Written By: Steve Layman
Jim Delany made the move that started the college football realignment carousel. It was a move he didn’t make that will bring the carousel essentially to a stop with Notre Dame as a non-football playing member of the ACC and not a member of the Big Ten.
In December of 2009 Delany and the Big Ten announced that it would conduct a search to identify expansion candidates. That simple announcement began a season of backroom discussions and deals that would change the landscape of college sports. By June, Colorado and Utah would be on their way to the Pac-12 and Nebraska would have an invitation from the Big Ten, striking a near death blow to the Big 12 and sending a message that no conference was safe from the money grab of expansion.
While the addition of Nebraska’s strong football tradition and solid academic background was of value to the Big Ten, it was clear Delany had his eyes on something bigger–the golden goose, er, golden dome of Notre Dame. Ever since Delany took over as Big Ten Commissioner in 1989, the conference has made repeated attempts to lure the Irish and their valuable national brand into the league.
Delany and other Big Ten officials hoped the instability of realignment would force Notre Dame’s hand. With rumors swirling about the demise of the Big 12 and Big East and the apparent rise of super conferences from coast to coast, Notre Dame’s football independence appeared in jeopardy.
As the Big East–home to all Notre Dame sports except football–began to crumble, the Big Ten believed Irish Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick would finally come calling, willing to give up the school’s football independence, and lucrative NBC television contract, in order to find a stable home for all its sports. What the Big Ten didn’t count on was the fact that the ACC, needing to solidify its membership, was also looking to make a big move and was willing to compromise to make it. The ACC offered Notre Dame a similar deal to its one with the Big East–membership in all sports except for football–with the caveat that the Irish would play five football games a year against ACC members.
The Big Ten was unwilling to add Notre Dame while letting the Irish keep their football independence. At the same time, the conference would not pressure the school into making a decision. There was a play to be made.
The Big Ten is an academic, cultural and regional fit for Notre Dame and provides three yearly football rivalries with Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue, as well as periodic games against teams like Northwestern and Penn State. For decades Notre Dame has enjoyed the benefits of a Big Ten partnership without a full time commitment to the league. That agreement allowed the Irish to maintain their independence and fill a football schedule with marquee matchups that helped enhance Notre Dame’s national brand.
What if Delany and the Big Ten would have given Notre Dame an ultimatum to either join the conference as a full member or lose those yearly rivalries? Schools like Michigan, Michigan State, and Purdue could have easily given up the annual game against Notre Dame and still filled their schedules with quality games thanks to the strength of the Big Ten as a whole. But, could Notre Dame have filled three holes in its schedule with quality opponents? Would fans accept a softer schedule? Would NBC still have been willing to pay big money for Irish games against Rutgers, Pittsburgh, and Colorado State instead of against the Wolverines, Spartans, and Boilermakers?
The answer to all three questions is no. Notre Dame would struggle to put together a schedule with six to seven marquee matchups on a yearly basis without the help of those Big Ten rivalries or an agreement with some other conference. The absence of those quality games would unquestionably diminish the value of Notre Dame football to NBC over time, especially while CBS, ABC/ESPN, and FOX have a stranglehold on major conference television rights and the weekly showdowns leagues like the SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, and Pac-12 produce.
Would this ultimatum have been enough to get Notre Dame to give up its football independence and join the Big Ten? Maybe not. But, the Irish would have then had to make a choice between its valued independence and the traditions that have helped make that independence so valuable. Instead, the Big Ten kept asking nicely and Notre Dame got to keep both.
Enough dominoes eventually fell in realignment that Notre Dame had to make a move and it has. Credit Swarbrick for sitting back and surveying his options and not panicking. At the end of the day he made the best call. He found a new home for Notre Dame sports in the ACC, but most importantly kept the Irish’s one of a kind independence.
It’s a win for Notre Dame and the ACC and a blow to the Big Ten. A blow that may have been preventable.
Steve Layman is a Sports Anchor at Newschannel 5-WTVF in Nashville. You can follow him on twitter: @stevelayman.