Why Notre Dame was smart to not join a conference

Dan Wetzel

For years and years, critics called Notre Dame football “irrelevant” and “insignificant” and claimed it would remain irrelevant and insignificant unless it joined a conference. Not enough money. Not enough stability. Not enough games. Not enough recruits.

And for years and years the Irish brass deemed all of those opinions irrelevant and insignificant and refused to join a conference.

Well, Notre Dame was right. Everyone else was wrong – coaches, media, administrators.

Independence is not something the Irish need to overcome to be quite relevant and significant – as their No. 3 spot in the playoff rankings assure. It is the strength of the program and a key reason why Notre Dame is even capable of being this good.

The chief reason, like with every other program, is the quality of the head coach. When a school has a great one, such as Brian Kelly, then it wins. When it doesn’t, it doesn’t. That’s the case no matter who you are or what league you play in – USC, Texas, Michigan … even Alabama and Clemson were mediocre before Nick Saban and Dabo Swinney came along.

For Notre Dame, independence begets scheduling flexibility and scheduling flexibility allows it to present itself to a national recruiting base that in turn allows it to be more than just a traditional power with a big, beautiful stadium stuck in the demographic-challenged Midwest.

The Irish “host” Syracuse in Yankee Stadium on Saturday. It’s technically part of both the Irish’s genius five-game-per-year scheduling deal with the ACC, which gives it a steady diet of Southeast and East Coast opponents, and part of the school’s “Shamrock Series” that moves games around the country into key targeted areas.

Head coach Brian Kelly stands in the tunnel in front of his team before Notre Dame’s game against Pittsburgh on Oct. 13, 2018, in South Bend, Indiana. (Getty)
Head coach Brian Kelly stands in the tunnel in front of his team before Notre Dame’s game against Pittsburgh on Oct. 13, 2018, in South Bend, Indiana. (Getty)

It’s the now the marquee game of the weekend because ND is 10-0 and the Orange are 7-2 and ranked 13th. It will also prove to be another memorable setting in what should be a unique, attention-grabbing event for Notre Dame.

The trip to New York comes between trips to Chicago (a victory over Northwestern two weeks ago in the near north suburb of Evanston) and Los Angeles (season-ending rivalry game at USC on Thanksgiving weekend).

New York, L.A., Chicago … 1-2-3 of the biggest cities in America for a program running at full throttle. In between the Irish’s tour of major market, recruit-rich America was last week’s throttling of Florida State at home under their golden dome. It was preceded by beating Navy in San Diego.

No one else in college football can duplicate such a stretch.

It’s a reminder that the conventional wisdom on the Irish was always short-sighted. And Notre Dame’s administration wasn’t just stubborn or snobby in rejecting a spot in the Big Ten, it was visionary.

Notre Dame works with a smaller and thus more spread-out recruiting pool than perhaps any other true national contender. Only Stanford can really compare. It can’t count on 15 in-state recruits. It can’t bend entrance standards as far as others. It’s surrounded by excellent programs nearby (notably Michigan and Ohio State). It just isn’t for everybody.

It has to hunt for talent and that means creating the most geographically diverse schedule possible, chock-full of event-style games that tell everyone, especially local recruits, that the Irish are special and deserve a long look. It also tells potential players they’ll get to tour America if they come to South Bend.

The Big Ten could never provide that. Full ACC membership can’t either, although getting lots of games down South is a huge boon.

Each year Notre Dame plays USC and Stanford, assuring at least one annual trip to California. Road games in the Navy series float around the country. Then there’s the Shamrock Series, which may no longer be an annual event but can be used to fill in gaps (three trips to Texas in an eight-year stretch). That’s what the Yankee Stadium trip is about.

Consider just the last three seasons. The Irish were in California (Bay Area, L.A., San Diego). They were in Florida (Miami, Orlando, Jacksonville). They were in Texas (Austin, San Antonio). They were in Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park. They got up to East Lansing. And ACC games brought them to Virginia and the Carolinas. They’ll be at Georgia next year and at Georgia Tech the following.

And, of course, home dates against schools from Florida, California (Northern and Southern), Georgia, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Tennessee, Pennsylvania (Eastern and Western), North Carolina, Nevada, Maryland and Virginia.

You might be able to win the Electoral College with Notre Dame’s schedule.

Few things rankle the Big Ten more than Notre Dame’s stubborn refusal to join, but the school, and Kelly in particular, have mastered modern Notre Dame. No, the Irish aren’t Alabama, who steamrolled them in the 2012 national title game. But who is?

Ian Book has led Notre Dame to a 10-0 record after starting the year on the bench. (AP)
Ian Book has led Notre Dame to a 10-0 record after starting the year on the bench. (AP)

This is Notre Dame’s third 10-win season in four years. The roster features kids from 28 states and the District of Columbia. One more hails from Canada. Nearby Illinois leads with 16, but Florida (12) and California (10) are close behind. Sixteen states produced at least three players. Its current 19-man 2019 recruiting class has players from 15 states.

Notre Dame couldn’t have gotten all these guys if it were in the Big Ten. It’s too limiting. Only Ohio State consistently out-recruits them in the region, although Michigan has the potential.

Could the Irish conceivably make more money in the short term in media deals? Absolutely. The Big Ten, led by its conference-owned cable network, hit a per-school payout of $51 million last year. Notre Dame has a $15 million exclusive deal with NBC and brought in just over $5 million for its ACC partnership.

Yet no one has ever strolled through campus or toured the football facilities and lamented that Notre Dame must be broke. They’ll always have the money. They just raise it elsewhere.

Part of that is taking its show on the road, this week into NYC where lots of alumni live, lots of media operate and lots of great prospects call home, particularly across the Hudson in North Jersey.

The band is playing Bryant Park and the drumline is at the Rockefeller Center ice rink. There’ll be a mass at St. Patrick’s. The Empire State Building will be lit up in blue and gold.

And that old echo about how the Irish would never be relevant again just grows more distant, perhaps never to be awoken.

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