Vorel: Why upcoming series with Wisconsin adds up for Notre Dame

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

CHICAGO — Barry Alvarez sat on a black director’s chair in a loud red suit jacket and a diagonally striped red, white and blue tie — a vivid reminder of Notre Dame’s past.

And now, its future.

On Monday, Alvarez — a Notre Dame assistant from 1987 to 1989 who currently serves as Wisconsin’s athletic director — and Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick announced a two-game series between the regionally related programs at a press conference inside the Under Armour store on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. Notre Dame and Wisconsin will meet at Lambeau Field on Oct. 3, 2020, and then at Soldier Field on Sept. 25, 2021.

Rightly so.

This is a series that makes sense from every angle: competitively, regionally, historically — you name it. Somehow, the programs haven’t met since 1964.

But not for a lack of trying.

“These things are always a Rubik’s Cube when you’re trying to figure out how to put them together,” Swarbrick said. “One piece of it moves, and you’ve got to go back and try to refigure it. We had to stick with it, but in so many regards it came together exactly as we wanted it to. I think it’ll be a great experience.”

That experience is worthwhile, Swarbrick says, because it decisively checks three different boxes.

“The first is the experience for our students who play football,” Swarbrick says. “The second is the competitive ramifications of the game, and the third is, how does it advance the university? What are the connections? What’s the story?

“I don’t know that we could have scheduled a game against an opponent in two venues that could have hit those marks more effectively than this two-game series.”

Alright, let’s attack this equation one element at a time.

1. Is this a worthwhile experience for Notre Dame’s players?

Yes, and here’s why. Despite the fact that there are zero players from the state of Wisconsin on Notre Dame’s current roster, and despite the fact that there are zero Irish alums representing Notre Dame for the Green Bay Packers, a game at Lambeau Field matters. It will always matter. These players are here because they watched Brett Favre fit footballs into impossible windows, then celebrate like a tee-ball player in the wake of a walk-off homer. They sat in front of a television on Sunday afternoons, then tried to emulate their favorite players making — or, in some cases, failing to make — the Lambeau Leap.

It’s true, not every NFL stadium offers a uniquely memorable experience. How many Irish players will tell their grandkids about that time in 2016 when they met Navy at EverBank Field, home of the Jacksonville Jaguars?

Lambeau Field, however, is different — and not just for the players.

“I’ll be excited if we could get Lambeau Field,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said of potential Shamrock Series sites before the Irish played Boston College at Fenway Park in 2015. “I would be excited in terms of those classic venues. Fenway Park is one of those. This one is certainly a great one, and we’ll look forward to more just like this.”

2. What are the competitive ramifications?

The goal, according to Swarbrick, is to play at least one Big Ten opponent every season.

“With this game we satisfy that well into the future. That’s important to us,” Swarbrick said.

“It’s a premier conference, obviously, and as we attempt to create a body of work which makes a case for our inclusion in the College Football Playoff, we want to be able to have a marker in a game against the Big Ten, a game against the SEC. We will always have Pac 12 and ACC markers by virtue of our scheduling agreements.”

But, scheduling any old Big Ten opponent — say, Rutgers or Illinois or Indiana — isn’t all that big. On the contrary, Wisconsin has won a combined 32 games in its last three seasons. The Badgers haven’t suffered a losing season since 2001. Less than a year ago, Wisconsin earned a berth in the Big Ten championship game, then defeated P.J. Fleck and Western Michigan in the Cotton Bowl.

They may not have the national brand of Ohio State, Michigan or Penn State, but in the last several decades, these Badgers have been consistent winners.

A win over Wisconsin would matter … and Swarbrick knows it.

“I think that (scheduling Big Ten opponents) shows intent, that strength of schedule is important to you,” said Alvarez, who served a three-year term on the College Football selection committee from 2014 to June 2017. “That’s one of the criteria. If you take a look at the criteria we used, quality wins and strength of schedule is important.”

3. How does it advance the university? What are the connections? What’s the story?

Let’s start where the series ended.

“It’s especially meaningful for me in this month to have this announcement come so shortly after the passing of Ara Parseghian,” Swarbrick said, “because Ara’s first game as Notre Dame’s head coach was (a 31-7 victory) at Madison against Wisconsin (in 1964).”

The shared storylines don’t stop there. How about the fact that Curly Lambeau played a season at Notre Dame under Knute Rockne in 1918, before leaving the school to launch, play for and coach the Green Bay Packers in 1919? What about Alvarez, who won a national championship at Notre Dame in 1988 before leaving to resurrect Wisconsin’s program as its head coach in 1990?

On a more practical note, Under Armour — which hosted Monday’s press conference in front of shelves of Notre Dame and Wisconsin gear — is the official apparel sponsor for both programs, a fact that undoubtedly helped bridge the gap from hypothetical to inevitable.

So, how’s that for checking boxes? Check. Check. Check.

This particular Rubik’s Cube was begging to be solved.


Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick speaks to media following an announcement for a series of football games in 2020 and 2021 to be played at Lambeau Field and Soldier Field Monday, Aug. 14, 2017, inside the Under Armour store in Chicago. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN