The Notre Dame/Big East relationship has been a source of much controversy since the Irish became a member of the conference in all sports except for football in 1995.
Fans of the Big East football schools shutter to think of the negative impact Notre Dame has on their postseason plans, but now as the conference’s bowl contracts expire at the end of the 2009 season, how will Notre Dame’s drawing power help the Big East maintain or even upgrade their bowl tie-ins?
The Big East’s top non-BCS bowl tie-in with the Gator Bowl (and now with alternating appearances in the Sun Bowl) offered up the golden domers in place of a team from the conference in seasons where the Irish were bowl eligible, but did not qualify for a BCS game.
The agreement caused unrest among conference members when Notre Dame received a bid to the Gator Bowl after the 2002 season in place of the Big East’s second place team, West Virginia. The occurrence prompted former Mountaineer coach Rich Rodriguez to tell the Irish, in reference to their membership status, to “get in or get out.”
Despite the uncomfortable experience back in 2002, Notre Dame has arguably been more of a benefit than a burden to the Big East. In more recent years, Notre Dame has either been in the BCS or on the periphery of the BCS, meaning they were effectively out of the Big East bowl lineup.
In 2008, for the first time in six seasons, it appeared the Fighting Irish would once again spring up and steal a bowl bid from the Big East’s second place team.
However, thanks in large part to an overtime loss to Pitt and a tremendous upset by Syracuse (both games in South Bend), Notre Dame found itself at 6-6, and as a part of the bowl agreement stated, a 6-6 Notre Dame team will not be considered a part of the Big East’s bowl tie-ins over a 7-5 Big East team.
Since the Big East had enough teams at 7-5 to fill all of their slots, Notre Dame again found itself out of the Big East bowl picture.
However, had the Irish taken care of business against the Orange, both the Sun Bowl and Gator Bowl were ready to jump at a 7-5 Notre Dame team over a nine-win Pitt or eight-win West Virginia team.
As new Big East Commissioner John Marinatto tries to convince the Gator Bowl not to steer away from its longstanding relationship with the conference or attempts to court another New Year’s Day bowl beginning with the 2010 season, Notre Dame is more important than ever to the Big East.
The Big East’s longstanding relationship with the Gator Bowl is in question, as Gator Bowl President Rick Catlett appears hesitant to give in to the Big East’s request for a straight-up deal for the Big East No. 2 or Notre Dame, as opposed to the conference’s current confusing arrangement with the Gator Bowl/Sun Bowl and the Big 12.
Other than West Virginia’s five appearances in the last 20 years and Louisville’s appearance after the 2005 season, no current Big East team has appeared in the Gator Bowl in recent memory.
While a West Virginia or Notre Dame would be attractive to the Gator Bowl on a regular basis, the possibility of UConn descending on Jacksonville for New Year’s probably does not excite Catlett.
While the Big East has come a long way since the major realignments that took place earlier this decade, the league’s eight football-playing schools alone may not be enough to snag a big-time bowl for their second place finisher.
The conference proved many of their doubters wrong by performing well in non-conference contests and by going 3-1 in BCS games since 2005, when the conference took its current form.
What probably bothers the Gator Bowl is not the quality of Big East teams, but their drawing power. West Virginia has proved they can be a moneymaker for the bowl, and with the resurgence of Pitt football, the Panthers coming to town would probably be acceptable.
But the problem is that many of the Big East's football programs don’t have the fan support and traveling base that bowl commissioners crave. Perhaps this, more so than the quality of their teams, is why the Big East needs Notre Dame.
As everyone knows, Notre Dame brings a traveling fanbase and, more importantly, a truly national television audience that the rest of the Big East can’t compete with. While it’s upsetting to fans of the conference’s teams, the Big East needs Notre Dame.
Without Notre Dame, it’s doubtful a New Year’s Day bowl game will be interested in taking the second-place finisher from the conference on a year in, year out basis.
The best-case scenario for the Big East is that either the Gator Bowl or another New Year’s Day bowl will commit to the conference for the next four years.
On top of that, Big East fans need to hope for a strong conference champion to proudly represent the conference in the BCS and for Notre Dame to either reach the nine or 10 wins needed for them to break into the BCS, or for them to fall apart and not go above .500.
Since the latter is unlikely, as much as it pains them, Big East fans need to strap on some green and wake up the echoes in hopes the Irish can be a benefit and not a burden for the Big East's bowl future.