Rethinking the future of the Shamrock Series and why the Syracuse game got shifted

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The future of Notre Dame football’s Shamrock Series will take a pragmatic turn in the years ahead, beginning with 2019, when it will be intentionally bypassed on that year’s schedule.

“I think what we’ve discovered is some on-and-off element to it makes the Shamrock Series game itself more impactful,” ND vice president and athletic director Jack Swarbrick told the Tribune. “It also finds that balance between being true to our independence and maximizing the home schedule.

“Looking at the future schedules, I think we’ll have periods of two or three years when we don’t have one, and then may have one back-to-back again.”

The refracted vision of the off-site home game concept — started in 2009 by Swarbrick’s predecessor, Kevin White — won’t affect Saturday’s ninth rendition of it — an unpopular scheduling wrinkle that sends AP No. 3 Notre Dame (10-0) to Yankee Stadium in the Bronx for a matchup with No. 12 Syracuse (8-2) instead of hosting that game in Notre Dame Stadium.

It also adds 1,264 round-trip air miles to a five-game stretch in the schedule to finish off the regular season in which only last Saturday night’s 42-13 thumping of Florida State was staged at home.

Swarbrick has heard the criticism loud and clear, understands it and, in some ways, agrees with it.

“There are sort of two dynamics here,” he said. “One is people look at the schedule as a finished product in the year you’re playing it and say, ‘Oh Gosh, I can’t believe you did X and Y.’ They don’t come together that way.

“Syracuse is an eight-year incubation. I’m not going to make a big deal out of it, but Syracuse took two (home) games in the Meadowlands (2014 and 2016). We carried forward a good faith obligation to find one occasion to also play a game back there (in the New York metro area).”

A 2012 agreement signed with Syracuse predated ND’s commitment to play an average of five ACC games a year. In that earlier agreement, Swarbrick said, Syracuse officials agreed to move two games from the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, N.Y., to MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. The implied return was a future Irish home game to be moved in the same general vicinity.

The ACC commitment, layered on top of the original Syracuse contract, limited the dates when that could actually happen.

“I hate to even engage in these discussions, because you wind up sort of justifying it,” Swarbrick said. “I’m fine with people criticizing it. But they play out over that time.”

Although Saturday night’s Yankee Stadium matchup wasn’t announced until last December, the first discussions about moving the 2018 home game to the Bronx started shortly after the Irish and Army played there in 2010, in the second Shamrock Series game, the first one to have Swarbrick’s fingerprints on it.

That the Oct. 27 Navy “home” game with the Irish in San Diego this season was chosen by CBS for a primetime (8 p.m. EDT) time slot rather than early afternoon was a scheduling hurdle Swarbrick did not anticipate.

“There’s a perception that we made that (Syracuse) decision recently,” he said. “The only decisions we made more recently was once we knew the Navy start time was whether to get out of the Syracuse game. That’s what we were wrestling with.

“In the scheduling context, it’s always hard for people to get a sense of it. I’m not thrilled about being at Michigan, at Georgia and at Stanford next year. But the only way we could get the Georgia series was to split the dates the way we did (2017 and 2019). It was the only way to make it work with Georgia’s schedule.

“Do you not do that, knowing that you’ve created a tough ’19? Do you pass on the Georgia home and home? We made the decision to take it, because we thought it’d be a great experience for our team.

“There’s a layer of complexity and factors that it’s never in your self-interest to explain publicly. You just have to say, ‘Bring it on. It’s all right.’ “

Notre Dame is 8-0 all time in Shamrock Series games, but 4-4 in the games immediately following them, with the largest margin of victory in the follow-ups being a seven-point overtime win over Stanford in 2012.

White started the off-site home game concept with the notion of playing seven games at Notre Dame Stadium a year, four true road games and then the off-site home game. But Swarbrick found the 7-4-1 concept too restrictive in terms of making the math work with home-and-homes, so he went to a 6-5-1 model.

He also nixed a proposed 2012 Shamrock Series game scheduled for Orlando and replaced it with a date with Miami (Fla.) in Chicago’s Soldier Field, and later scrubbed a tentative matchup with Baylor for 2013 which became Arizona State in Arlington, Texas.

While White envisioned recruiting advantages from the Shamrock Series and thought Sun Belt sites, Swarbrick thought in broader terms of the university mission as a whole and widened the geographical reach of the games.

Notre Dame has played in a Shamrock Series game every year from 2009-16. Last season was skipped because it was the first season in refurbished/reconfigured Notre Dame Stadium upon completion of the Campus Crossroads project.

There was still a commitment to do things annually, though, picking up in 2018, but the big picture has now changed. The only announced future Shamrock Series games are back-to-back clashes with Wisconsin — in 2020 (Green Bay, Wis.) and 2021 (Chicago).

“I certainly understand people saying, ‘Hey, the Wisconsin series should be home and home, not neutral site,’ ” Swarbrick said. “That’s OK, but you really are saying, ‘It makes no sense to be independent anymore,’ because that is the basis of being independent. That’s why we do it.

“There’s no financial advantage to Notre Dame being independent. There is no competitive advantage to get into the College Football Playoff for Notre Dame to be independent. So why are we independent?

“We’re independent to have opportunities like this one. And I get people who say, ‘You shouldn’t do it.’ But then what you have to acknowledge is that you’re saying, ‘You shouldn’t be independent anymore.’

“You just can’t make it other than sort of a nostalgia defense for independence, absent this sort of approach. We’re the only team in the history of college football to play in LA, New York and Chicago in the same year. And this will be our ninth time doing it.

“That’s who we are, right? We’re going to stay with that model. We’re going to play neutral-site games (on average) three times in six years here. I think that’s about right.”

WHO: No. 3 Notre Dame (10-0) vs. No. 12 Syracuse (8-2)

WHEN: Saturday, 2:30 p.m. (EST)

WHERE: Yankee Stadium; New York

TV: NBC

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM), WNSN (101.5 FM)

LINE: Notre Dame by 9 1/2