If Irish need dance partner, only Big Ten fits

by Rick Morrissey

Some things are so right and so obvious that to not do them is silly. Notre Dame in the Big Ten is one of those right and obvious things.

The Irish are said to be talking with the Atlantic Coast Conference about shedding their football independence and locking arms with a group of institutions for the first time in school history. This is one of those all-wrong things. Notre Dame in the ACC would be like Tobacco Road relocating to South Bend.p. According to USA Today, Notre Dame also has chatted with the Big Ten, which can’t afford the indignity of having the Irish join another conference. Surely Notre Dame knows this, which might be the reason it is slow dancing with the ACC. (The last time the Big Ten lured an independent into its fold, Penn State made sure that, for four years in a row, it had a week off before playing Michigan. Expect Notre Dame to demand that opponents kneel in obeisance before games, and the Big Ten to counter with an offer of simple genuflection.)p. What would seem to make sense all the way around might not make sense to Notre Dame, and that’s what has to be addressed first. After all, it could lose its individuality, the glamor of being a national program and its flexibility in scheduling. Why would the Irish even think about abandoning a situation in which they have their own TV contract with NBC?p. Because things change, and for the first time in history, Notre Dame might just need the Big Ten as much as the other way around.p. The TV contract for football is up after the 2005 season, and NBC officials have been tight-lipped about whether they want to extend the deal. Never a good sign, those tight lips.p. The Bowl Championship Series contract is up after the 2005 season, too, and the one that takes its place might not be so accommodating to an independent Notre Dame. As it stands now, if the Irish meet certain criteria (at least nine victories, a spot in the top 10 of the final BCS rankings, etc.), they are all but assured a BCS game. That could change with a new contract.p. In other words, Notre Dame might not be the 800-pound green gorilla anymore.p. “Whereas once Notre Dame was one of the few national schools, I think there are a lot of national schools now,” Minnesota athletic director Joel Maturi, a 1967 Notre Dame graduate, said Thursday. "TV has changed that. The Big Ten is national, even though it’s still relatively geographic. My daughter lives in California and she can watch the Gophers if we’re on ESPN on Saturday morning. That wasn’t true 20 years ago or even 10 years ago.p. “I don’t know if Notre Dame has that definite uniqueness that it once had alone. That’s nobody’s fault. It doesn’t mean they’ve done anything lesser. It’s just the reality.”p. To understand Notre Dame, you have to understand that everything it does is carried out with the idea that it is special. It’s a wonderful outlook and true in a lot of ways, but it also can be confining. The fear among Notre Dame officials and alumni always has been that the school will lose some of that singularity by joining a conference—even a conference with schools that have a long tradition of athletic and academic success.p. Somewhere along the line, Notre Dame decided its mystique was tied to its independence, but that’s not what makes it unique.p. Its uniqueness comes from the fact it is a national power that won’t make academic concessions. I don’t know how that changes if Notre Dame joins a conference that includes Michigan, Ohio State, Michigan State, Purdue and, if we’re talking top academic schools, Northwestern.p. Notre Dame never will be one of many, in the same way Michigan isn’t. Some programs transcend their conferences. Florida State is Florida State, not another school from the ACC.p. Here’s the best benefit of membership in the Big Ten for the Irish: They wouldn’t feel the pressure of scheduling tough opponents week after week as a way of appeasing NBC. The insane schedule they have now—Washington State, Michigan, Purdue, Michigan State, USC and Florida State, among others—won’t be necessary. Less money, yes, but more breathing room.p. The Big Ten offered Notre Dame entry in 1999 and was not happy with the way Irish officials handled things when they turned down the invitation. This time, the Irish might have some crawling to do.p. Notre Dame eventually will give up its independence, though it’s hard to believe the school will give it up to join the ACC. Last anybody heard, Notre Dame was doing most of its recruiting in Big Ten country.p. “I believe someday that [Notre Dame’s] independence will not continue,” Maturi said. “I don’t know when that someday is.”p. Someday very soon makes sense.

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