Irish can't afford not to have a seat at the adult table once the musical chairs cease

Tom Noie
ND Insider
Where is Notre Dame football headed in three, four, 15 years as super-conferences begin to take shape? Can it afford to remain independent?

It’s time. 

Time to accept that college athletics is ridiculously big business dictated by dollars. 

Time to admit that the loyalty and history and tradition of Saturdays in the fall are long gone. 

Time for Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick to think about doing what everyone long thought was unthinkable. 

Time for Notre Dame football to look at joining a conference. 

Maybe not today or tomorrow or next week or next month or even next year. But the landscape of college athletics (i.e. football) has changed drastically the last two summers. It again changed Thursday. It’s going to change again. 

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Save for one year – 2020, and only then because of a global pandemic – football independence has been the only option for Notre Dame. Whatever needed to be done got done as long as football independence stayed sacred. Untouched. Nothing else mattered. Even as most of Notre Dame’s athletic programs spent 18 years in the Big East, and now the last 10 in the Atlantic Coast Conference, football stood alone. 

Bringing aboard football might have saved the Big East. Notre Dame never budged. Bringing aboard football might save the ACC. But is that best for Notre Dame? 

Everything went up for grabs and all options back on the table Thursday afternoon when UCLA and USC jettisoned the Pac-12 for money and power and everything else in the Big Ten starting in 2024. The latest game of conference musical chairs is a game that Notre Dame now may have no choice but to play for the future of not only for football, but for its entire athletic program. For its long-term survival.

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Oh, and for money. Truckloads of it. In fiscal year 2021, the revenue payout for Pac-12 teams was a reported $19.8 per school. In the Big Ten, it was $46.1 million. Notre Dame likes football independence, but it loves money. 

Swarbrick has long insisted that Notre Dame will remain independent until it’s simply not viable. Until it reaches a point where Notre Dame has no entry path to the College Football Playoff. We’re closer to that day as more schools go and get theirs, as two super conferences take shape, as college football closes in on the haves (Big Ten, SEC) and have-nots (everyone else).

 Oklahoma and Texas will give the SEC 16 teams. UCLA and USC will give the Big Ten 16 teams. The SEC isn’t stopping at 16 teams. The Big Ten isn’t stopping at 16 teams. 

Don’t think that Clemson and Florida State and Miami (Fla.) and every remaining team in the Big 12 don’t have the SEC on their speed dials. Don’t think the Big Ten isn’t making eye contact and offering a wink here and a nod there from across the bar at Oregon or Washington or someone else out West, maybe even getting the numbers for North Carolina and Virginia down south.  

More schools are going to do the math and listen to logic and realize that this is where it’s all headed. So maybe it’s time to go get theirs, time to play “Let’s Make a Deal.” 

Where does Notre Dame go to get theirs? 

It can get it in the Big Ten. It offers everything from financial rewards to brand-name opponents, the biggest showcase for its national brand to the most important aspect of any move – location, location, location. Notre Dame football is all about the bright lights, and nowhere will they be brighter than the Big Ten, which will boast teams in the New York, Los Angeles and Chicago areas. 

The Atlantic Coast Conference has been good to Notre Dame, which won the league tournament in 2015. But what about moving forward? Is it best to remain in the ACC to keep football independent?

Another defining decision awaits 

Independence was long the only/best option for Notre Dame when college football operated under the Power Five model. It was the Big Ten in the Midwest, the ACC in the Southeast, the SEC in the South, the Big 12 in the Midlands and the Pac-12 out West. But the Big 12 lays on life support, the Pac-12 has been downgraded to critical and the ACC is feeling all kinds of aches and pains and may need some antibiotics. 

That Power Five will soon be the Elite Two. It will be the Big Ten and it will be the SEC and that’s it. Teams in those former Power Five leagues may scramble for seats at the adult (playoff) table, but be left on the outside looking in. 

If the future truly is a 12-team football playoff, guess who's filling those spots? Six Big Ten teams. Six SEC teams. No other team, no other league, will matter.

Independence rarely was about money for Notre Dame, which could make more in television rights and full conference affiliation. It was about being able to schedule who it pleased, about annually getting from one coast to the other, about not being told that they have to play a noon home game. It was about having options, about being flexible, about not being tied down. 

Notre Dame football still can be Notre Dame football for a few more years, but then what?

That’s the question that likely keeps Swarbrick’s mind spinning well into the night. Understandable. We’ve entered the end-of-days for college athletics as we know it. What was in the 1970s and 80s and 90s and into the 2000s soon will be no more. This is the new world. Players are getting paid. Schools are getting paid. Conferences and rivalries as we knew them? Gone. 

Adapt or wonder how you got left behind. Notre Dame can’t be left behind. Can't afford to be a part of some makeshift league just to preserve football independence. That's so yesterday, and just not feasible for tomorrow.

Notre Dame could well decide to do nothing, and ride just this one out. See where it all goes. That happened once, and the Irish got pantsed by standing pat.

Everyone knew the Big East as it came to be known (best college basketball league in the land) was one big move away from folding. That move came in 2011 when Pittsburgh and Syracuse announced that it was heading for the ACC. The league tried to hold it together by attempting to add Boise State and East Carolina and SMU, but Notre Dame, no football or not, wanted no part of that muddled mess. It had to get out, and get out now. 

The ACC may well survive, but what happens if/when the Big Ten and SEC call? And they’re going to call. Notre Dame can’t/won’t be left in a hodge-podge conference that stretches from here to who knows where just to protect football independence. 

Independence is important, but they're right – money changes everything. And everything has changed.

In January, the Tribune asked Swarbrick about answering the next big challenge as athletic director. He'd already done so much – landing Notre Dame in the ACC in 2013, replacing Hall of Fame women’s basketball coach Muffet McGraw with Niele Ivey, steering the athletic department through the pandemic, hiring Marcus Freeman in December. What move was next?

“Some of those you can’t ever know," Swarbrick said. "The things that I am focused on and need to stay focused on are largely related to the industry (of college athletics). I’ve got to stay focused on what’s going on in our industry, which is as unsettled as I think it’s ever been, and certainly in my professional lifetime.” 

Swarbrick admitted that it’s those big-picture/high-pressure issues that keep him going. In many ways, it’s his favorite part of the job. This next decision on the job, and where Notre Dame goes from here, will resonate long after he’s gone from his corner office. 

As Swarbrick sat with the Tribune reporter that January day, a snowstorm swirled out his office window. Today, it seems like only flurries given the avalanche of adversity that scattered Thursday across the college athletics landscape.

Everybody’s watching, Notre Dame. The Irish are on the clock. 

That’s clock’s ticking. Louder than ever. 

Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI. Contact: (574) 235-6153.