by Mike Coffey
My mother is one of those social souls for whom exiting a party is three times the effort of entering. She’ll say she’s leaving, then run into someone on the way to the door. 10 minutes later, the process repeats. Eventually she finds her way out, but it usually involves half a tank of gas used up by my father, who had found his way to the car right after mom’s initial pronouncement.
Having observed this phenomenon for over 40 years, I’m quick to recognize it when I see it elsewhere … like in Notre Dame’s repeated dalliances with the Big Ten conference (or, as I prefer to call them, the Integer). Having dodged this bullet in 1998, we now find ourselves looking down the barrel of the same gun, with the conference recently announcing a renewed effort to find a 12th member and participate in a championship game.
Like Michael Corleone, just when we think we’re out, they pull us back in.
While we’re sometimes accused of tilting at windmills on this topic, Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick isn’t helping matters. While professing loyalty to the independent state of Notre Dame’s football program, his statements to the press are peppered with phrases like “we’d sure like to try to maintain [independence]”, which is now thought of as a “strong preference” that must be balanced with “implications” in the “industry” of college football while “scenarios play out”.
Sounds a lot like those non-denial denials that were so in vogue during our two-week football coaching search. And like Oklahoma fans three weeks ago, we’re a little uneasy.
With the Chicago Tribune endlessly beating the drum of Integer assimilation, columnist-by-default David Haugh can’t resist chiming in either. A decade of reading his work has taught me that, while he may be erudite on a number of subjects, to call him semi-educated on the topic of Notre Dame and what makes it tick would be overrating him by several orders of magnitude. So for David (since I know he just tingles to read my stuff) and anyone else who may be unclear on the concept, let’s review the issues.
Many reasons exist for ND to remain a football independent, regardless of how the “industry” goes. But those reasons get thrown into sharp relief when applied to a conference like the Integer, and can be summed up in three words: Geography, Diversity, and Differentiation.
Geography. Notre Dame sits square in the middle of the Integer’s geographic footprint, so at first glance, it might seem to be a good fit. But the value of Notre Dame’s brand (because, let’s face it, this is a money discussion more than anything) was built based on national appeal. There’s a reason update and op-ed columns regarding Notre Dame’s pursuit of Brian Kelly were written for or published in Tampa and New York City and Chicago and Boston and Los Angeles and Washington D.C. and Seattle and any number of other cities. You don’t waste column inches on stories in which no one is interested.
But how long will that interest be maintained if the Fighting Irish end up playing 9 of their 12 games every year in a Midwest geographic footprint against other teams from that same footprint? Sure, a Notre Dame/Michigan game will pull in national interest for a while. But a steady diet of ND/Minnesota? ND/Iowa? ND/Northwestern? Why should people in Florida and California and New York and Washington care about those games? How soon before their disinterest shows and Notre Dame becomes yet another marginalized regional school, pushed further behind the eight-ball due to its small graduating classes relative to those geographic “peers”?
Diversity. The Integer comprises ten large state universities and one private  secular university. Outside of a desire for scholarship at the 20,000-foot level, Notre Dame has little, if anything, in common with any of them. Notre Dame graduates about two to three thousand people per year, while the Integer factory in total cranks out numbers in six figures. Notre Dame’s graduation rate for undergrads typically operates north of 95 percent, and its rates for student athletes leads the nation. The rates for most of the Integer schools, by comparison, are downright embarrassing.
When you join a conference, the needs of the many supplant the needs of the few. Decisions get made by the majority, and with the masses of humanity on land-grant campuses who (based on the numbers) really don’t give a rip about the academic side of things when it comes to their athletes, Notre Dame will be subjected to a steady diet of being on the wrong end of 10-2 and 11-1 decisions. Michigan and Ohio State have owned the Integer lock, stock and barrel for long and long. That ain’t gonna change any time soon. The idea of voluntarily subjecting ourselves to their whims for 30 pieces of silver makes my brain hurt.
Differentiation. When a recruit comes to Notre Dame’s campus, aside from being presented with the scholastic and spiritual ways in which Notre Dame is different from their competitors, they also see the opportunity to play a national schedule. Why limit yourself to games against your neighbors, the coaches can say, when you can play Southern Cal and Navy and Tennessee and Florida State and Pittsburgh and Oklahoma and Boston College and Arizona State, all of whom have appeared recently or will appear on future Notre Dame schedules? Why play just about all your games in flatland stadiums a bus ride away when you can play in Los Angeles, New York City, Washington D.C., Dallas, and Ireland? Granted, the 7-4-1 abomination is hurting Notre Dame in this area in the short term, but that’s a self-inflicted wound that could be healed up should the program desire.
Think about how that discussion changes if Notre Dame joins the Integer. How would we differentiate ourselves from the Michigans and Ohio States of the world? We’d all be located in the same area of the country. We’d all play the same schedules. Why should they come to Notre Dame and have to apply themselves when they can just skate by as a Buckeye or Wolverine? Integer membership makes it all the more difficult to set ourselves apart from a rather low caliber of company, and this holds true not only for football but perhaps even more so for Notre Dame’s other sports.
Those who favor conference membership have their mantras, of course. Haugh points out that “an independent Notre Dame team with two losses by midseason — the rule more than the exception lately — struggles to find motivation. A Big Ten team with two losses by midseason after expansion would have a shot to win its division and play in the lucrative conference title game.”
What he fails to note is a two-loss Notre Dame team doesn’t
deserve to play in a “lucrative conference title game” or any other high-profile contest. They should earn their way into those games like they always have in the past. The solution is to improve the product on the field so standards are met, not dumb down expectations to the point that a “conference title game appearance” is viewed as something to applaud.
National Championships are remembered forever by the people who saw them. Conference titles are recorded on banners that everyone sees but no one looks at. The BCS gives mediocrities access to the championship structure by virtue of their membership in a particular group of teams. And yet those mediocrities scream about how Notre Dame gets “special treatment”, even though you’ll never see a 9-3 ND team even sniffing a BCS bid like Purdue and Stanford have in the past. Even Alanis Morisette would find that ironic.
Notre Dame is a national brand because of the efforts of those who came before — Rockne, Leahy, Hesburgh, Joyce, Parseghian, Holtz. Joining the Integer will effectively undo those efforts more effectively than just about any choice I can fathom. Becoming a small regional school with a small regional following may be attractive to those who want the money but don’t want to make the effort, but to those alumni and fans who believe those heights can be reached, it smacks of being lazy and cheap, neither of which are words I want associated with my school.
Let’s also not forget these people hate us. There’s no love lost between Notre Dame and any Integer school at any level, from the alumni and fans on up. The Integer and its members benefit from Notre Dame’s involvement much more than the other way around, and all they’re interested in is our money and the reflected attention they can get from us. If Joanna Barnes could make herself look like a crappy football stadium, it’d be a natural.
So Jack, the next time a reporter or alumnus or anyone else asks you what Notre Dame’s interest in Integer membership is, there’s no reason to be complicated or to hedge. Keep it simple.
The car is running, and gas is expensive these days.
For those of you who might feel the need to print this out and mail it to our friend Jack, his address is:
Director of Athletics
University of Notre Dame
C113 Joyce Center
Notre Dame, IN 46556
Remember, every little bit helps, and snail mail always gets more attention. Forward it to your friends and encourage them to do the same.