Of the 12 BCS decision-makers sequestered in a conference room last week in Hollywood, Fla., Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick found himself in the most unique position. The 11 conference commissioners must report back to a set of presidents with potential options for a playoff. Swarbrick must report only to his boss, the Rev. John Jenkins. In that respect, Swarbrick's job is easier. But those 11 conference commissioners also have a much better idea how their leagues will fit into any model that gets adopted. Swarbrick can't be so sure.
The specifics of the new postseason model could mean more to Notre Dame than to anyone else, because the model is one of a few factors that will determine the future of Notre Dame athletics. The Fighting Irish want to continue playing football as an independent, but will that be possible? Also, with the sand still shifting under the Big East thanks to another BCS decision made last week, is that the best home for Notre Dame's other sports?
Swarbrick wisely declined to answer either of those questions last week. It doesn't do him or Notre Dame's leadership any good to publicly speculate before they know what postseason model won the sweepstakes. Plus, as Swarbrick pointed out, the postseason model is only part of the picture.
"There are a lot of moving pieces," Swarbrick said. "This is a big piece. Our own television is a big piece, and it's something that we control. Independent of this, the conference landscape is a factor."
Swarbrick is correct. Two Notre Dame broadcasts on NBC (Air Force and Navy) last season tied for the lowest rated Notre Dame home games broadcast on the network since the relationship began in 1991, but high ratings for Notre Dame road games against Michigan and Stanford on ESPN/ABC suggest a public appetite remains for watching the Irish against quality opponents even though Notre Dame hasn't been a national title contender in two decades. Few other programs move the meter the way the Irish do. Alabama, Michigan, Ohio State and Texas probably could hammer out similar or more lucrative deals as independents, but most others lack the national drawing power. Notre Dame's current NBC contract -- which pays a reported $15 million a year -- runs through the 2015 season. Also, college athletics leaders have made clear they expect another round of realignment madness once a postseason model is set.
So can Notre Dame afford to remain an independent in football and keep its other sports in the Big East? A lot could depend on the television revenue. The $15 million is a nice chunk of change, but Purdue and Ole Miss, for example, now make more from their conference payouts. Will NBC or another network be willing to pay more for Notre Dame despite declining ratings? The answer probably is yes. Remember, rights fees have continued to skyrocket out of proportion with ratings. Also, NBC/Comcast has been shut out of major college football other than Notre Dame. The only football properties left on the board that haven't been locked into long-term deals are the Big East rights, which expire after the 2013 season, the primary rights of the Big Ten, which expire after the 2016 season, and the Irish.
Another factor that might have forced Notre Dame football into a conference seems to be a non-issue. Prior to last week's BCS meetings, several commissioners had made noise about requiring teams to win their conference to be allowed into the playoff. That obviously would be a problem for Notre Dame, which cannot win a conference because it doesn't belong to one. Swarbrick left Florida confident the model itself will not force Notre Dame's hand. "There are so many forms this can still take," Swarbrick said, "but even the people who are proponents of the conference champion dynamic recognize a need to have the combinations in various situations if someone is ranked high enough. ... Even in those models, there's a recognition that you've got to have a way for teams who earn it to be in there."
So what could happen to Notre Dame in the next few years? Here are the possible options:
• Nothing changes: The Irish remain an independent in football and keep the rest of their sports in the Big East. If NBC (or another network) steps up and pays for Notre Dame football and the Big East appears able to nail down a lucrative deal on the men's basketball side, the status quo should be fine.
• Remain independent in football but change conferences in the other sports: This could happen. The Big 12 might be open to adding Notre Dame's other sports on one condition: that the Irish schedule a few Big 12 schools in football every year. This wouldn't be a big deal for Notre Dame; in fact, it would make scheduling easier. The Big East continues to be attacked from all sides. Its bargaining power for its football media rights took a blow last week when the BCS chose to eliminate automatic qualifying status. That's a football issue, but it also could affect the Big East's overall bargaining power in its rights negotiations. Also, Notre Dame didn't sign up for an all-sports league that included Central Florida, Houston and SMU. A basketball league that includes Kansas and Texas might be more appealing.
• Join a conference in all sports: Geography and finances suggest that league would be the Big Ten. But with Notre Dame's national reach, why further isolate a campus that isn't exactly located in a football recruiting hotbed? The ACC or Big 12 would make more competitive sense -- the money would be competitive, too -- and either would be open to adding Notre Dame if the Irish were truly serious about putting their football team in a conference. Remember, Notre Dame is the only independent that would bring in enough new revenue to justify adding another school to keep the league at an even number. So if the Irish move, some lucky school probably would get to tag along into a wealthier neighborhood. (I see you nodding, Rutgers.) Still, this remains the least likely course of action, because Notre Dame's leaders and big money backers do not want to join a conference in football.
So Swarbrick will wait for his 11 BCS colleagues to come back from their leagues with recommendations. By mid-summer, we should know which playoff model major college football will use beginning in the 2014 season. Do the Irish have to make a choice at that point? "No, we don't," Swarbrick said. "We'll have another piece of information. But it's not the only piece of information."
But it is a big enough piece to begin nudging Notre Dame toward a decision on its future.