Dr. Saturday - NCAAF

If it seems like Notre Dame has been involved in a game of will-they-join-a-conference-or-won't-they for eons now, it's because, well, they pretty much have. And the answer, in the end, has always been a pretty emphatic "won't." But athletic director Jack Swarbrick, surveying the increasing prospects for Pac-10 and/or Big Ten expansion, pulled a surprising 180 on that position today, indicating that his program's opposition to conference affiliation might not be rock-solid after all:

"I believe we're at a point right now where the changes could be relatively small or they could be seismic," he said. "The landscape could look completely different. What I have to do along with Father Jenkins is try and figure out where those pieces are falling." . . .

"You have two conferences [the Big Ten and SEC] that have separated themselves economically and you've got all the other conferences lined up for their [upcoming television] renegotiations," said Swarbrick. "The bar has been set so high, and the [current] media market is so tepid, that it creates a lot of tension."

Swarbrick's explanations are cryptic enough that the precise "scenario[s] that would force our hand" are left to our imaginations, but whatever they are, they speak to some uncomfortable trends regarding Notre Dame's continued ability to command respect -- and dollars -- on a national level.

Right now, ND's main reasons for eschewing any conference affiliation stem from two big perks of independence: First, the fact that they get to keep any and all bowl revenue to themselves, rather than split it among 10 or 11 conference rivals, and second, the exclusive TV contract they have with NBC, the proceeds from which they also get to keep. But recent developments (to which Swarbrick alludes) have made both of those perks look a lot less attractive than they once did. For one thing, taking home 100 percent of their bowl payout hasn't actually been that lucrative lately for the Irish: Over the past three postseasons, Notre Dame has earned a grand total of $750,000 (from a single Hawaii Bowl appearance in 2008). By comparison, even lowly Vanderbilt, as a member of the SEC -- which routinely lands two teams in the megabuck BCS bowls -- has been entitled to a share of nearly $150 million over that same period.

By the same token, that infamous NBC contract, valued at $9-$10 million a year, has been bested by last year's SEC-ESPN partnership, which is said to average well over a hundred million a year; even the fledgling Big Ten Network is already earning its member schools more than $6 million a year, according to the network's president. The NBC-Irish contract runs through 2015, but as ratings struggle and NBC's financial woes deepen, there may be a finite life span to that partnership. Somebody would almost certainly pick up Notre Dame should NBC decide to walk away from the table, but it's anyone's guess as to whether they'd be willing to shell out eight figures a year for the privilege, particularly if ND continues to excuse itself from the national-title discussion before November.

If these are the kinds of worries that prompted Swarbrick's surprising admission -- and they'd certainly only get worse were either the Big Ten or the Pac-10 to expand -- then biting the bullet and joining a conference may actually be Notre Dame's best shot at maintaining a prime spot on the gravy train. For the Irish faithful, though, such a move would cause their program to be seen as more of "just another team," and not just because they'd no longer be standing alone in the agate-type conference standings in the daily paper's sports section. Swarbrick is being completely sincere when he talks about how important it is to "maintain our football independence," because staying independent symbolizes the ability of the Notre Dame brand name to keep the school on equal footing with any program -- or conference -- in the country, in terms of both reputation and profits. A move to a conference, though, would be a tacit admission that the Irish brand doesn't have that power anymore. Again, given the history of this issue, a conference affiliation for ND still belongs very much in the "I'll believe it when I see it" category, but for the athletic director to be this open and direct in confronting the issue certainly speaks to major changes in the college football world that are far from reaching their conclusion.

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Matt Hinton is on vacation this week. Inform Doug Gillett what a poor substitute he is at dougie_doodle-at-yahoo.

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