Game Time: Longhorns & Notre Dame -- The Last Two Independents

Irish & Longhorns, together again
Irish & Longhorns, together again

"in·de·pen·dent (nd-pndnt) - adj. Free from the influence, guidance, or control of another or others; self-reliant"

For 123 years, the adjective "independent" has been as intertwined with Notre Dame football as the word "Catholic" has been to describe the university at large. Over the years it's manifested itself in the form of the old barnstorming-style scheduling that the team employed in the early days of Knute Rockne to the more modern-day decisions like breaking off from the CFA in the late `80's and choosing to sign an exclusive contract with NBC to televise all Notre Dame home games.

If you don't understand what the importance of college football independence, I actually don't begrudge you at all. It probably means you didn't go to the school, and in light of the recent tremors in the college football landscape, it probably means you're a practical thinker. The college football landscape is about to change. How drastically it changes has now been boiled down to one question -- is Notre Dame ready to forfeit its football independence and join the Big Ten?

Big 12 "traditionalists" (you know, all you Big 12 fans that go waaaaay back to 1996) hope the answer is "yes". A quick lesson on the "Notre Dame ripple effect" -- if you listen to my show or have been following along with insiders like Chip Brown of, whose information has been as accurate as it's been exclusive, you probably already get this. If not, follow me...

The Big Ten (which has eleven teams) wants to expand to at least 12 teams so that they can stage a conference championship game and make more money. (Side bar -- the Big Ten is the only conference that has its own "conference TV network," and the network is a gold mine. Each Big Ten school took home $22 million last year, far and away tops for any conference.) The Big Ten's options are:

1.) Finally secure Notre Dame as its 12th member

2.) Pilfer Nebraska and/or Missouri as its 12th member
3.) Pilfer some combination of Nebraska, Missouri, Syracuse, Pitt, Louisville, and Rutgers to go to 14 or 16 teams

The thinking is if the Big Ten lands Notre Dame, they're happy with that and would cease talks with Nebraska and Missouri (and everyone else). Notre Dame hits all the Big Ten sweet spots -- geography, tradition, built-in rivalries, academic reputation, cash cow. (Yes, that list was in ascending order of importance.)

The thinking is with no Big Ten available, Missouri and Nebraska would settle back in with the Big 12 and try and act like nothing ever happened -- kind of like when you get caught flirting with someone else by your significant other. "C'mon Dan Beebe, you know that the Big Ten could never make us as happy as you do!"

With Nebraska and Missouri securely in the fold, all of this talk of the Big 12 South migrating west to the Pac-10 would die because ultimately the power schools in the Big 12 (read: Texas) want the Big 12 to remain intact, start their own network, and bank $20 million per year without having to travel to Pullman, WA. The Pac-10, desirous of getting to 12 teams to stage its conference title game, might then turn its attention to Utah, BYU, or perhaps Boise State (down here in Texas, who really cares?).

In other words, if Notre Dame opts to go to the Big Ten, what once looked like armageddon devolves into a regional skirmish between the Pac-10 and the Mountain West/WAC, which for Big 12 fans and residents would be like a falling out between a semi-distant aunt and uncle that you talk to once every couple years -- it's not really on our radar screen anymore. It's too bad, but life goes on.

Now, I graduated from Notre Dame in 1991, and while my net worth is not nearly enough to get me truly inside the figurative room with the people in South Bend pulling the trigger on this decision, I know enough of the dynamics at work to give Big 12 fans a Cliffs Notes rundown of the key players and forces involved in the decision.

First, get to know this guy -- he is Notre Dame athletics director Jack Swarbrick. His background? Economics degree from Notre Dame, law degree from Stanford, and has spent his professional life making lots of money for lots of people. He's smarter than you, he's smarter than me.

Second, get to know this guy -- he is Notre Dame President Rev. John Jenkins. He was named president of the school on April 30, 2004 and within eight months Tyrone Willingham was fired as head football coach. He also invited Barack Obama to speak at Notre Dame's graduation in 2009 despite heavy protest from those within the Catholic church (because of Obama's pro-choice views). My point? Dude likes football a lot, he's not afraid to make a controversial decision, and the Tyrone Willingham firing was not racist. He was just a shitty football coach. Period. (Someday I'll let it go. Today is not that day.)

So those are the two most important guys on the Notre Dame side -- two alums, two sports guys, two guys not afraid to make a swift decision.

For those who think it's a complete "no brainer" for Notre Dame to join the Big Ten, it's not that easy. Ultimately, it may be the right thing to do, but there are factors that either (a) both sides must find compromise on and/or (b) Notre Dame would have to come to grips with. A short list of those items:
(1) Television revenue -- NBC has been a loyal partner to Notre Dame through good times (the high point probably being the 1993 Florida State game, which in some sense tells you how loyal they've been) and bad times (pretty much everything since that Florida State game, save a few BCS bowl seasons here and there). My guess is that the Big Ten will have to find a way to allow a framework whereby Notre Dame's home games are still broadcast live on NBC, with maybe some replay rights for the Big Ten Network. With the inherent value Notre Dame brings to the conference (and Big Ten Network for everything other than live home football broadcasts), my uneducated guess is the question of "How do we divide up more money?" gets worked out.

(2) University culture -- The Big Ten is largely made up of massive, public, research-based universities whose strength is in graduate studies as much as undergraduate studies (maybe moreso, at a few places). Notre Dame is a small, private, faith-based school. I would hope that Swarbrick and Jenkins are spending copious amounts of time picking the brains of Northwestern (the only private Big Ten school right now) in this process to find out how heavily the academic missions of the schools in the conference impact decision making. Notre Dame is in the Big East for virtually all of its other sports. The Big East is a conference assembled for athletic purposes, period. The Big Ten brings a second layer of academia that needs to be (and will be) factored in.

(3) Schedule -- Notre Dame has traditional annual rivals like USC and Navy (the two most important ones), and to a lesser extent, Stanford and Boston College, as well as a commitment to a handful of neutral site games over the next several years. The good news is most of Notre Dame's other traditional rivals (Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue) would find themselves on the schedule anyway as conference games in the Big Ten. Being able to at least keep Navy (for traditional reasons that transcend football and date back to the 1940's) and USC (home in October, away at Thanksgiving) on the schedule are probably as close to "deal breakers" as you'll get.

(4) Pride -- Notre Dame said "No" to the Big Ten just eleven years ago. Is saying "Yes" now an admission of weakness or a realization that the landscape has changed that drastically? Since 1999, the ACC has invaded the Big East, the Big Ten has gotten its own television network, dollars have exploded for TV rights in other conferences, and the BCS has evolved closer and closer to a de facto playoff (access to which "independent" status might be a hindrance). The landscape has changed noticeably. (You can kind of see where I come out on it.) That said, never underestimate the ego of Notre Dame. Ever. (...and stop nodding your heads, assholes!)

So as you and your Aggie friends head out for beers tonight, or you and your Baylor Bear brethren are driving over to Bible study, you now at least have a better understanding of what's driving decisions in South Bend. It's not as simple as it looks. But it matters; it matters a lot to you Big 12 fans.

To save the Big 12's 14-year "tradition" of infighting, unequal television payouts to conference members and (admittedly) good football, Notre Dame just has to surrender its 123-year tradition of independence. If the Irish decide to join the Big Ten, I'm sure no tears will be cried for Notre Dame, and somehow I don't think that fruit basket will be showing up on Jack Swarbrick's front stoop from Dan Beebe any time soon.

A little perspective and truth to wrap up -- this post started with a definition of the word "independence" and that's how it will end as well. If you believe that Notre Dame needs the Big Ten, then there's only one school left that is completely insulated from the whims of other's decisions, where they stand to max out their potential return on realignment regardless of what Notre Dame, Nebraska, Missouri or the Pac-10 decide.

Indeed, if the definition of "independence" is truly "free from the influence, guidance, or control of another or others; self-reliant," there's only one actual "independent" school left in this conference realignment process -- The University of Texas.

Listen to Sean Pendergast on 1560 The Game from 3-7 p.m. weekdays on the "Sean & John Show" and follow him on Twitter at

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