September 21, 2011

To Be or Not to Be - That is the Independence Question

This day was bound to come at some point.  The "prime domino" (akin to the prime mover from Philo 101) has fallen with the surprise announcement that Pittsburgh and Syracuse are bolting to the ACC in 2014.  ND Nation can save the William Wallace / Patrick Henry independence till we die speeches.  It's been a nice ride (124 years, 1887-present) of galloping around the football world like an unsaddled stallion.

Let's be honest, as much as we wish, hope and convince ourselves that Brian Kelly will deliver the Irish back to the promised land of a national title game, the drought is near the end of its 2nd decade in South Bend.  Some of you will count 3 BCS trips in the 2000s as proof that the program can still get close going it alone.  Those seasons were fools gold in my opinion as we were embarrassed in two games and outclassed in the third.  There's still plenty of incentive to keep our comfortable arrangement with the Big East (what's left of it), count our NBC ducats and enjoy our bowl game revenues to ourselves like an only child after Halloween.  But watching the swiftly changing landscape of conference re-alignment and a possible murky future for the BCS, it would be hubris of Notre Dame not to make the difficult, gut-wrenching, sky-is-falling decision to join a conference as a full-fledged member.  That same decision can also be described as prudent, lucrative, necessary and in the school's best interest.

1988 might possibly be the heyday of independent football considering 4 of the top 5 teams were sans conference.  Take a look.  ND (#1), Miami (#2), FSU (#3), West Virginia (#5) and Syracuse (#13) were all ranked.  Joe Paterno had his first losing season two years after winning the national title.  Frank Beamer was in his 2nd year coaching independent Va. Tech.  Brett Favre led Southern Miss to a 10-2 record.  South Carolina, Pitt, Rutgers, Boston College and Cincinnati were also among 24 total independent schools playing football.  Just 3 years later (1991), the number of independents had dwindled to 16, and by the end of the decade (1999), Notre Dame was the only major program still trumpeting its freedom.  None of the other 6 programs in conference purgatory were good enough to be ranked by season's end (Bob Davie's cue to bow).

The yacht ND was riding in with plenty of company in 1988 has become a canoe taking on water with only one oar.  The only relevant football program embracing independence, besides Navy and Army (god bless 'em), is the "born-again" BYU program that divorced the Mountain West for a bachelor existence once again.  Football independence has gone the way of the dinosaur and ND risks being frozen in an ice age of its own doing.

Syracuse and Pittsburgh leaving for the ACC signals a gamebreaker in conference re-alignment.  With the Big 12 in a tenuous state and the ACC shopping for a 15th and 16th member, ND's traditional poker face staring down conference overtures should be on the verge of cracking.  I realize and appreciate that AD Jack Swarbrick's decision is extremely complex with several layers of cause-effect ripples to consider.  But let's play some guess work at the 4 main options ND faces:

1) Join ACC - Create the 1st super-conference of 16 teams with Rutgers or UConn.  Enter recruiting battles with Miami, Florida State, Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech.  Play in the best basketball conference with the defections of Pitt and Cuse joining the hot bed of the North Carolina schools.  Most important (if/when Fr. Jenkins announces any such move), the academic fraternity of peer institutions Duke, Boston College, Georgia Tech, Miami, UNC, Virginia and Wake Forest all rank in US News and World Report's top 50 schools.  The Big Ten only has 5 in the top 50 and 1 in the top 25 compared to 3 ACC schools in the top 25.  The biggest drawback is the travel for all of the other sports with Pittsburgh being the closest in geography.

2) Join Big 10 - Give in at long last to the natural geographical fit with plenty of built-in rivalries already in existence.  Nothing sexy about this choice.  There would likely be another school that would have to join to keep division balance (maybe Kansas, West Virginia or Iowa State).  But it certainly doesn't send a huge message to the rest of the country.  It's more like having three prom hopefuls reject you and meekly asking the Quiz Bowl captain if she's going with anyone.  Makes plenty of sense for all other sports, but football should be making these decisions.

3) Do Nothing A - Stay the course as an independent with a new Big East for everything else.  This may be a hope and a prayer that the Big East doesn't fold into a conference black hole as the super-conference power play picks up steam over the next few years.  It wouldn't be the same with Pitt and Syracuse gone, but it's what we know and we won't be bullied into making any rash decisions.

4) Do Nothing B - Stay the course as an independent and be a fly on the wall as the four super-conferences develop, leaving a nomadic tribe of new conference-less football mates.  This list could include TCU, Cincy, and USF with Boise State dominating the mid-majors for the next 77 years.  With no more Big East, ND may be able to put together a Catholic League or a basketball specialty league with the likes of Marquette, DePaul, Georgetown, Villanova, Providence, Seton Hall, St. John's, and maybe lure Xavier, Temple, Dayton, Temple and Creighton as well.  This would be a respectable basketball conference and may even work for all other sports, though not all these schools carry all the sports as ND.  This is purely a reactive plan instead of taking a proactive approach that is in their hands right now.

For fun, I teased out what such a 4 League super conference would look like.  My guesses have Texas, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech joining the "West Coast" league; Kansas, West Virginia, Iowa State and Kansas State joining the "Midwest"; Texas A&M, Baylor, Louisville and Missouri joining the "Southeast"; and UConn and Rutgers (but pumped as all get out if Swarbrick beats one of those schools to the punch) in the "East Coast."  That would leave TCU, CIncy, South Florida and ND/UConn/Rutgers as the odd teams out from the current BCS picture.

It's a fascinating universe the NCAA has created with schools money-grabbing to ensure a pie slice of bigger and bigger tv revenues.  Staying tuned to see how it all shakes down.


Kevin said...

Jimmy - I assume you included that little reference to academics just to spite me. Please don't be one of the goons that continues this myth that academics have any roll in a conference whatsoever. Or feel free to explain yourself. I'm always willing to listen to a counter-opinion.

The reason that the topic burns me up is I would absolutely hate for the Irish to somehow miss out on a good opportunity because our fans didn't think the academic prowess of the conference schools is up to snuff. Which is something our crazy fans clearly would do.

Jimmy said...

Kevin - I don't think our decision to join a football conference should be influenced in the slightest by the academic side of this equation. I included that bit completely tongue-in-cheek because any decision/announcement made would surely be spun to address that angle. Re-reading it, I realize my sarcasm gets lost that academics is "most important." The quotes should absolutely be used.

This is a football decision. Pure and simple.

That said, I personally didn't realize how strong the ACC as a whole is academically. Much stronger than the Big 10. It certainly doesn't hurt, and may even help the powers-that-be come to that decision.

ND will be always be a fine school of its own accord irrespective of whatever schools are at the meeting table with our director of athletics academic services.

This is a football (and by extension, basketball and other teams in the event the BEast falls apart) decision. It's part reading the tea leaves on what the future holds, part grabbing the bull by the horns and not letting other schools whimsical panic choices force us into a worse situation.

Glad you're policing me on that issue.

Mike said...

Interesting thoughts, James. I am still holding steadfast to independence, but I have softened considerably on this issue over the years (especially given the recent turmoil).

If we do join a conference, I would strongly prefer the ACC over the Big Ten for the reasons you cite. In addition, I fear that the Big Ten will make us more of a regional program (to a degree) than a national program, which could hurt recruiting. Dan Wetzel made a good point about how the population in this country is shifting from the Midwest to the South, so it will be more important for ND to have a southern presence. I also think it's important to remember how the Big Ten institutions, especially Michigan, have treated ND over the years. From a personal standpoint, I'd love to visit some of the ACC cities for road games in the future if my schedule allows.

Finally, I love the idea of ND competing in the ACC for basketball and other sports.