A Second Look at Why the Big East and Notre Dame Need to Fish or Cut Bait

Jason DuniganCorrespondent IMarch 10, 2010

SOUTH BEND, IN - DECEMBER 11: Brian Kelly attends a press conference where he was named new football head coach at Notre Dame University on December 11, 2009 in South Bend, Indiana.  Kelly most recently led the University of Cincinnati to two consecutive Bowl Championship Series appearances including a perfect 12-0 record this past season. (Photo by Frank Polich/Getty Images)
Frank Polich/Getty Images

Recently I wrote an article attempting to explain why the Big East Conference should sever its ties with Notre Dame.

As I expected, Notre Dame fans came calling, telling me how crazy the idea was. Some even laughed at the notion that the Big East was actually helping Notre Dame by giving it a home for its non-football sports.  As I expected, the main concept of the story was lost on Notre Dame fans.

The article I wrote was not about Notre Dame, but rather about the Big East.  Sure it referenced Notre Dame, and even had Notre Dame in the title, but the theme was about the Big East.

However, Notre Dame fans emailed me and left disagreeable messages at the end of the article.  While I am flattered that they think so lowly of my ideas, I am left to draw the conclusion that further clarification of my concepts are needed:


The Big East Bowl Situation

First, Notre Dame does not need the Big East in football.  We all know that, and Irish faithful are all too eager to point this fact out.  What Irish fans seemingly fail to grasp is that the Big East doesn't need Notre Dame.

Some of the emails I received commented on how much Notre Dame had done to procure bowls for the Big East.  I had one particular comment posted at the end of my article telling me that Notre Dame had never taken a spot in place of a Big East team in a bowl affiliated with the Big East, and because of an association with Notre Dame, these bowls had generated millions of dollars for the conference.

Well, there may be some truth to the Notre Dame brand helping to secure bowls in the past, but that is no longer the case.  The list of bowls that have dumped the Big East over the years includes the Insight Bowl, the Gator Bowl, the Music City Bowl, and the Emerald Bowl.  All those bowls left the Big East despite the chance of getting Notre Dame as one of its bowl participants.

As for Notre Dame never having taken a bowl berth away from a Big East football team, that simply isn't true.  In 2002 West Virginia, who finished second in the Big East, was bumped from its Gator Bowl spot in favor of Notre Dame, a fact that Irish fans seem to have already forgotten in less than ten years.

I cannot help but wonder, had Notre Dame been bumped in favor of another team, would they have forgotten that as well?  I think not.

If Notre Dame were in fact the draw for the Big East that some would like to advertise them as, maybe a case could be made that having Notre Dame continue a bowl affiliation is somehow beneficial for the league.  But, Notre Dame is a draw for Notre Dame, and not so much for the Big East.

The bowls that the Big East recently has had ties to are located in places such as Birmingham, Alabama, Toronto, Canada, and Charlotte, North Carolina.  While great cities in themselves, they are not exactly ideal bowl destinations, and definitely not bowls that offer big-time payouts.

And, I seriously doubt the Big East needed to dangle Notre Dame as trade-bait to get those bowls as affiliates.  After all, even the Sun Belt Conference manages to tie itself to bowl games.

Honestly, Notre Dame does not need the Big East to secure bowls for them.  Notre Dame merely has to win six games in a season, and they will have multiple bowls falling all over themselves trying to court the Irish into visiting their little town for the holiday season.  Make no mistake, Notre Dame does not need the Big East to get a bowl bid.


League Dominance

One comment I received on my aforementioned article proclaimed Notre Dame dominated all other sports in the Big East, and thus the conference should be grateful for Notre Dame raising the status of the conference.

Okay, Notre Dame has typically been pretty good in baseball during Big East competition, and no one can argue that Notre Dame has been the talk of all the Women's Rowing circles, having won six straight conference titles in that sport.

But I am pretty sure that Connecticut's women's basketball team would take exception to the claim that Notre Dame has dominated that sport.  And I am equally sure that the entire rest of the conference would be more than a little confused if they were told Notre Dame had dominated men's basketball.

There is also the fact that Notre Dame has lost to Pitt, Syracuse and Connecticut in football the last two years, but that is another story.

As for being grateful to be associated with Notre Dame and their alleged dominance, I can only laugh.  Let's assume for a moment that Notre Dame is a young Mike Tyson and the Big East is Gerry Cooney.  At some point, you have to figure that Gerry is going to get tired of taking a beating from Mike, no? Who wants to walk by the neighborhood bully every day? Where is the fun in that?

So as for the idea that the Big East should be grateful for Irish beatings, I can only ask how much Notre Dame has enjoyed losing to Southern Cal for the past several years?


Big East Basketball Minus Notre Dame

The one thing the Big East conference does not need any help from anyone in is basketball. Notre Dame Fans seem collectively confused about that. The Irish are merely a cog in the wheel when it comes to Big East basketball.

Irish fans will admit that they are known for football, and football is what pays the bills, but they seem convinced that somehow the Big East conference would fall apart if it didn't have Notre Dame Basketball to shop around.

Let me clear that up for you right now. A league featuring Connecticut, Georgetown, Syracuse, Louisville, Cincinnati, West Virginia, Pittsburgh, St. John's, Marquette and Providence—in basketball—certainly does not need anyone to come along and help them establish themselves as a legitimate conference.

Notre Dame Basketball could fall off the planet tomorrow, and the Big East would still be the best basketball conference in the country without missing a beat. Notre Dame is merely a competitive role player in a conference of great basketball schools.

NBC pays out a gazillion dollars for Fighting Irish football, and football only. If the school were the draw in basketball that some Irish apologists like to believe they are, then Mike Brey's boys would also have their own network.

They don't.


Kicked to the Curb

So here is where the real confusion for Irish fans seems to be.  The "sticking point" if you will.

I suggested that the best option for the Big East was to call Notre Dame's bluff.  Tell them to either join the league for football or find another home for the rest of their sports.

You see, the Big East is currently facing a potential crisis. There is a real possibility that the Big Ten Conference will poach one of their football teams.  An already maligned conference can nary afford to lose a member of its gridiron lineup.

This is where calling the bluff on Notre Dame comes in (Pay attention Irish fans. This is apparently where I lost you the last time).

If the Big East acts now and tells Notre Dame to make a decision whether it wants to be a full member or if it would prefer to sever its ties, one of three things can happen.

No. 1: Notre Dame says yes, joins the conference in football as well, and there is never any future talk of the Big East being raided for teams nor will there be any threat of losing its BCS bid. In this case, Notre Dame would raise the profile and status of the conference, and more money for all would be the result.

No. 2: Notre Dame calls the Big East's bluff, leaves the conference only to join the Big Ten in all sports—in which case the Big East still wins because there will no longer be a need for the Big Ten to take a Big East team. The Big East will be left intact, and future threats will be moot.

No. 3: Notre Dame tries to call the Big East's bluff, but the Big East says goodbye to the Irish.  The Big Ten laughs at Notre Dame when they ask if they can join for basketball only, and Notre Dame is left to look for a new, lesser appealing home for its non-football athletes, or reconsider how important it really is to them to remain independent in football at the risk of harming their other sports.

Regardless of the outcome, the goal for the Big East is self-preservation, or to force Notre Dame's hand, so to speak.  The worst case scenario for the Big East is that they bring in a school like Xavier to replace Notre Dame if Notre Dame chooses to leave.  The best case scenario is Notre Dame decides to join the Big East in football.

The second best scenario for the Big East is that Notre Dame decides to join the Big Ten and the Big East ends up keeping all eight of its current football members.

Any way you slice it, Notre Dame is given a choice.  They aren't being forced to do anything, and the Big East is only looking out for its own best interests—something the folks in South Bend have been doing for eons.

The bottom line, by placing an ultimatum on Notre Dame for a decision (again, pay close attention Irish fans) the Big East is being proactive, and is not just sitting back waiting for another conference raider to pilfer its members and weaken its appeal.


No Longer Independent?

The Big East either gains Notre Dame in football, or it potentially prevents a current football member from leaving for the Big Ten.  Notre Dame isn't about to place its sports in the MAC, Conference USA, or the Atlantic Ten.  If given the ultimatum, they would choose a conference home for football.

Would they not?

For all the tough talk I have heard from Irish fans, what I really was hearing was the sound of fear. The fear of not being in control. The fear of not being given preferential treatment. The fear of no longer being the prettiest girl in the room.

Just yesterday, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick stated that conference realignment could force Notre Dame’s hand.

Allow me to translate that for you.

What he was really saying was Notre Dame actually does realize they can make more than twice as much money annually in the Big Ten than they currently do as an independent playing on NBC. They make about $9 million a year from NBC, and each Big Ten team currently makes about $22 million a year.

Adding Notre Dame to the Big Ten lineup would enlarge their current contracts as they could demand more for their product, and all parties involved realize just how much money is at stake.

However, the Big Ten is seriously looking at forgetting about Notre Dame once and for all.

Notre Dame realizes they are going have to examine what potentially leaving $10-12 million (or more) a year on the table by passing up an opportunity to join the Big Ten might mean for them, long term. They went from decades of proclaiming they love their independent status, to yesterday saying they would “…try like hell to remain independent.”

Again, roughly translated, that means now that there is a serious threat of Notre Dame getting left out of the big picture (read: BCS) in the future, they are willing to sacrifice their independent status.

That way, they can conveniently blame the "changing landscape of college football" as their excuse to join the Big Ten, thereby saving face after all these years of independent commentary.

They have continued their independent-loving spiel—not because they loved independence so much, I mean they did not have any moral concerns joining the Big East for most of their other sports—but because they loved their one-of-a-kind exclusive NBC contract so much.

Understand that they want the money the Big Ten can offer them, but have let the Ghosts of Christmas Past back them into an “independent-or-nothing” corner. Conference realignment gives them an out.

Let me reiterate, it is a way for Notre Dame to save face. They can say they had no choice, and they can start cashing Big Ten checks with a clear conscience.

Best of all, the Big East will not lose any football teams, and can move forward without the Notre Dame monkey on its back.

Any way you slice it, it’s time for Notre Dame and the Big East to fish or cut bait.


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