Notre Dame football is, and always has been, inescapably tethered to a foundation of core images and traits, to golden domes and national championships and renowned coaches alike.
The same can be said about its increasingly rare independent status.
As surrounding conferences have expanded, multiplied, and in some cases, faded away, formed and reformed by television contracts and revenue figures, Notre Dame’s football program has stood alone — an outlier among the crowd.
But for how much longer?
During an online presentation on the future of college athletics on Wednesday, Notre Dame athletics director Jack Swarbrick speculated on the dominos that would have to fall for the Irish football team to ditch its independence in favor of a conference affiliation.
It’s a move Swarbrick neither welcomes nor expects.
“Our goal is to remain independent,” Swarbrick said. “I think it serves the university’s purposes and our educational purposes to maintain our independent model. The things that could change that are ones that I think are generally understood. One is if our independence proved to be too great an obstacle towards participating for the national championship. That would be a consideration.
“Secondly, if we didn’t have a broadcast partner who wanted to support us and allow us to use football to promote the university as independent, that would be a challenge. Those are really the only two right now. We don’t have any issues with building our schedule, especially in light of the ACC agreement. We don’t have a problem with access to postseason.
“So those are really the two major risks that I see, and I’m glad to say that I don’t think either is imminent.”
Imminent or not, Swarbrick addressed many of the challenges facing collegiate athletics and Notre Dame on Wednesday morning — some more dire, or immediately impactful, than others. Among the topics addressed were:
Potentially paying student-athletes for the use of their name, image or likeness
“We need to ask ourselves, ‘If the student musician can go play someplace on Friday night and earn some money or someone else can use the skills they’ve helped develop at Notre Dame while they’re a student to earn additional money to support themselves, why then can’t an athlete? That leads us to think we ought to be talking about rules, without compromising the integrity of the athletic experience, without resulting in commercial sponsorship, you can still find opportunities (for the student-athlete to benefit).”
The long-term future of the NCAA
“I think there’s an important question as to, long term, does a single national athletic association make sense? A lot of the challenges we have are (due to) the declining commonality of interests among the members of the association. I wouldn’t be troubled any more if there were multiple sports leagues and other things and having more than one collegiate athletic association. I have no worry about either the interest in our sports or our ability to support them in that model.”
The College Football Playoff model and whether Notre Dame remains in contention in 2015
“I have no idea whether we’re well positioned. No one does. There are too many other variables that are involved with regard to the performance of other teams. I will say that I have great faith in the process. I sit on the management committee of the College Football Playoff, and we put together a selection committee of people that work very, very hard, who I think are of the highest integrity, and they make the best decisions they can. They will never make an annual selection that pleases everyone, but I have faith in the process. That’s all you can ask for.”
Notre Dame’s recent move to the ACC (in all sports besides football)
“The transition could not have gone more smoothly from our perspective. That’s not to say it was easy. It’s very hard to integrate a new school into a conference. And in some ways, we present unique challenges with some of the policies we have that we brought to the ACC. I cannot say enough about how supportive the conference and the member schools have been of our inclusion, how much they’ve worked to make us feel welcome and include us in every aspect of the conference. So it’s been a very positive experience. It has really realized every one of the goals we had for it.”
This and that
In a roughly 60-minute presentation, Swarbrick cracked that the lawsuits facing the NCAA “are stacked up like planes at LaGuardia,” rejected the notion that student-athletes are employees, and thus should be allowed to form unions, asserted his pride in the ongoing Campus Crossroads Project and gave a spirited endorsement of the Showtime series, “A Season with Notre Dame.”
Amidst an ever-changing collegiate athletics landscape, Swarbrick also avowed that one thing wouldn’t.
Notre Dame’s football independence.
At least, not imminently.