As Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick entertained questions last week in Scottsdale, Ariz., Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe strolled past. "You havin' fun, Jack?" Beebe asked, chuckling.
As men in charge of institutions facing an uncertain future, Swarbrick and Beebe can kid one another. But their situations aren't the same. While Beebe must play defense to keep his conference from getting raided if the most powerful leagues opt for radical expansion, Swarbrick and Notre Dame are the only ones who can truly stand between the bulldozer and the razing of the current college sports landscape.
If you believe eventual conference reorganization is the natural progression of rational actors acting rationally in a free market system, feel free to retain your current level of love or hate for the Fighting Irish. But if you fall into one of the following categories, you'd better begin to cheer, cheer for old Notre Dame.
• You don't want to see the current conference alignment reshaped in a massive cash grab.
• Your alma mater is among the schools -- hello, Cincinnati, West Virginia, Louisville, South Florida -- that stand to lose big in the case of radical realignment.
Make no mistake, the Big Ten can expand without Notre Dame and still make a fortune. But if circumstances force Notre Dame to cast its lot with the league, the resulting union would make the Big Ten so powerful that the other conferences would be forced to grow. For his part, SEC commissioner Mike Slive essentially promised last week that his league would act to protect its status as a premier conference. The ensuing shift would result in an entirely new alignment of schools throughout the country.
That's why the groups mentioned above should find the nearest Golden Domer and give him a hug. Notre Dame can stop the most radical realignment. In fact, that would be Notre Dame's preference. We'll let Professor Swarbrick, Notre Dame class of 1976, explain why football independence is so important to the folks in South Bend.
"At the turn of the 20th century, Notre Dame was indistinguishable from 120-plus Catholic colleges and universities in the United States," Swarbrick said. "That changed, and it changed principally on Nov. 1 of 1913 when a remarkable, ragtag football team went to West Point and beat Army. The New York media captured that moment. It intersected with the immigration wave in America, and Notre Dame changed forever.
"It's not just a great football tradition. It changed Notre Dame. It put Notre Dame in a different posture relative to other institutions like it. It remains that way today. The importance people place on this in the university context bears no relationship to our recent won-loss record. It has everything to do with this being part of our identity."
Essentially, football independence is a crucial piece of the soul of the university. Now Swarbrick and chancellor Rev. John Jenkins must decide whether Notre Dame will sell that piece of its soul to join the Big Ten -- if they even have a choice in the matter.
Swarbrick can't dismiss the possibility of Notre Dame joining the Big Ten, because, to read between the lines of Swarbrick's rhetoric, the Big East -- home to all of Notre Dame's other teams -- must still exist as we know it for Notre Dame to remain independent in football. That, as we've learned in the past few months, is a tenuous prospect. If the Big Ten snatches away Pittsburgh, Rutgers and Syracuse, the Big East would be fundamentally changed, and Notre Dame might have to seek shelter in the Big Ten.
Before you deluge me with e-mails about how Notre Dame football hasn't been relevant in 20 years, remember that conference expansion is about money and not on-field performance. Though the shine has come off the dome in the past two decades, Notre Dame still commands an audience far larger than most schools. Having Notre Dame -- a true national draw -- in the fold would get the Big Ten Network on the expanded basic tier of every major cable provider in the country, which would in turn allow the Big Ten to command an even higher fee per subscriber per month.
Notre Dame almost certainly stands to make more money as a Big Ten member than it would as a football independent. But this is one of those rare cases where the guiding principle isn't printed on green paper. "Remaining independent in football is a top priority for the university," Swarbrick said. "Not just for the athletics program. For the university."
Former Notre Dame coach Jesse Harper only scheduled that 1913 game against Army because of a boycott of Notre Dame by the Western Conference (the predecessor to the Big Ten) orchestrated by Michigan coach Fielding Yost, who was still steamed about the Wolverines' 1909 loss to the Fighting Irish. "There probably is some irony in that," Swarbrick said.
Adding to the irony is Notre Dame's role in creating the media environment that set the stage for this potential realignment. It was a 1982 antitrust suit filed by Georgia and Oklahoma that broke the NCAA's stranglehold on television rights, but it was Notre Dame's 1991 decision to break away from the College Football Association -- a cabal of power schools whose membership was strikingly similar to the current BCS lineup -- and sign a four-year, $38 million deal with NBC that convinced conferences and television networks that college football was a truly valuable television property. The move may seem greedy, but it was consistent with Notre Dame's stated desire to be independent. Now, Notre Dame is turning down money to protect that independence.
The 1991 move may also have planted a seed in the mind of a much younger Jim Delany that eventually, a powerful college sports entity could support its own television network. Delany, the Big Ten commissioner, drew ridicule and resistance when he unveiled his plan a few years ago to create the Big Ten Network. Now, that network provides a hefty chunk of the estimated $22 million the league pays annually to each member school, and it is the engine that will drive any expansion. In fact, the very possibility of the Big Ten Network changing the game came up when Swarbrick interviewed with Jenkins for the AD job two years ago.
"We talked about exactly this," Swarbrick said. "You could see the consequence of the Big Ten Network. Even back then. You could say, 'What's the natural progression? Where does this lead?' And it's all about media." Then Swarbrick pointed to the reporters -- the majority of whom were former newspaper writers now working for Web entities -- seated at the table with him. "The same changes that have changed your jobs so dramatically in the past five years have impacted our industry," Swarbrick said. "This is a dynamic environment fostered by that leading-edge change. Three years from now, I don't know what it'll be."
Since his candid comments to reporters at the Big East basketball tournament set off alarm bells throughout college sports, Swarbrick has been more measured with his words. Still, he doesn't deny that Notre Dame could find itself at a crossroads soon. "I probably need to have an absolute script when I use this," Swarbrick said as a warning to listeners that he had carefully scripted the next few sentences. "In the context of what's going on, we have to monitor the environment. There are things that are large enough that might challenge our ability to do those two things, stay independent and remain in the Big East. But we're not planning toward it."
Swarbrick and other Notre Dame leaders are smarter than that. Of course they have considered contingencies. Someday soon, they may have to draw on those considerations to answer a fundamental question.
With everything changing around them, can the Fighting Irish afford to stick to their principles, or will they have to sell a piece of the university's soul to survive?