by Mike Coffey
A couple weeks ago, I reviewed the 2014-16 football schedules ND released before the holidays, and said I would talk about the Scheduling Philosophy “tomorrow”. Obviously my concept of the word “tomorrow” is a little skewed, because here we are in January. But tomorrow has come, and as I’ve always said, some things you won … wait, that’s not it. Better late than never. Yes, that.
Jack Swarbrick talks about the scheduling goals in this transcript of the press conference. There also, however, is a a video interview with JS and Jack Nolan discussing the future philosophy of scheduling, and these are the details (along with some others) I’m going to look at most closely, particularly those starting at about the 3:20 mark.
Before I do, though, I’ll repeat one caveat from the last article: Scheduling as an independent these days isn’t easy. Conferences are starting to pass rules prohibiting playing mid- or late-season games outside the conference. I’m not going to claim Jack’s job is easy in this endeavor, and overall, I believe he’s done a good job on this. However, I’m not going to downgrade the financial and promotional value of a game against ND for potential opponents either, so let’s remember he’s not going hat-in-hand to these schools begging them to schedule us.
Let’s get this party started. Going forward, the framework of ND’s 6-5-1 12-game football schedules will be:
Game 1: Home ACC game
Game 2: Home ACC game
Game 3: Road ACC game
Game 4: Road ACC game
Game 5: Road/Home ACC game
Game 6: Home/Road Navy
Game 7: Home/Road Southern Cal
100 percent on board so far. Unlike some, I don’t have a real problem with the ACC agreement, so long as it doesn’t throw the 4-4-4 aspect of the schedule out of whack. The southeast is among the hottest recruiting areas you’ll find, and ND needs to have exposure there. We’ll have opportunities to see games in places like Atlanta and Miami. Road trips to Virginia and Clemson are supposed to be very enjoyable. North Carolina is a great state to visit. So long as the rest of the schedule is done correctly, the ACC commitment shouldn’t affect things.
I also agree with reserving a slot for Navy every year. While SC’s rivalry with Notre Dame needs no explanation for anyone even peripherally exposed to Fighting Irish football history, Navy is the longest continuous series ND has. If it weren’t for the Navy, ND would have closed during WWII and who knows if it would have re-opened. And if the 2016 schedule is any guide, the wild-card ACC game seems to be on the road the years we play Navy at home, so they can be slotted together. Yes, I know their current coach is a dick. Coaches don’t last forever.
Up to here, it’s a 4/3 home or road balance depending on the year. Excellent so far.
Game 8: Road/Home Stanford
OK, here’s where I begin to waver a bit. SC in a protected slot is a no-brainer, but Stanford is a little tougher to justify for me. Jack talked about “the shared values between the institutions”, and to a degree I understand that. ND should, to the extent it’s able, reward those programs giving more than lip service to the “student” in “student-athlete”, and Stanford has that history.
But as with so many things, there’s the PR reason for doing something and the real reason for doing it. The Pac-12 conference restricts non-conference games to the first three weeks of the season, and playing someone out-of-conference after that point requires a waiver. ND/USC was grandfathered in when the rule was passed, but the Pac-12 demanded a second school be put in the rotation to help them keep the schedules balanced. If SC was playing a non-conference game in Week 6, another Pac-12 school would either have to be off or play a non-conference game to balance it out. A second game vs. ND makes that juggling easier.
If the Pac-12 limited ND to one selection for that second team, I understand that selection being Stanford. All other things equal (which it would be here), consideration for things like academic attention should factor in. But if the Pac-12 just needed a second team every year and left it up to ND to pick which one, I don’t agree with giving Stanford “Most Favored Nation” status in perpetuity, which Jack’s statement seems to do. If Stanford keeps playing like the Tier-2-possibly-moving-to-1-given-time team it’s been the last couple years, great. But if they regress to their historical mean, ND will have two Tier 3 programs locked into valuable home-and-home slots. That’s going to make balancing the rest of the schedule a lot harder, especially when there are a couple Tier 3 programs already in the ACC and others with the capability of playing like one in a given season.
If Notre Dame can only play two Pac-12 teams a season, why limit themselves to SC and Stanford? One could argue their presence on the schedule makes UCLA and Cal unnecessary, and desire for variety aside, that makes sense. But what about Washington? What about Oregon? Arizona or the Sun Devils? ND would have to use up another H/H slot to get those teams on the schedule just to accommodate a team we’ve only played 28 times in more than 100 years.
Stanford offsets SC in the home/road balance, right now we’ve got four home and four road games scheduled per year.
Game 9: Shamrock Series neutral site
Game 10: Home-only opponent
Wavering even more now. I think the Shamrock Series is stupid, and I believe (a) playing Miami in Soldier Field in front of 61,500 instead of 90 miles away in South Bend in front of almost 20k more people, (b) turning the games into de-facto road games the next two seasons, and (c) needing a return engagement in San Antonio when we’ve not only already played there in the Series but are already playing 80 miles away in Austin the same year, illustrates it.
The stated goal (aka PR reason) of the SS is to expose the “Notre Dame experience” to areas of the country unfamiliar with it. That made sense in San Antonio in 2009. But since then, we’ve played in NYC (where we already get plenty of exposure), Maryland (where we play Navy every couple of years), and the aforementioned Chicago. Then we came back to Texas to give Dallas a Shamrock shower. In the next three seasons, we’re looking at Indianapolis (who hardly needs to be reminded who Notre Dame is), Boston (ditto), and San Antonio redux. Doesn’t sound like Irish evangelizing to me.
The supposed actual reason for the Shamrock Series was the reticence of the Powers That Were When the Contract Was Signed to give NBC night games to broadcast. A cadre of collars was against excessive night games for a myriad of reasons, so the compromise reached was Notre Dame would play “home games” away from Notre Dame Stadium at night. NBC would get their advertising ducats and ND would protect afternoon kickoffs (sort of), so everyone was happy.
Since then, though, the folks under the Dome have become much more amenable to playing under the lights, announcing we’ll have three night games in Notre Dame Stadium every two years going forward. They’ve also discovered, in a world of conferences protecting their geographic footprint via television contracts and teams knowing the value of having an ND game on their home schedule (hello, Arizona State), getting opponents to agree to appear in these games is very tricky. We can talk about “finding compelling opponents” all we want, but a compelling opponent is going to want just as many games in their venue as ND gets to control. So unless ND is willing to give up the opportunity to host a compelling opponent in South Bend in order to put them into the Shamrock slot (in and of itself a dumb move), I doubt we’ll find quality takers.
This would have been a perfect time to deem the Shamrock Series as having fulfilled its purpose and put it out to pasture. Sadly, the opportunity was allowed to pass us by. It remains to be seen how these Shamrock games will be filled in 2017 and beyond, but in case it’s not already obvious, I ain’t hopeful.
With an even number of games, you need a home-only buy game to offset the Shamrock slot. I have no problem with one of those to start the season off, provided we keep the FCS types out. But we’ve got Navy in a protected slot and a neutral-only slot to fill that, all other things equal, only the desperate would desire. Including a buy game increases the chances of a schedule being bottom-heavy, which we’re getting perilously close to in 2016.
We’re at 5-4-1 on the home/road scale, so that leaves us with:
Game 11: Home/Road opponent at home
Game 12: Home/Road opponent away
Unless one of these slots is used to somehow amp up the quality of the Shamrock opponent (again, a waste), this leaves two slots to maintain both the strength and geographic variety of Notre Dame’s annual football schedule. I know Jack said one in the video, but I think he’s off there, although I’m willing to be corrected. I suppose it can be done, but it makes things much much harder than if the Shamrock was eliminated and two more true home-and-homes could be created. Flexibility is key when scheduling as an independent.
Outside of the structure, some other philosophical goals apparently are striven for:
(1) Playing on Saturday. ND wants to stay away from the world of Thursday and Friday night games, and I greet this with thunderous applause. During-the-week games are abominations borne of also-ran schools’ prioritizing TV availability uber alles, and are a beast Notre Dame should help starve. I don’t think there’s any danger of ND having to play a home game any day but Saturday, but to the extent they’re able, they should demand weekend games on the road. The good news is ND is a very strong eyeball draw the networks (read: EsPN and its minions) will want on their Saturday broadcasts. The bad news is probably a steady diet of road games at night, which we’ve already seen the last couple seasons. Pick your poison, I guess, but I’d much rather see ND at night on Saturday than elsewhere on the calendar. Good for Jack (and those above him on the food chain) making this crystal clear.
(2) Controlling bye placement. Another excellent idea. The timing of a schedule sometimes means just as much as who you play, and strategic off weeks only help Notre Dame in the quest for National Championships. If I understand the ACC agreement correctly, we tell them the weeks and they give us the teams, so, to a limited extent, off-weeks remain in ND’s domain.
(3) Maximize geographic reach. Three for three on the outstanding-o-meter. Jack’s going to use a four-year window to make sure we’re hitting all the right notes in geographic exposure. This is crucial to ND’s survival as an independent, and something B1G membership would have destroyed, which is one of the many reasons I objected to it so strenuously. With the ACC in the Southeast, one CA game a year, and home games in the Midwest, there remain only a couple boxes to be sure to check every year (annual tilt vs. Texas on Thanksgiving week, anyone?).
(4) Playing in special places. OK, I guess. I imagine this means more trips to Ireland, but if we’re going to do the out-of-the-country thing, I’d rather see a game in Rome or Vancouver. I don’t necessarily have the sweatshop objection to China the way others do. If these kind of games were the Shamrock games, I wouldn’t object to it as much because we likely could get better teams interested.
(5) Variety of conference opponents, including a priority for SEC. [ecstatic swoon]
(6) Play like institutions. According to Jack, this is priority one, and while I agree it should be on there, I don’t think it should be first, especially when a lot of those “like institutions”, by and large, have crappy football programs. If you can fit them into the 4-4-4 structure, fine, but let’s not bottom out the schedule to make sure Vanderbilt gets a game with us.
(Although, having been to Nash-vegas for a Hawks game, I can confirm that would be a kick-ass road trip. So Vanderbilt is OK)
(7) Playing “our family”. Hold on thar, Baba Looey, this is Bad Idea Jeans. We’re playing UMass and Nevada because they currently have former ND assistant coaches on their staffs? That’s a really crappy reason to schedule a team, especially given the mobility of coaches in football today.
In fact, we’ve already seen how crappy it is, as not a week after the schedule was finalized, UMass fired Charley Molnar. They could have fired him at the end of the season, but instead waited a month while potential replacements could have been lost and recruiting fell by the wayside. Does anyone doubt for a second the Minutemen waited until the ink was dry on the game contract before removing the only reason ND was considering them for the schedule? To make matters worse, they now seem to have an on-campus contingent seeking to return to the FCS, which would remove ND from the list Jack so proudly talked about of teams who have only played FBS-division opponents. Please please pleeeeeeeeease someone tell me there’s a clause in there nullifying the game if UMass drops out of the MAC, because if there isn’t…….
I can hope against hope the Shamrock Series goes on a Lake Tahoe fishing trip. But outside of that, these guidelines at least are a good start. We’ll see how things develop.