SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Spurned nearly a century ago by teams in what is now the Big Ten, Notre Dame athletic director and coach Jesse Harper didn’t stand pat. He put together a schedule that included games at Army, Penn State and Texas.
When Notre Dame beat Army 35-13 in 1913, using the then-unorthodox forward pass, the Fighting Irish suddenly had the attention of the national media and Catholic immigrants alike.
Harper’s decision to go it alone still resonates today as the Big Ten considers expansion, with the school publicly declaring its love for the independence it considers so key to its football program and academic reputation.
“It’s core to who we are,” says Jack Swarbrick, the current athletic director. “It’s so uniquely interwoven with the identity of the school. It played a role in bringing Notre Dame to the national conscience.”
Yet Notre Dame’s independence in football may be in jeopardy: With the Big Ten considering adding at least one team to the 11 it has, theories abound whether the most storied name in the sport and possibly its biggest brand will join the fold.
Swarbrick has said he and the Rev. John Jenkins, the university president, would “evaluate the landscape” if realignment happens. Last week, he said nothing has changed.
“From our perspective, quite literally nothing has gone on,” he said.
But it was Swarbrick who said in March that Notre Dame’s hand might be forced if there are sweeping changes in college football. And there is no shortage of speculation about what the Irish might do.
Gene Corrigan, Notre Dame’s athletic director from 1981-87 and the Atlantic Coast Conference commissioner from 1987-97, understands why. Notre Dame has a vast fan base, which means good TV ratings, outstanding academics and a history of success that for decades was the measuring stick for other programs.
“Everybody would love to have them,” Corrigan said. “If they’re going to be a full member, there isn’t any conference that wouldn’t love to have them.”
Jenkins declined an interview request from The Associated Press. He told The Chronicle of Higher Education on May 4 that although the university wants to remain independent, talks about conference realignment have created an unusual climate of stress.
“It’s like musical chairs,” he said. “You don’t want to be left standing when everybody else has a seat.”
Notre Dame has been an independent in football for all of its 121 seasons, although not always by choice. It tried several times during the early 1900s to join what is now known as the Big Ten, but was rejected in large part because of anti-Catholicism, according to Murray Sperber, who has written books on Notre Dame’s football history and college athletics.
“They became independent almost out of necessity,” said Sperber, a professor emeritus of English and American Studies at Indiana University.
They stay that way because tradition is so important at Notre Dame, he said.
“In fact, some would argue what it has is mostly tradition, that the present Notre Dame can’t compare to the tradition. That’s really true,” Sperber said.
Notre Dame has won 11 national championships, had seven Heisman Trophy winners and inspired movies from Ronald Reagan’s “Knute Rockne All-American” to “Rudy.” But it hasn’t had a player win the Heisman since 1987, hasn’t won a national title since 1988, has a lone bowl victory since 1994 and just completed the worst decade in the school’s history headed into Brian Kelly’s first year as head coach.
Neal Pilson, president of the Pilson Communications media consulting firm and a former president of CBS Sports, said there would be some advantages to joining the Big Ten, including cutting down on travel costs, especially in non-revenue sports.
But he also points out there are reasons besides tradition on why the Irish might not want to join.
“They might not be as successful as they have been or they might not achieve the same record they have received because, frankly, some of their opponents are not the equal of Big Ten schools,” he said.
The Big Ten reportedly handed out $22 million per member last year. Media reports have said Notre Dame receives $15 million annually from NBC to broadcast its home games each year. Richard Sheehan, a Notre Dame finance professor who has been involved in past negotiations with NBC, believes that figure is low.
“The NBC contract is more lucrative than pretty much anyone knows,” he said.
Notre Dame, which has an endowment of more than $5 billion, also receives $1.3 million a year if it doesn’t qualify for a Bowl Championship Series berth and $4.5 million if it does. It doesn’t have to share that money with anyone.
Sheehan said money shouldn’t be a factor.
“We lose half a million, a million, through the cracks each year. So a million here, a million there, I don’t think makes a difference,” he said.
Swarbrick said money won’t be a factor in any decision.
“Questions of this nature are too fundamental to be about money,” he said.
The Irish have considered joining the Big Ten recently as well. Basketball coach Mike Brey surprised reporters in January when he disclosed that Notre Dame nearly joined the Big Ten seven years ago after Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech bolted the Big East.
The most highly publicized courtship came in 1999. Notre Dame students and alumni staunchly opposed joining the Big Ten, while the Faculty Senate approved a resolution urging the university to enter into negotiations to become a member of the league’s academic consortium.
The school decided against it, citing its long independence.
Some Notre Dame fans worry about what joining a conference might mean for the football team’s schedule, including its rivalry with Southern California, not to mention which games would be on television and which games would be worth traveling for.
“The idea of playing Iowa and Indiana every year doesn’t particularly appeal to them,” Sperber said.
Big Ten officials were meeting in Chicago this week, though commissioner Jim Delany has said it could be months before any decision on expansion is made.
Kelly drew cheers last week when he told about 300 people attending a National Football Foundation scholar-athlete dinner that there’s nothing better than being independent in football, referring to a video shown about Moose Krause, who was the school’s athletic director from 1949-81.
“I know you hear all these rumors about the Big Ten and all these other things, but let me tell you, the history that we saw today in the video, the tradition of Notre Dame football is steeped in that independence,” Kelly said. “As head football coach, I’m getting that it’s above my pay grade where those decisions are made. But I can go on the record and tell you we want to be an independent football team. We want to be able to play coast to coast.”
AP College Football Writer Ralph D. Russo in New York contributed to this report.