Irish hunt for league. Look to Big Ten with NBC, BCS agreements ending

by Avani Patel, Tribune sports writer

Notre Dame floated a trial balloon Thursday about surrendering its football independence and sources say its intended target is the Big Ten.p. Notre Dame spurned the Big Ten in 1999 after lengthy negotiations because it didn’t want to give up its independent status in football as it has in other sports as part of the Big East.p. But the changing landscape in college athletics apparently has forced the school to reevaluate its stance.p. This time though, sources say, the Big Ten isn’t likely to court the Irish; Notre Dame would have to initiate talks.p. The Big Ten would not confirm when, or even if, talks with the Irish have occurred.p. “As of right now the Big Ten is not proactive in respect to expansion,” associate director of communications Scott Chipman said.p. Commissioner Jim Delaney was not available for comment.p. According to a story in USA Today on Thursday, Notre Dame has inquired about full membership in the Atlantic Coast Conference.p. But a source familiar with the situation says the ACC, which recently expanded from nine teams to 12, is wary an Irish overture could be an indirect Notre Dame attempt to re-open Big Ten talks.p. “We have received some informal inquires concerning potential membership, but our schools are not pursuing any institution for membership at this time,” ACC Commissioner John Swofford said in a statement.p. Notre Dame would not confirm talks had taken place with either conference.p. The Big Ten expanded from 10 to 11 members in 1990 when it added Penn State.p. Adding a 12th member would allow the Big Ten to stage a football conference championship game, a potentially lucrative source of revenue.p. Only conferences with at least 12 teams can have a championship game in football.p. The desire to tap into that revenue stream is in large part responsible for the recent expansion of the ACC, which enticed three Big East schools—Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech—to join it earlier this year.p. That change led to the Big East taking in Marquette, DePaul, Cincinnati, Louisville and South Florida from Conference USA.p. While that move unquestionably strengthens the Big East in basketball, it leaves its football future shaky.p. The Big East’s status in football would be solidified if it could persuade Notre Dame to become a full member.p. Why would the Irish even consider joining a conference, especially given their football television contract with NBC and the special status afforded them in the Bowl Championship Series?p. The current NBC contract and the current BCS agreement expire after the 2005 season.p. When the BCS contract was hammered out in the late 1990s, Notre Dame was included alongside the six major football conferences—the ACC, the Big East, the Big 12, the Big Ten, the Pac-10 and the Southeastern.p. Formal talks for the next BCS contract have not begun, but it is unclear if the Irish again will be afforded that privilege.p. Nor is it clear how lucrative the next NBC contract would be for the Irish.p. By joining a conference, the Irish probably would have to share the revenue they would receive if they played in a BCS game. And it is not an insignificant sum. The 2000 Fiesta Bowl netted Notre Dame about $13 million.p. On the other hand, in the first five years of the BCS, Notre Dame has played in only one BCS game.p. In a conference, the Irish would be guaranteed some sort of bowl payoff every year.p. Gene Corrigan, who was athletic director at Notre Dame from 1980 through 1987 and commissioner of the ACC from 1987 through 1997, said the Irish have no choice but to explore options.p. “I would wish, in my heart of hearts, that Notre Dame would be able to remain an independent in football,” said Corrigan, whose son, Kevin, is the Irish lacrosse coach. "But the landscape has changed.p. "They’re wise to take a look at whether this serves them best and whether or not they can contribute to a conference whether it’s the ACC or the Big Ten. They’re kind of out of the BCS. They’ve kind of lost their place at the table, more than anything because they’re an independent.p. “As the BCS has come along, they’ve looked at it and said, `Notre Dame, they’re going to be like TCU. If they’re good they’re going to get in, but they don’t have a vote at the table.’”p. Also important to Notre Dame, according to Corrigan, would be the academic profiles of the schools with which they would be allied.p. “They will look at the profiles of the other schools,” he said. “That’s going to be very important. I think their faculty will be very anxious about that.”

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