Irish AD: Conference expansion could impact independent status

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NEW YORK -- Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said Tuesday it remains the school's "clear preference" to maintain its football independence, but that the possibility of impending Big Ten expansion and other conference realignment may ultimately impact the school's status.

"I believe we are at a point right now where the changes could be relatively small, or they could be seismic," said Swarbrick. "What I have to do along with [university president John] Jenkins is figure out where the pieces are falling."

In town to attend the Big East basketball tournament, Swarbrick and new football coach Brian Kelly met with a small group of reporters Tuesday morning. Calling the current college landscape "as unstable as I've seen it" in 29 years as a sports executive, Swarbrick said, "You could each invent a scenario that would force our hand."

The Big Ten, to which Notre Dame turned down an invitation in 1999, announced last December that it would actively begin exploring expansion. Commissioner Jim Delany has said the league will know better by this summer whether to proceed with the process. Last week, the Chicago Tribune reported that an investment firm commissioned by the conference investigated the financial merits of five schools -- Notre Dame, Missouri, Pittsburgh, Syracuse and Rutgers -- and confirmed that the league's existing schools would gain revenue were the Big Ten to undergo expansion.

Numerous reports have indicated the league is exploring the possibility of adding more than one team.

Meanwhile, Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott said last month that his league is looking "very seriously" at potential expansion in advance of negotiations over its television contracts, which expire next year.

"You have two conferences [the Big Ten and SEC] that have separated themselves economically and you've got all the other conferences lined up for their [upcoming television] renegotiations," said Swarbrick. "The bar has been set so high, and the [current] media market is so tepid, that it creates a lot of tension."

Asked why current realignment possibilities would affect the Irish more so than other shakeups that have taken place over the past 20 years, Swarbrick mentioned several hypothetical scenarios.

"What if realignment impacted the shape of the BCS?" he said. "Also, the Big East has been a great home for us [in other sports], but if there are fundamental changes to the Big East as a result of realignment, what does that do? What if a few conferences further distinguish themselves from the field? What are the competitive ramifications of that?

"... That's why I'm spending 50 percent of my time right now talking to people [about this]."

Kelly, who came to Notre Dame from Cincinnati last December, said he appreciates Notre Dame's independence, but that he isn't well-versed on the full ramifications.

"I can tell you that it is great when you look at a schedule where you're playing teams from all over the country," he said. "But I know that we have to drill a lot deeper than that."

On Monday, Notre Dame announced the latest of several upcoming neutral-site games, a 2011 game against Maryland at FedEx Field. Last season the Irish played Washington State in San Antonio, and this fall they will face Army at Yankee Stadium. The initiative to play more "barnstorming" games began under former athletic director Kevin White (now at Duke), who lamented in 2006 that, "Over time, we've really begun to behave like a wannabe conference member. I think it was real important for us to go back to our roots and behave more like an independent."

Swarbrick reiterated Tuesday that, "while we're paying attention [to realignment], we're trying like heck to maintain our football independence. It's good for college football and it's great for Notre Dame. That's our goal."