Notre Dame And The Big Ten: An Introduction To Fighting Irish Independence

Introducing the history between Notre Dame and the Big Ten, and the role the conference played in Notre Dame's independence
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Geography. History. Tradition. Notre Dame’s relationship with the Big Ten Conference runs deep, with countless highlights – and some scattered lowlights – seared in the minds of Irish fans. It is a bond that stretches back to the very spark of the Notre Dame football tradition, a November day in 1887 when the Michigan football team taught some Notre Dame students how to play this new game sweeping the land while waiting to catch the train in South Bend that would take them to Chicago for a Thanksgiving game against Northwestern.

From those humble beginnings would rise a dynasty – the most famous college football team in history – whose gold helmets would unite millions across the nation, whose coaches would become legends, and whose team would stamp a small college in rural Indiana on the map.

But despite the presence of Michigan, soon to become a charter member of the Western (Big Ten) Conference in 1895, at the dawn of the Notre Dame football program, and other shared memories across decades of fall Saturdays, the initial olive branch of friendship would soon wilt in the heat of competition, rivalry, and oftentimes – mutual resentment.

First, the Big Ten would spurn the upstart Irish three times in the early 1900s, as a rising program was denied the validation that Big Ten membership would have provided. As much as that rejection stung in the short-term, it prevented the region-focused Big Ten from clipping the wings of the Irish, and Notre Dame would quickly become the first national program in college football, gain the respect of the sport’s traditional powers and become the pride of millions of Catholic immigrants for whom the football team’s success offered tangible proof of the reality of the American dream.

Then, after decades of their teams seeing the backs of Irish players crossing the goal line, the Big Ten, led by longtime Commissioner Jim Delaney, set off on a multi-year journey in the 1990s to woo Notre Dame into joining the conference with the promise of millions in TV revenue. However, Delaney did not realize how football independence, created out of necessity after his conference rejected the Irish in the early 1900s, had seeped into the very essence of the university.

One could argue that in many ways the decisions of the Big Ten created what Notre Dame football means today. A founding conference member literally taught Notre Dame how to play the game in 1887, while over the next four decades the Big Ten’s multiple rejections of the Irish forced them to think differently and launched them as a national brand.

Then, in the 1990s, the Big Ten’s pursuit of Notre Dame resulted in the university publicly acknowledging that the price of football independence could not be measured in dollars, and through the BCS and now playoff era, the university has fought to maintain that independence, even returning to it after getting a taste of conference membership in the pandemic-influenced 2020 season.

This four-part series will explore Notre Dame’s relationship with the Big Ten Conference. Part I covers the early years, highlighted by the multiple failed attempts of Notre Dame to join the Big Ten in the early 1900s. Part II will walk through the Big Ten’s efforts in the 1990s to lure Notre Dame into joining the conference, and Part III will highlight the ten biggest games against Big Ten opponents in Notre Dame football history. Part IV will conclude with a reflection on how Notre Dame’s relationship with the Big Ten has shaped the Irish football program in the modern day and look forward to how Notre Dame is positioned for the future.  

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