The Big East announced its intention Tuesday to add two more football-playing members to "enhance membership stability and maximize our value," according to a statement from Commissioner John Marinatto.
Translated, the league's twofold goals are these: 1) The Big East wants to remain attractive enough to keep its strongest members from defecting to other conferences. It can do this by adding schools in large television markets, thus allowing for a more lucrative media rights deal when it begins negotiating with networks in 2012. 2) The conference also wouldn't mind bolstering its sagging football reputation before the next round of BCS negotiations to ensure its champion retains an automatic qualifying spot in a BCS bowl.
Naturally, the announcement of the expansion plan was followed by a flurry of names that might achieve one goal or the other, but -- to use the parlance of a league built on the strength of its basketball teams -- none are a slam dunk.
Villanova, a Big East member in every other sport, has an excellent FCS football program that might someday become Philadelphia's AQ-conference team, but it remains an unknown. Central Florida hasn't enjoyed much football success, but it has poured millions into new facilities and sits in a football-crazy growth market. TCU brings on-field cachet, a fertile new recruiting ground and a huge television market (Dallas/Ft. Worth), but it doesn't offer much penetration in that market, nor does it offer a large fan base.
The one school that wasn't mentioned is the one that could benefit the most from Big East football membership while in turn providing maximum benefit to the conference. Even better, Marinatto doesn't have to worry about tampering with another conference's members.
Why? Because Notre Dame is already a member of the Big East.
Obviously, the Golden Domers are dead set against joining a conference. We learned that again during this past summer's game of conference musical chairs. But if this football season has taught us anything, it's that an independent Notre Dame will never again reach the level its fans and donors expect on a regular basis.
Earlier this week, Michael Rosenberg wrote a column criticizing the job Brian Kelly has done in his first year at the helm in South Bend. Rosenberg took particular issue with Kelly's decision to throw into the end zone when the Fighting Irish needed only a field goal to beat Tulsa. Sure, that probably was the wrong call, but the criticism missed the big picture.
Four-loss Notre Dame was down by one in the fourth quarter to Tulsa. At home. A week after getting creamed by Navy.
It may take a few more hirings and firings, but sooner or later, the people in charge at Notre Dame will figure out that the Irish's recent failures aren't exclusively the fault of the past four coaches. Some of the issues are systemic. The Irish will not contend for the national title on a regular basis, and the dream of winning enough games in most years to qualify for a BCS bowl is fading fast.
Notre Dame has every reason to cherish its football independence. It is woven into the fabric of the university, and it is a noble ideal. Unfortunately, it isn't practical if the Irish want to win on a consistent basis. Unlike the other still-powerful schools in desolate recruiting areas, Notre Dame can't bring in a bunch of junior college transfers. It also can't take a lot of players with risky transcripts. It needs a different solution. That solution is joining a conference of which it is already a member.
The sheer power of Notre Dame's marketing might -- what other average football program receives this much coverage and interest? -- would assure the Big East of keeping an AQ spot for as long as the BCS exists. Television networks would line up four-deep to throw money at Marinatto. If Villanova is the other new addition, the Big East could maintain its current 16-team basketball alignment and avoid damaging its valuable hoops television package.
Most importantly for Notre Dame, the Irish could win the conference in football and go to a BCS bowl every few years. Of those four wins this season, one came against Pittsburgh -- the only team in the Big East that controls its destiny for the conference title. Every Big East team begins each season with at least a puncher's chance, and only West Virginia and Cincinnati have managed to maintain consistent success recently.
Notre Dame to the Big Ten made plenty of sense on the balance sheet, but it made no sense on the field. The Irish, who recruit nationally, would have effectively restricted their recruiting area to the Midwest. They would have jumped into a shark tank with Ohio State, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Penn State and Nebraska. Notre Dame wasn't winning that league. But against Cincinnati, Connecticut, Pittsburgh, West Virginia, Rutgers, South Florida, Syracuse and Louisville, Notre Dame has a chance. Also, since Notre Dame is located in the Midwest and the Big East stretches the length of the East Coast, the Irish could count about half the U.S. population in their natural recruiting area.
Obviously, Notre Dame might have to sever ties with some traditional rivals to accommodate a conference schedule, but there would be no reason to stop playing USC. This would give the Big East a marquee television event to sell when the Trojans came to South Bend, and it would give the Irish a chance to sell their program in talent-rich Los Angeles when Notre Dame played at the Coliseum. Plus, it wouldn't matter if USC beat Notre Dame every year. It wouldn't hurt the Irish in the Big East standings. And if Notre Dame did catch lightning in a bottle and go undefeated, that win against USC -- assuming it doesn't come in the next few sanction-ravaged years -- would propel the Irish near the top of the BCS standings even if the perception of the Big East hasn't improved.
Meanwhile, the conference would reap a windfall. Every year Notre Dame won the league, a lucky BCS bowl would be guaranteed a sellout. Every road game the Irish played in the league would sell out. (Notre Dame games at Rutgers probably could be moved to the Meadowlands.) Networks would cherish the league's television package because, average or not, the Irish get ratings.
It's a win-win for the program and for the league, but it still probably won't happen. That doesn't mean Marinatto shouldn't try. He shouldn't issue an ultimatum to Notre Dame as his football coaches once suggested, but he should ask nicely. Pretty please, with a Fiesta Bowl berth on top?
Notre Dame doesn't want to join a conference in football, and its reasons are admirable. But how much longer will the program's donors accept mediocrity as an independent when slightly above mediocre might win the Big East every few years?