Notre Dame COULD fix Cal and Stanford's conference problem, but it won't

On3 imageby:Andy Staples08/10/23


The Atlantic Coast Conference is doing due diligence on the potential addition of two schools that sit an average of 18.5 miles from the Pacific Ocean. This means we’ve clearly entered the No Bad Ideas phase of conference realignment brainstorming.

So allow me to throw one more thing against the wall: Notre Dame saves the day by effectively forming its own conference.

On Thursday, ESPN’s Heather Dinich spoke to Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick, who explained why Notre Dame has lobbied its every-sport-but-football conference partner to consider Cal and longtime Notre Dame football rival Stanford for inclusion. “The notion that two of the very best academic institutions in the world who also play D1 sports could be abandoned in this latest chapter of realignment is an indictment of college athletics,” Swarbrick told Dinich.

For every person who believes the more important word in the phrase “college athletics” is “college,” Swarbrick is absolutely correct. The people who run television networks believe the most important word in that phrase is “ratings,” and that’s why Cal and Stanford currently seek a conference home for 2024 and beyond. 

If Swarbrick and Notre Dame’s leadership were truly serious about helping out the aforementioned world-class academic institutions, they could. They could form a conference of their own.

Here’s the lineup:

  • Notre Dame
  • Cal
  • Stanford
  • Army
  • Navy
  • Air Force

This would put historic rivalries Notre Dame-Stanford and Notre Dame-Navy under the same umbrella. It would include the Army-Navy game, which is a massive television property. It would include the other games that decide the Commander-in-Chief’s trophy. And — this is the part that should appeal to the people in charge in South Bend — it would bundle six of the nation’s most selective academic institutions into one unit.

It also wouldn’t be Notre Dame getting forced into a conference, which is something Notre Dame should never allow. Football independence matters so much to the Notre Dame community because it helped build the school into what it is today. When the Fighting Irish got blackballed from playing the teams of the Western Conference (the proto-Big Ten) by Michigan’s Fielding Yost, the resulting national schedule the Irish were forced to play* turned a small Catholic school in northern Indiana into a household name from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

*We should note here that it was a win against Army in 1913 that launched Notre Dame’s national profile — and introduced much of the football playing-world to the wonders of the forward pass.

This would be Notre Dame joining a football conference on its own terms by making its own. It could be football-only, allowing the schools to play more sensible regional schedules in their other sports. Or it could be all-encompassing. I’m told Air Force, Army and Navy have fairly easy access to planes.

NBC, Notre Dame’s longtime television partner, probably would buy it. And Notre Dame would keep most of the money. Would Notre Dame make as much as it would on its next solo deal with NBC? Probably not. But the Irish have taken less television money than their Big Ten and SEC counterparts for more than a decade now. Donors, happy that Notre Dame continues to stand up for its principles, have filled in the gaps. Meanwhile, the Irish probably could up their share — which could be significantly more than the others because they are the main draw — by forcing NBC to bid against CBS and ESPN/ABC, all of which would want the Irish on their networks.

There would be logistical hurdles. Air Force and Navy would need to be bought out of the Mountain West and American Athletic Conference, but those buyouts could be reduced by a longer lead time. Notre Dame can keep scheduling independently, as can Army. Only Cal and Stanford would have to fill a year or two of football schedules. CBS owns the Army-Navy game rights through 2028. The league probably would have to wait until 2029 to get that game — unless it sold rights to CBS.

For Notre Dame, this would replace its ACC football scheduling alliance, which currently requires the Irish to schedule five games against ACC schools. Notre Dame could still play USC every year and would have six other schedule slots to play with. Would SEC and non-USC Big Ten schools still schedule the Irish? Absolutely. They guarantee a full stadium and a big TV rating. 

So what’s in this for Notre Dame? Nothing, really. And that’s why it would never happen. The Irish can make more money and stay completely independent in football or they can make even more money by someday affiliating with either the Big Ten or SEC.

This is just another example of why you should never listen to what the people in charge of college sports say. You should only watch what they do.

Sure, Swarbrick thinks it would be a tragedy if Cal and Stanford didn’t have a major conference home for their sports. So do most people who work in college sports. But Swarbrick and his associates in South Bend actually have the juice to fix what they have identified as a problem. Will they do that? No. They will choose the best path for Notre Dame — which is absolutely their right — and let the others fend for themselves. 

That’s how Cal and Stanford got where they are. They, along with most of the rest of the administrations in the soon-to-be former Pac-12, assumed they were all in this together. They listened to one another blather instead of paying closer attention to the actions of the schools in their league and across the country. The schools of the Big 12, who faced that same fate once before, knew they were in an eat-or-be-eaten situation. Most of the Pac-12 schools did not. 

That’s how we wind up with Notre Dame telling the ACC to consider adding a Pacific coast wing even though it makes no logistical or financial sense. But that’s just college administrators talking. 

It’s always more educational to watch what they’re actually doing.