With Big Ten cutting bait, Notre Dame now carries college football torch in Midwest

Dan Wetzel
·Columnist

The college football-mad Midwest is a region that runs roughly from Central Pennsylvania to Western Nebraska and encompasses all the cornfields, factory towns and big cities in between. They’ve been playing the game there since 1879 when the University of Michigan defeated Racine College 1-0 (don’t ask).

Across the ensuing 141 years, the region’s love of the game — and all that goes with it — can be seen in 100,000-seat stadiums, sprawling pregame tailgates and massive marching bands.

This is the Midwest. College football isn’t just popular. It is a way of life.

Just not this fall. The 125-year-old Big Ten Conference canceled its 2020 season on Tuesday, just days after the second-tier Mid American Conference called off its campaign. Maybe some area small colleges still play, but Saturday afternoons that for generations were about the sport will be dark.

Well, except for one place … South Bend.

There in Northern Indiana, smack dab in the middle of a region with 65 million people, the University of Notre Dame, is still, as of now, planning to play this fall. Yes, the Fighting Irish, who are easily the most despised rival of every non-ND fan from Harrisburg to Lincoln, may have a season when no one else can.

The Irish have long resisted polite invitations, outright begging and political pressure to join the Big Ten. They instead held onto their independence. It’s led to plenty of hard feelings, usually compounded by the vocal and proud fan/alumni in the neighborhood/office/local bar.

(Q. How do you know someone went to Notre Dame? A. Wait two minutes and they’ll tell you.)

Here in the midst of a pandemic, Notre Dame linked up with the Atlantic Coast Conference, which is still moving forward with a season that would begin on Sept. 26.

Irish fans cheer during the first half of a Notre Dame game in 2019. (Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Irish fans cheer during the first half of a Notre Dame game in 2019. (Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

That means for college football-starved fans in the Midwest, this could be a season of watching as Notre Dame, of all the damn places, gets to continue to have all the damn fun.

Or put it this way: As the Irish host Clemson or Florida State this season, Michigan fans and Ohio State fans and Wisconsin fans will be ... raking leaves?

“We’re always looking for new fans, so we’d welcome all of them aboard,” Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said with a laugh on Wednesday. “Although, I’m a little hard-pressed to think we’ll have many converts.”

Probably not. If anything, it might build even more resentment.

To be clear, Notre Dame isn’t the only school in the Midwest still scheduled to play. The Universities of Pittsburgh (of the ACC), Cincinnati (AAC) and Iowa State (Big 12) are still pushing forward. None has the tradition or fan base of the Irish though.

Additionally, Swarbrick is quick to caution that while the ACC hasn’t pulled the plug on the season and is moving toward playing, whether any actual games take place is still uncertain.

“All of us decided to move forward and take one more step rather than rule out competition, but we will continue to listen to what the doctors and science tells us,” he noted.

He respected the very difficult decision that Big Ten leaders had to make this week. There is no gloating here. This isn't over.

Still, there is hope for Notre Dame in a way that there isn’t for everyone else.

Wednesday was a day of collective mourning in the Midwest. Anger, frustration, depression … and not just players and coaches of canceled programs.

Fans who all their lives built their falls around the college football are now staring off into a string of Saturdays picking pumpkins and visiting cider mills. Or something.

Or, perhaps, watching (or trying to ignore) Notre Dame play a string of big games and compete for a championship.

“It’s an interesting place to be in,” Swarbrick said.

He was already theorizing that the Irish might get additional media attention in area markets such as Chicago, Indianapolis, Detroit and Cleveland. He made clear that even if seats inside a socially distanced Notre Dame Stadium might be limited to established fans and students (if at all), team merchandise is available on the department website for anyone looking to join in on the season.

“Maybe there could be a [clothing] line about how this is the only college football for 800 miles,” Swarbrick suggested.

It’s certainly possible a few new college football diehards begin following the team. But Swarbrick knows that when things get back to normal, they’ll return to being Badgers or Boilermakers. Which is fine.

Notre Dame just hopes it can play. The rest of the region is stuck without the possibility.

“I do hope they tune into the broadcasts though,” Swarbrick said. “Even if it’s to root against us.”