Could Notre Dame go from 'It's just hockey' to full-fledged Big Ten membership?

Mike Berardino
ND Insider
Notre Dame’s Tyler Buchner (12) reacts after running in a touchdown during the Notre Dame’s 31-16 win over USC in an NCAA college football game on Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

SOUTH BEND — Your first clue, should you choose to extrapolate wildly, is stenciled right there in plain sight on the second floor of the Guglielmino Athletics Complex. 

“Thinking Big.”

That’s the daily reminder for all who pass through the frosted-glass doors that guard the control center of Notre Dame football’s reinvigorated national recruiting machine. 

“Thinking Big.” 

Granted, that call to action was put in place well before Thursday’s seismic activity along the San Andreas Fault. And no, the “I” in “Big” isn’t a No. 1 like the cutesy conference logo, but the gears of change are grinding all the same. 

See, hyperbole really doesn’t apply when it comes to the industry-shaking news that USC and UCLA are bolting the Pacific-12 for the Big Ten, starting with the fall of 2024. No sooner had that lightning bolt flashed across the blue-gray sky than a titillated college football nation turned its hungry gaze to northern Indiana. 

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Would Notre Dame be next? Would the Irish — “Thinking Big” — finally be willing to join the megaconference trend? 

Last July, the Southeastern Conference’s stunning poach of Texas and Oklahoma for the fall of 2025 sent the greatly diminished Big 12 hurtling into survivor mode. Now it’s the Pac-12, which has long billed itself as the Conference of Champions, that is scrambling. 

And Notre Dame seemingly holds all the leverage. 

South Bend certainly seemed to be on the mind of Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, the former Irish defensive lineman who played a role in both ‘70s-era national titles.

“I love my alma mater,” Smith told reporters in a Friday morning news conference in Columbus, “and I’ve always thought they should be in a conference. I don’t know what a next step would be (for Notre Dame), but I hope they consider that opportunity and I hope it’s the Big Ten.” 

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The pros would include guaranteed relevance in a rapidly changing college sports landscape, one that likely will see the College Football Playoff move from four teams to 12 once the dust settles from rampant realignment. 

It also would mean Notre Dame gaining access to the gargantuan TV pie Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren, a 1990 graduate of Notre Dame Law School, has been baking for some time.

NBC is reportedly at the forefront of those talks, and wouldn’t you know it: Notre Dame’s latest deal with NBC (at $15 million per year) expires with the 2025 season. 

The cons? Well, those must be considered as well. 

Notre Dame’s Kyren Williams (23) pushes off USC’s Isaac Taylor-Stuart (6) during the Notre Dame-USC NCAA college football game on Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

Fiercely protective of their football independence, aside from a COVID-year cameo with the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2020, the Irish have a long and twisted love-hate history with the Big Ten. 

First, they wanted in – badly – but the fledgling Western Conference (later Big Ten) rejected them multiple times in its first three decades after forming in 1896.

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Repeated allegations of lax eligibility rules, along with an undertone of religious bias against the Catholic university, hardened both sides. Even when Notre Dame changed its eligibility rules to mirror those of the Western Conference, its application was denied. 

A deal nearly came together in the late 1990s, nearly a quarter century ago, but this time it was Notre Dame yanking away its golden football and choosing to maintain the status quo as a uniquely national program.

Nowadays, the lines are a little more blurred. 

Since 2014, Notre Dame has enjoyed membership in the ACC in all sports but football and men’s hockey. Football includes a scheduling alliance that sees Notre Dame play four or five ACC schools each year, and that has mostly worked as intended. 

Starting with the 2017-18 season, Notre Dame hockey has played in a seven-team Big Ten, and school and league administrators seem pleased with that arrangement. Travel, however, is far easier when it’s just bus trips around the Midwest rather than putting your Olympic sports teams on budget-straining flights to the coast. 

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That was the former arrangement through Hockey East, with its Boston footprint. 

Back in the spring of 2016, when Irish hockey and the Big Ten announced their partnership, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick noted in a statement the efficiencies for the hockey program.

“The move will significantly reduce the time our team spends traveling,” the statement read, ” increase the broadcast exposure for our program and allow us to take advantage of the natural rivalries that exist with the Big Ten schools that participate in hockey.” 

Notre Dame already has natural rivalries in football (USC) and basketball (UCLA) with the Big Ten’s two newcomers, so that adds to the appeal. And keep an eye on Stanford, Notre Dame’s comparable on the West Coast in a variety of ways. 

Should the Cardinal be swept into the Big Ten mix as it spirals ever-closer to 20 members, that could pique Notre Dame’s interest.

Then again, the modest ESPN broadcast contract with the ACC doesn’t just run through 2036. It also includes a provision that if Notre Dame were to join any conference in football before 2036, it would be contractually obligated to join the ACC. 

The exit fee for that request, should Notre Dame opt for divorce, would figure to offset a good portion of any windfall that comes from jumping to the Big Ten. Then again, maybe the other Big Ten schools — currently at 16 and counting — would be willing to share the burden. 

Suddenly, “Thinking Big” isn’t just a slogan on a fancy glass door.

Staff writer Mike Berardino covers Notre Dame football for NDInsider.com and the South Bend Tribune. His email is mberardino@gannett.com and you can follow him on Twitter @MikeBerardino.