Did Notre Dame Agree to Join the Big Ten Last Month?

Tobi WritesAnalyst IMarch 29, 2010

SOUTH BEND, IN - DECEMBER 11: Notre Dame atheletic director Jack Swarbrick (R) greets Brian Kelly as he is introduced as the 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

I re-read an article from last month while doing some research on a Pac-10/Big 12 article I have been struggling with and was struck with an entirely different take on the Big Ten/Notre Dame standoff.

I don't know how to say this any other way.

I think Notre Dame conceded.

I think they have sent the message to the Big Ten that they are willing to join and have launched the first narrative to prepare their fans for life in the Big Ten.

Some of you may know the article to which I am referring. If you don't, here it is.

Notre Dame's Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick said the following: "Our preference is clear [to remain independent]. I believe we're at a point right now where changes [to the membership of top-level BCS automatic qualifier conferences] could be relatively small or they could be seismic."

He went on to tell reporters, "You can each come up with a [realignment] scenario that would force our hand [forcing Notre Dame to join a conference, the only one of which that makes sense is the Big Ten]."

The first time I read the article, I thought ND was just returning to their old status quo.  More or less, ND will listen, but really they are just using this to increase the leverage on their TV deal. 

But the actual words seem to be saying a lot more. 

Consider as well the fact that Notre Dame almost joined the Big Ten in the past and that a lot of Big Ten administrators will want a concession in advance that Notre Dame will join before they even consider another offer. Notre Dame may need to bring something to the table for those people besides just Notre Dame.

Consider for a moment that the actions of the conference that wants Notre Dame to join has almost complete control over whether those changes are seismic or not.

Notre Dame cannot just take the 12th spot they have been ignoring for years without taking a major PR black eye. Notre Dame seems to be saying to the Big Ten on the sly, if you chose the right members, totally destabilizing our conference home, we can tell our fans that we had no choice but to accept. You win, but we save face.

Now that is one take. There are two that jump out. 

There were suggestions that the Big Ten's "non-talks" with the University of Texas were designed to flush out Notre Dame. Perhaps that worked.

Perhaps Notre Dame is saying Big Ten plus UT plus A&M would be too financially rich for Notre Dame to pass up. I tend to disagree with this.

In that scenario, Notre Dame could continue the dance as long as they'd like from the comfort of the Big East.

I think the scenario Notre Dame is talking about is the one that robs them of a compliant BCS home conference.

The Rutgers scenario

If the Big Ten adds Rutgers as team No. 12, the Big East is essentially done.

Big East football would lose the NYC market.

Big East basketball would then own an 8-7 voting advantage. They would force Big East football to add the best basketball school available that has an FBS football program—probably Memphis.

Big East football won't break away because Syracuse would still be holding on to dreams of a Big Ten invitation, which might ride on keeping the Big East together for a few more years, and Pitt won't want to burn bridges with Notre Dame. Without those schools the other schools won't make a move.

That would replace the NYC DMA with the Memphis DMA. That is quite a drop in financial leverage for those football schools in negotiating TV deals.

Removing the state flagship of New Jersey and replacing it with a tier three academic school would help frame the Big East as more of a peer to the non-automatic qualifier conferences. Many of the advocates among the BCS elite that pushed to keep the Big East five among the AQ conferences would likely fall silent with this further degradation of the Big East.

Adding Rutgers is nice for the Big Ten, as it gives the Big Ten one of two FBS schools actually located within the NYC DMA. 

They can impose conditions on Rutgers, like playing a TV showcase game against a Big Ten power each year in New Meadowlands Stadium to really sell the Big Ten's national brands (Penn State, Michigan, Ohio State) to the NYC market. If that is the cost to get into the Big Ten, one would have to think Rutgers would gladly agree to those concessions.

Adding Rutgers is good for the Big Ten, but it really pushes the Big East to the edge of collapse if the other shoe drops.

The other shoe?

The other shoe is Syracuse.

If The Big East has to replace them too (another well respected top academic school), you can put a fork in the Big East.

Supposing the Big Ten floats out the idea of adding Syracuse plus one to get to 14. The addition of Syracuse, a New York university, would likely get the Big Ten paid at a much higher rate for every subscriber in New York state.

Now supposing the Big Ten adds Nebraska as team No. 14. The scenario may not make sense at first glance, but only because we are too used to looking at Big Ten expansion from an incremental single school perspective.

Nebraska is an historic national power. They draw well wherever they play.

If the Big Ten adds Nebraska and Syracuse, suddenly they have four national brands to sell to NYC viewers, who they are incidentally getting at the high subscriber payout rate.

The comparatively weak western Big Ten gets a major upgrade in broadcast-worthy content. The big three can stay in an eastern division with bi-annual games at Rutgers in the NYC DMA. Nebraska can do the heavy lifting in the western division. 

Nebraska vs. a western Big Ten foe would be a game that pulled legitimate national interest. Weekly Nebraska broadcasts would shake the rust off Nebraska's national reputation.

No more of the Big Ten trying to sell Iowa vs. Illinois to the rest of the nation.

A title game can be played in either the nation's No. 1 or No. 3 markets.

All of the previously mentioned schools are AAU members, so there would not be hurdles in that regard.  They may not be coveted additions in research terms, but they are tolerable.

Notre Dame has to see that possibility—the Big Ten at a content and profitable 14 with Notre Dame tied to a conference that would likely lose stature by the day and could be subject to raids from the ACC and possibly the SEC.

It seems likely that if Rutgers is team No. 12, Notre Dame cuts a deal.

Regardless of any ill-will some in the Big Ten may have over past overtures, it is difficult to imagine either party letting their money "get mad".

What would Notre Dame want?

Fourteen members: No less, no more

Fourteen members gives seven teams in each divisions, so potentially six division games with probably one non-divisional conference game—perhaps for most schools a rivalry game or maybe a made for TV game. That allows Notre Dame to play their national schedule with five slots left for USC, Washington, Boston College, Stanford, and Navy.

The Big Ten could have Michigan-Ohio State, Pitt-Penn State, etc. most years with that only being disrupted by TV "showcase games" vs. Rutgers and Northwestern at New Meadowlands Stadium and Soldier Field.

Their choice of school No. 13 and the divisional alignment

For this to work for Notre Dame and ND to keep their preferred schedule, many of Notre Dame's regular opponents would need to be in their division.

Michigan, Michigan State, and Purdue are annual opponents. Rutgers is in the NYC DMA, which Notre Dame needs to maintain their NYC fan base. 

Northwestern is (comparatively) a doormat which Notre Dame would need in the division based on the Golden Domers' tough academic standards for athletes.  Notre Dame would never want to have the worst talent in this division. Northwestern is a former regular on Notre Dame's schedule and offers the potential of an annual Northwestern-Notre Dame match up at Soldier Field, if desired.

That is six of seven.

The obvious name for Notre Dame among the expansion candidates is Pittsburgh as Notre Dame plays them annually.  Penn State and Rutgers would push hard for that. (This is one of the only scenarios in which I can see Pitt getting into the Big Ten).

Unlike Notre Dame, which is mostly irrelevant in research and dogmatic about many types of research and in that a bad partner for AAU schools in a research consortium, Pittsburgh is a research dynamo.

Pittsburgh spends more in research ($530M in 2006) than any of the other candidates for Big Ten membership.

Although Pittsburgh offers no subscriber fee bump like Syracuse would, they do have a large fan base that would help sell TV ads. They aren't a total loss financially for the conference's athletic programs to add.

Many have suggested that any Big Ten expansion would require a school that was essentially a "home run" the caliber of Penn State. 

Along those lines, would the Big Ten offer a school that is essentially a double (Pittsburgh) a slot in the conference to land Notre Dame?  I think the Big Ten would because I think they see Notre Dame as a grand slam.

Additionally, I think Pitt might profit from strong support from a lot of voices in the Big Ten.

One can almost see the trade-off likely to be made between the research advocates who lust for Pitt with its good location and commitment to research but look at Notre Dame as the antithesis of a research university and the athletic advocates who lust for Notre Dame and its national audience that could bring the Big Ten network to a true national audience and look at Pittsburgh as territory already won.

Big 14(ish)

Golden Dome Division

Notre Dame
Michigan State

Buckeye Division

Ohio State
Penn State

So is it a done deal that maybe the principals don't realize yet? Let's hear your opinions.


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