leaving Notre Dame with late-season scheduling difficulties. Additionally, on-the-court struggles, combined with recruiting and television challenges, made the beckoning Big East Conference a perfect fit by the mid-1990s.
In 1980 most of Notre Dame's Olympic sports were fledgling at best. Scholarships were minimal, if not nonexistent, for many Irish sports. Those teams weren't expected to compete for national titles (the perennially successful fencing program was an exception), and there were no budgets to recruit or schedule nationally.
Now, while Notre Dame football intrinsically hasn't changed all that much over these past 23 years, the college football landscape has -- and so has the commitment to Notre Dame's 25 other sports.
As Athletic Director Gene Corrigan and successors thingy Rosenthal and Wadsworth gradually increased the institutional commitment to the various Olympic sports programs, Notre Dame outgrew its independent status. That prompted a move (for most sports except football and men's basketball) to the Midwest City Conference (later the Midwestern Collegiate Conference) in 1982-83. The move created a new series of meaningful goals that included league titles, all-conference honors and guaranteed access to NCAA postseason competition. Suddenly, Irish games took on greater importance when the players knew first place was on the line. And, as Notre Dame further ramped up its institutional commitments, the Irish became the dominant program in the MCC, eventually outgrowing that level of competition.
That dominance and the interest in creating better platforms from which its basketball programs could compete prompted a move to the Big East Conference for the 1995-96 athletic season.
Still, football remained independent. In fact, Notre Dame officials went out of their way to suggest to the Big East that the league should not accept the Irish with the expectation that the University would bring its football program into the league at some later date. Even when Miami and Virginia Tech opted last summer to leave the Big East for the ACC and many in the media suggested that Notre Dame join the Big East for all sports, commissioner Mike Tranghese made it quite clear: That question had been asked many times, but the Notre Dame response had been a consistent "no."
It is worth noting that Notre Dame has achieved at the highest level during its time in the Big East. The Big East Commissioner's Trophy for all sports now has gone to Notre Dame eight straight years for men and seven straight years for women.
Still, the conversation about the prospect of Notre Dame football joining a conference never completely goes away.
Some of the current dialogue is fueled by concerns about Notre Dame's future access to the postseason through the BCS. Though Notre Dame has been a signatory to that agreement since its inception in 1998, there are no guarantees where the Irish will fit once the current contract expires after the 2005 season. In fact, Notre Dame could even be relegated to the status of current non-BCS conferences that in 2003 required a team to reach a top-six ranking in the final BCS poll to guarantee an invitation to one of the top four bowls (currently Sugar, Orange, Fiesta and Rose). Champions from the Big Ten, Big 12, Pacific-10, ACC, Big East and SEC all currently are guaranteed BCS participation -- to go with two at-large invitees.
In six seasons prior to 2003, Notre Dame three times qualified for the BCS pool. It went to a top tier game just once (2000 for the Fiesta Bowl), while its 9-2 and 10-2 records in '98 and '02 sent the team only to the second-tier Gator Bowl. In addition, Irish qualification criteria have become increasingly tougher. In 1998, Notre Dame needed only eight wins and a BCS top-12 ranking to make the pool; by '99 that spot required nine wins. White can only hazard a guess about where Notre Dame will fit into future BCS puzzles.
Meanwhile, those who argue for a college football playoff can't ever seem to push that format past the starting line, particularly as far as university presidents are concerned (the last failed attempt came this past July when a BCS Presidential Oversight Committee again shunned the idea). No matter how the postseason plays out, it's a long way from '94, for example, when Notre Dame landed in the Fiesta Bowl with a 6-4-1 record, a mark that today would be nowhere near BCS-quality.
All major conference members are handed BCS access, a package of secondary bowl options, an eight-game league schedule and a television package through their conference affiliation. At Notre Dame, all those areas are left for the institution -- and White in particular -- to negotiate.
The conference conversation also includes Notre Dame's position on television and scheduling, two areas that have been critical in differentiating the Irish (especially in recruiting). Notre Dame fans have been spoiled by unprecedented exposure provided to Irish football since the University signed the first of three five-year agreements with NBC Sports to nationally televise home games. With ABC, CBS and ESPN taking turns showing road games, Notre Dame finished the 2003 regular season with a remarkable streak of 136 consecutive football games televised by one of those four networks.
Like the BCS agreement, the current deal with NBC runs through the '05 season. If Notre Dame and NBC opt not to extend the relationship, informal inquiries from other television heavyweights strongly suggest there would be multiple suitors interested in filling any potential void. However, conference membership could eliminate a stand-alone deal for the Irish and could limit Irish exposure on a comparative basis.
With no shortage of teams interested in playing the Irish, the primary scheduling challenge is to create an equitable mix of home and road games, in addition to the guesswork involved in projecting future strength of various programs. This year's exceptionally tough schedule, for example, was put together a decade ago when most of the opponents were significantly less formidable than their 2003 counterparts. On the other hand, any discussion of football entering conference play would have to resolve current schedules now under contract and extending almost a decade into the future.
The financial benefits of football independence remain obvious -- the Irish currently do not share any bowl revenue (even when they play in a Big East-connected bowl), nor do they split anything from the NBC television contract. Several years ago the college football world stopped paying television rights fees to visiting teams, so NBC does not pay opponents that come to Notre Dame Stadium, nor do the Irish receive anything from televised road appearances. Those two factors alone suggest conference membership would come at a financial cost to Notre Dame athletics.
Yet another point of interest for Notre Dame, as the conference discussion moves forward, remains an analysis of the non-athletic characteristics of the institutions for any potential affiliation. Do their educational missions, their academic standards, even their sizes, dovetail with Notre Dame's?
The Big Ten's academic consortium (the internationally respected Committee for Institutional Cooperation) drew plenty of attention on the Irish campus, based on the shared library systems, student exchange programs and other potential benefits to graduate and research programs.
The Big Ten, for example, includes 10 large land-grant, state institutions (plus smaller, private Northwestern). The ACC lists privates Duke and Wake Forest (and soon-to-be Boston College and Miami), plus publics North Carolina, Virginia and Georgia Tech, which resemble and operate much like privates. The Big East features a handful of private, religiously affiliated institutions such as Villanova, Providence, Seton Hall, Saint John's and Georgetown, yet none of those play Division I-A football.
If Notre Dame's current footprint is deemed to be somewhat Midwest based on geography alone, might an ACC relationship expand that footprint to the entire Eastern Seaboard, where one-third of the nation's television audience exists? Would the Irish be better off as one of 12 (in the Big Ten) or one of 14 (assuming the ACC, now at 12, would add an extra school after Notre Dame)?
Another benefit of conference membership might be an invitation to the prestigious AAU (Association of American Universities), a group of 62 top research institutions -- including, for example, all 11 in the Big Ten, four in the ACC (Duke, Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland) and three in the Big East (Rutgers, Syracuse, Pittsburgh).
Maybe the most complicated -- and yet fundamental -- question remains this one: How much do or should academic and administrative issues measure against athletic components?
It's worth noting that Notre Dame lobbied unsuccessfully for Big Ten membership a number of times up through the middle of the Knute Rockne years, before settling on a course of independence now considered sacred to some.
Some 80 years later, might ever-changing conditions be ripe to address the complex subject of conference membership again?
There's a difficult decision in the offing.
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John Heisler is an associate athletic director at Notre Dame.
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