First, a confession.
No college football figure had a bigger impact in developing my love affair with the sport than Steve Spurrier. His flair, swagger and damn-the-torpedoes attitude during his 12-year tenure at Florida was one of the major reasons I became enveloped in the game in my formative years as a college football fan in the '90s.
Okay, now that we've gotten that out of the way, let's talk about the issue at hand—Spurrier's criticism of Notre Dame's independence during his always-entertaining SEC media days press conference last week.
As honest as they come, Spurrier has taken occasional shots at the Fighting Irish throughout his coaching tenure, including voting them No. 14 in his final Coaches' Poll ballot in the 2005 season. The Irish were ranked No. 6 in that poll.
Spurrier had this to say last Tuesday at SEC Media Days in Hoover, Alabama. Via The Post and Courier:
"For whatever reason, all 14 [SEC] head coaches thought that Notre Dame should join the ACC and play football like all the rest of us," the South Carolina coach said. "I know the Notre Damers will get mad at me and us coaches maybe for saying that. From all the rest of us that are in a conference, we say, why aren't they in a conference."
Spurrier, whose own program was an independent for 20 years after leaving the ACC in 1972, also does not believe the Irish should have an equal representation to the SEC as a whole in BCS and college football playoff matters.
"We were sitting there talking about the new four-team playoff," Spurrier recalled from SEC spring meetings in May, which included Bill Hancock, the president of the new College Football Playoff.
"Mr. Hancock said they were sitting with the commissioners of our BCS conferences and the athletic director of Notre Dame. We just started trying to figure out why the athletic director of Notre Dame is equal to all the conference commissioners. Nobody had a good answer except that's the way it's always been done."
The Notre Dame independence issue first became a hot topic in the '90s, when fellow independent national powers Florida State, Miami (Florida), Penn State, South Carolina and West Virginia, among others, joined conferences.
The Irish flirted with the Big Ten in the latter part of the decade before ultimately declining an invitation, leaving the program as the only major program without a conference affiliation.
In 1990, Notre Dame abandoned its relationship with the College Football Association, which controlled television rights for the ACC, Big 8, SEC, Southwest Conference and most major independents. The Irish at the time feared that, with the CFA likely to sign an agreement with ABC, which also held the rights to the Big Ten and Pac-10, they would not get the national exposure that they coveted.
NBC agreed to air all Notre Dame home games beginning in 1991, a relationship that continues to this day.
If NBC had come to South Carolina in 1990, prior to the Gamecocks joining the SEC, and offered to nationally televise all of its home games, the university would have signed with NBC faster than it took Jadeveon Clowney to tackle Vincent Smith in last year's Outback Bowl.
Of course, what would NBC have wanted in a Gamecocks program that at that time had never even won a bowl game, let alone a national championship?
It's easy to be critical of a decision that you'll never be in a position to make. A quarter century ago, there was no other program besides Notre Dame whose national appeal would have been sufficient to have a national network agree to televise all of its home games.
While times have changed, with almost every FBS game available on television or through online streaming, Notre Dame still gets, as the late Beano Cook liked to say, a "three-and-a-half-hour infomercial" for the university on NBC seven Saturday afternoons per year.
Another plus is that kickoff times are known six months before the season starts, a key benefit for a team with fans traveling from all parts of the country.
Notre Dame will begin playing five games against ACC opponents per season in 2014 and also has access to the ACC's bowl tie-ins. While the Irish will keep its independence and NBC contract, it does solve some ongoing issues with scheduling and bowl options.
For the 2013 season, unless it qualifies for a BCS bowl, Notre Dame will have to fill an at-large slot from a conference not having enough bowl-eligible teams.
While Spurrier's viewpoint is certainly understandable when coaches strive to eliminate any possible advantage for another program, the reality is that college football never had and never will have a level playing field.
When the NCAA mandates that South Carolina's football facilities must be equal to those of Eastern Michigan, maybe Notre Dame will join a conference. The former certainly isn't happening, and the latter isn't much more likely.
No one uses the media to make arguments better than Spurrier, even when they're illogical. That's part of what makes him who he is, and why I hope, even at age 68, his coaching career continues well into his 70s.
But on this issue, as is often the case, his logic is misguided.
Notre Dame is simply doing what any other university would do in its situation. Notre Dame needs to concern itself not with joining a conference, but rather with figuring out how to beat an elite team from the conference in which Spurrier coaches.
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