The Big Ten’s decision to spurn Notre Dame’s final attempt to join in 1926 hardened the independent spirit of the university. Notre Dame embraced a national schedule, and despite continuing to play regularly against Big Ten teams, especially Purdue and Michigan State, Notre Dame would never again be constrained by the Midwest.
Subsequent Irish coaches continued Knute Rockne’s tradition of playing one game on the West Coast per year, and Notre Dame games against the service academy powers in historic stadiums on the East Coast – especially Yankee Stadium – became must-see events. ND’s national brand and appeal generated a new term, “subway alumni”, to describe fans who did not attend the school and had never set foot on campus yet became die-hard supporters (like my great aunts).
In many ways, the independent fighting spirit of the football team personified what many American Catholics had experienced while struggling to build a life in the United States. Notre Dame could cast its recruiting net far and wide across the nation to sign highly ranked classes, with the Catholic high schools providing an especially fertile ground for recruiting which continues to this day.
In addition to on-field success, with the Irish claiming nine national titles in the 60-year period from 1930-1990, independence was lucrative off the field as well. Notre Dame reset the entire college football media landscape with a revolutionary 5-year, $38 million national NBC Sports television contract beginning in the 1991 season.
Perhaps former Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany believed the prevailing media narrative that Notre Dame sold out and took the NBC deal for the money, and thus saw what he believed to be a kindred spirit in Notre Dame (Joe Paterno said “We got to see Notre Dame go from an academic institute to a banking institute” and Arkansas coach Frank Broyles called the decision “ultimate greed”).
Delany became commissioner of the Big Ten, then the most powerful conference in the country, in 1989 and quickly made his mark with the addition of Penn State as a conference member in 1990. This move expanded the Big Ten’s reach to the East Coast and brought its membership to 11, one short of the NCAA-required size to hold a conference championship game. Continuing to chase more millions in television revenue (with a nice bump coming from the proposed conference championship game), Delany approached Notre Dame for the first time in 1994. However, the Irish, coming off almost a decade of dominance, quickly declined the Big Ten’s offer to join.
After the luster had worn off from the Lou Holtz years, though, Delany and the Big Ten again offered Notre Dame conference membership in 1998, and this time the university said it would evaluate the pros and cons of membership.
Delany certainly was not wrong in his belief that Notre Dame would have added millions in television revenue to the Big Ten’s coffers, and history has proven him correct in in assessment that from media rights alone, the Irish would have done better in the Big Ten. In 2019 for instance, Big Ten member schools received $43.6 million in TV revenue, while Notre Dame only received $22 million. However, what Delany failed to realize – or maybe he realized it and plunged forward with a longshot effort of convincing the Irish to join the conference anyway – was that decades of independence, first out of necessity but then out of choice, had left an indelible mark on the university, her alumni, and fans – a mark that could never be measured by dollar signs.
In recommending against Big Ten admission to the Notre Dame Board of Trustees, then-alumni association director Charles Lennon stated that 99.5% of members were against joining the Big Ten. Students agreed, with chants of “No Big Ten” often heard at basketball games, as in addition to the cultural and athletic arguments against Big Ten membership, there was concern that conference membership would lead to a deemphasis on Notre Dame’s undergraduate programs.
Notre Dame would have been forced to join the Committee for Institutional Cooperation (CIC), an academic consortium of Big Ten schools focused on faculty and student exchanges and grant sharing in graduate programs (interestingly enough, the Notre Dame Faculty Senate supported joining the CIC).
Notre Dame president Fr. Edward “Monk” Malloy summed up the argument against Big Ten membership succinctly, saying “Just as the Universities of Michigan or Wisconsin or Illinois have core identities as the flagship institutions of their states, so Notre Dame has a core identity, and at that core are these characteristics: Catholic, private, independent. As a Catholic university with a national constituency, we believe independence continues to be our best way forward.”
The Board of Trustees agreed, voting unanimously to decline the Big Ten’s offer of membership in February 1999 and keep all sports other than football in the Big East.
Though Notre Dame has continued to remain an object of desire for the Big Ten since then, the university has never again seriously considered joining. Instead, the Notre Dame administration and athletic directors, most notably current AD Jack Swarbrick, have been singularly focused on maintaining the Irish’s independence – and relevance – during multiple rounds of conference expansions, the BCS, and the College Football Playoff (including the most recent expansion talk).
When describing Notre Dame’s decision to leave the Big East and join the ACC in all sports other than football, which also requires ND to play five ACC football games per year, Swarbrick said in a statement that first and foremost this decision allowed the university to “maintain [its] historic independence in football.”
Furthermore, in the past month Swarbrick served on the four-person committee that recommended College Football Playoff expansion to 12 teams, and indicated that the price of remaining independent was to give up the chance of ever getting a bye, and he and the university were fine with that. The very fact that Swarbrick even served on this four-person committee shows the prestige that Notre Dame continues to maintain nationally.
Looking back on Notre Dame’s evaluation of Big Ten membership in 1999 through the filter of the past 20 years shows that again, it was for the best that the Big Ten and Notre Dame remained apart. Not only did Notre Dame never lose the prestige it had built during the 20th century while continuing to be one of the most profitable athletic departments in the country (TV dollars aren’t everything), the 1999 evaluation and eventual decision to reject Big Ten membership prepared the university and fan base to weather the chaos in the national college football landscape that the next two decades would bring.
The result of the 1999 decision was a public affirmation from the university, students, alumni, and fans that independence was essential to the Notre Dame identity, it could not be bought, and it must be protected. That ethos has guided the university and athletic department in all decisions since then.
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