Independent Spirits: How Notre Dame and B.Y.U. Navigated Conference Realignment

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Independent Spirits: How Notre Dame and B.Y.U. Navigated Conference Realignment
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In an era of collegiate athletics where tradition has been bypassed by revenue streams and geographic footprints, the life of an athletic director has changed drastically. Just ask Tom Holmoe and Jack Swarbrick, the men in charge of BYU and Notre Dame athletics. 

As the murky waters of conference realignment imploded the Big East, pruned the Big 12 to ten, and pushed the Big Ten to 12 (and soon 14), both athletic directors were forced to make big decisions. 

For Holmoe, that was taking BYU's football program independent. Long frustrated with the dynamics and economics of the Mountain West conference, Holmoe declared independence for the Cougars football program while moving the schools' other sports into the WCC.

For Swarbrick, the challenge was protecting not just Notre Dame's independence, but also its preferential seat at the table, as changes became imminent to college football's postseason. It also meant looking out for Notre Dame's other sports as the Big East got weaker by the day. 

Both athletic directors ultimately got what they wanted while blazing different paths to get there. As Notre Dame and BYU prepare to play this Saturday, let's take a look at the two football independents, and the key factors that allowed them to go at it alone.


Notre Dame's broadcast deal with NBC has been the envy of college football, with the long-running contract extended until 2025 with a new 10-year pact in April. Financial terms of the partnership have been difficult to pin down, but various reports peg the number to be at least $15 million annually.  


While the deal BYU struck isn't as lucrative, a long-term contract with ESPN was the key to the Cougars' football independence. BYU is in the middle of an eight-year pact that guarantees them at least three games each season on the ESPN family of networks, with in-house BYUtv broadcasting the balance. 

That agreement nets the university about $10 million annually, nearly three times what they'd receive as part of the Mountain West.


One of the largest difficulties for an independent football program is scheduling. And when the time came for BYU to announce their exit from the Mountain West, their first big announcement was a scheduling partnership with Notre Dame. 

The Cougars and the Irish agreed to play each other six times between now and 2020, with BYU visiting Notre Dame Stadium both this season and last, before splitting the next four games between 2014 and 2020.

The timing of those games has gotten more difficult as Notre Dame announced their pact with the ACC that'll have the Irish playing five games a season against conference opponents as part of the school's ACC membership in all sports except football. 

But Holmoe was confident that the scheduling partnership between BYU and Notre Dame will remain in place. 

"We have a good relationship with Notre Dame and we play them two for one," Holmoe told KSL-5 Sports in Utah this summer. "So I think it's a profitable deal for them. They like playing us, the timing is good. But what I've done is talk to Jack Swabrick about how we can work this out, if there anything we can do to make it good for you, before it can even happen."

Notre Dame isn't alone in its commitment to keep a geographically diverse schedule. BYU has made it part of their agenda to balance rivalries against in-state programs like Utah and Utah State with barnstorming efforts that help spread the university's greater message.

"It’s about sharing the unique message that we have,” Mendenhall told the Deseret News. "It's not only in how we play football, but why we're playing the game and for what we believe. That, to me, is very compelling. Now to have built a chance to do that on bigger stages throughout the country in different venues against different teams, that part has really captivated my heart. To see the interest from players around the country wanting to be part of it, that's been really fun."

As Notre Dame has gone through some difficult times trying to balance a schedule that will always include a trip to the West Coast to end the season (alternating between USC and Stanford), will now include five games against ACC opponents and will continue to include Navy as an annual rival, Swarbrick talked about the great fit BYU brings to this matchup institutionally. 

"We try very hard as we start our scheduling process to start by looking at schools that have a common approach to collegiate athletics and share our values," Swarbrick said of BYU back in 2010. "And they certainly fit that category."


Going independent isn't possible if you don't fit a certain subset. And as two of the preeminent faith-based universities in the country with strong football traditions, Notre Dame and BYU share a footprint that isn't limited to a state or region. 

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

"Independence is not for everybody, but (BYU) certainly fit the profile of an institution for whom it probably does make great sense—frankly, in the same way it still does for Army and Navy," Swarbrick told the Chicago Tribune. "All the schools currently in that category have some common characteristics—national profile, strong history and traditions that are important to honor. BYU adds to that, as I think Notre Dame has, media access.

"Not everybody can produce on their own. It certainly looks like a smart move, from where I sit."

Building additional revenue streams to help support independence is key. Swarbrick had a front row seat as Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds put together the Longhorn Network, a project that's shown challenges every step of the way. Whether that influenced the decision to dedicate time and resources to digital programming instead of an entire channel remains to be seen.

BYUtv reaches 65 million homes, more households than the CBS Sports Network or the NFL Network. They've also had success broadcasting more than just Cougar sporting events, balancing their air time with unscripted programming and original programming like Granite Flats, a more than ambitious foray into scripted television.  


As Notre Dame fans have seen over the past few weeks, one of the biggest problems the Irish have is a dearth of postseason options when they fall short of the BCS. The Irish cashed in their exemption to play in the Champs Sports Bowl (now Russell Athletic Bowl) in 2011, when the Irish played Florida State. 

While they'll have to wait and see what game has an opening this year, Notre Dame's affiliation with the ACC gives them access to the healthy slate of games with conference tie-ins if the Irish aren't in the four-game playoff or the remaining BCS games starting next season. 

Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

ACC commissioner John Swofford spoke about the rules for the Irish sliding into the ACC's games back in May. 

"There will be a provision in which for Notre Dame to be selected over an ACC team at the point of selection, another eligible ACC team, that Notre Dame would have to be ranked higher, equal to, or in the win column, be within one win of any ACC teams that are also eligible to be picked," Swofford told ESPN.

BYU has taken a different approach to bowl games, committing early to playing in a lower-tier game like this year's Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco. The Cougars have already pledged to playing in the Poinsettia Bowl next season, reserving an appearance as long as BYU becomes bowl eligible.

It's not a perfect solution, but it does guarantee a postseason slot for an independent team, something Notre Dame has found tricky. 


With Navy set to join the American Athletic Conference in 2015, Notre Dame, BYU and Army will be the only independents left in the FBS, with inclusion into the College Football Playoff not guaranteed for anyone. But as Notre Dame has done, BYU is also making sure their schedule is challenging, with series against Stanford, USC, Michigan and maybe even LSU on the horizon. 

As the final pieces of realignment take place over the next two seasons and the College Football Playoff replaces the BCS, the landscape seems to be stabilizing after a few rocky years. That doesn't mean that Holmoe or Swarbrick can sit back and relax. 

But after seeing Notre Dame survive and thrive standing alone, BYU has followed a similar roadmap and sees a bright future as well. 











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