It used to be that all the top high school football prospects across the country wanted to play football at Notre Dame. It was the place for deep football tradition and its grand pageantry, the best coaches – and all games would be televised on NBC. It was one of the best universities to attend – not only for the education, but also for the opportunity it gave many of its players to play in the NFL. Notre Dame really was a destination for students, players and parents. It was also America’s college football team with its constant TV coverage.
I remember back to sometime in the late 90s when my grandfather was sick and in a central-Indiana hospital. My mother and I took a break from the bleak hospital room and toured the Notre Dame campus on a beautiful fall day full of bright colors, brisk air and a nostalgic college campus feel. Even though I am not Catholic (nor did I have any intention of applying to Notre Dame with my C+ GPA) the experience on its campus was surreal. I took photos in front of “Touchdown Jesus,” snuck into the stadium, hummed the fight song and generally played the role of a chubby, yet taller Rudy Ruettiger for a day. I could see why Notre Dame was the place to play football. For a day, I wanted to run out of that tunnel as a member of the Fighting Irish.
Now, football at Notre Dame in on the downhill slide. The coaching staff has been less than brilliant lately (to say the least). Top recruits want to play in the SEC or the Big Ten, not in gloomy South Bend in November. Besides watching the team come out of that famous tunnel, Notre Dame games have simply become boring and lackluster. Who really tunes into NBC these days just to watch Notre Dame football?
Most of us who watch a ton of college football every year agree that Notre Dame’s football woes might not be as bad now if they had only joined a college football conference instead of being the one independent football school that gets total control over its schedule and what teams it plays each year.
When Notre Dame was the only school to have a season-long television contract with a major network, it was a real draw for recruits. If they made the team, they were guaranteed to be on TV across the nation.
Now, with all of the other major networks picking up specific conferences, like the SEC on CBS, and paying big money for them, Notre Dame isn’t so special. Top recruits can make an SEC team, get plenty of playtime on TV and not have to attend a conservative and constantly overcast university in the Midwest.
Instead of going it alone (and continuing in its downward spiral) Notre Dame officials may soon have an opportunity to add the football team, as both the Big 10 and the Pacific-10 is considering expanding their conferences to more teams. Since the Notre Dame’s basketball teams already compete in the Big 10, it would seem that it would be a good match for its football team, should the Big 10 decide to grow.
What exactly will happen if one or two or more of the conferences decide to grow is yet to be seen. Maybe the Big 10 will just grow by two teams, maybe four. As Brian Bennett wrote on ESPN.com, maybe there’s the possibility of big change, where the Big 10 could expand to 16 teams and cause other conferences to grow, shifting the power in college football to three or four “mega-leagues,” each with their own TV networks and monster payouts that would “dwarf” Notre Dame’s profits from NBC.
If I were the athletic director at Notre Dame, I would be seriously considering joining a conference and make right what has been so wrong about Notre Dame football in the past. If they join a conference, they will get more money, better coaches, better recruits and maybe even a little respect.
College football is changing at a rapid pace. It’s getting bigger, better, faster and more popular every season. It’s making more and more money. It’s serious business. If Notre Dame doesn’t keep up with the rest of the college football world, it will completely lose its gridiron notoriety and will soon fall away as a distant memory (if it already hasn’t). It’s time Notre Dame becomes, once again, a real football school and plays with the rest of the big boys.
If they don’t, America’s independent football team will be a team of the past.