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Sports Postscript: Are Big 12, Notre Dame Close To A Relationship? Depends On Whom You Ask

With the Big East crumbling and the college football landscape leaning heavily toward a playoff format favoring conference champions, the Big 12 is a leading candidate as a landing spot for Notre Dame.

Big 12 Conference headquarters in Dallas
Big 12 Conference headquarters in Dallas

The big news in college football this week was the announcement coming out of the BCS commissioners meeting in Chicago that the BCS execs had finally reached a consensus on what has been speculated for months: Going to a four-team playoff format to determine the national champion in football.

While that was, indeed, headline-making news, the bigger news around here stemming from the Chicago conclave was the re-emergence of the rumors that Notre Dame is headed toward becoming a member of the Big 12 Conference. Let's be clear, though. If Notre Dame officials were to consider such a move and ultimately act on it, it would not involve football, at least not in the short term, if at all.

It's not a secret that the Big 12 has expressed an active interest in bringing in Florida State as a new member. Interim Big 12 commissioner Chuck Neinas and others have said that the conference is very comfortable with the present 10-team structure and has no interest currently in expanding beyond that number. That's the publicly stated position, but it would be hard to believe that if a nationally recognized program like Florida State approached the Big 12 seeking to become a member that Big 12 officials would shun the request.

Officials at Florida State are, of course, denying that the school has any interest in vacating its current affiliation with the Atlantic Coast Conference, which FSU has been a member of for 22 years this fall. But the hard fact is that the Big 12 has more money than the ACC and the Seminoles would stand to receive almost $5 million more a year in revenue if they were to become part of the Big 12. That's a pretty attractive incentive for FSU not to consider seriously.

The bet here is that Florida State is closer to becoming part of the Big 12 than not, but this is not going to get consummated as soon as some would hope. The thinking around the Big 12 headquarters in Dallas and among the university presidents around the league is that bringing Florida State into the fold would put the Big 12 in an even stronger bargaining position to bring in the Fighting Irish, as well.

The question right now, as it has been since rumors of a potential alliance first surfaced in the wake of all of the conference realignment discussion nationally, is: Why would Notre Dame want to join the Big 12. After all, the school have been independent in football forever and it has a lucrative TV contract with NBC Sports to broadcast Fighting Irish home football games.

Here is the loophole in that argument, however: Since 1995, Notre Dame has been a member of the Big East Conference for its so-called Olympic sports (that is, everything but football). The current reality is that the Big East is not the same conference that Notre Dame became part of some 17 seasons ago.

The University of Miami, Boston College and Virginia Tech cut ties with the Big East almost eight years ago, West Virginia is gone after July 1 (to the Big 12, ironically), and Pittsburgh and Syracuse have already announced they will be leaving after two more years, if not sooner. In case you have any doubts, the Big East is in a state of disaster, or very shortly will be. You would think Notre Dame officials would be highly interested in survival options and motivated to act to prevent going down with a sinking ship.

Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick, who was actively involved in this week's BCS meetings in Chicago and, interestingly, was photographed holding hands with incoming Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, ostensibly as a sign of solidarity coming out of the meetings, has said there are three important factors regarding Notre Dame's athletic future and any decisions to be made in that regard:

  • Resolution of the college football postseason issue (a playoff to determine the national champion), which the Notre Dame AD said, "we're closer to."
  • Resolution of ND's media relationship, "which we are in the homestretch of," Swarbrick said this week.
  • Stability of the Big East.

The final factor may be just the tipping point the Big 12 needs to provide a competitive advantage in any formal conversations with Swarbrick and other Notre Dame officials about becoming the 11th or 12th member of the conference and returning the Big 12 to full parity with its brand name.

Further fueling this possibility is a news report on a website that covers University of Texas sports, citing two unidentified Big 12 sources who disclosed that Notre Dame officials will announce sometime this summer that it is breaking off its alliance with the Big East Conference. According to the reports, the second part of that speculated announcement would be the news that the Irish would become part of the Big 12.

According to the published report, in addition to a forthcoming announcement that Notre Dame will leave the Big East and move its Olympic sports to a new conference, the school has agreed to schedule at least three and up to six football games with Big 12 opponents in the coming years.

It is worth pointing out that Notre Dame will play the first of a two-game home-and-away series with seven-time Big 12 champion and preseason-favorite Oklahoma beginning this fall. The 2012 game will be played at OU, and in 2013 the venue will move to South Bend.

The Fighting Irish are very proud of their independent status in football, and it is easy to understand why they would be reluctant to give that up. The problem the Irish have is that they haven't been a very good football team for a number of years now. Part of their immediate dilemma is that, even if they did start winning 8-10 games a season, the strength of their opponents, outside of games with Michigan and Michigan State in the Big Ten and USC every year, does not compare with conference champions, or even the runners up, in the SEC and Big 12 and the other BCS conferences.

If the current speculation is more than a smoke screen, there is some logic to the notion of beefing up your football schedule with half your games against teams from arguably the second-best football conference in the country. And as long as you are playing the majority of your games against teams from the same conference, you might as well be in the conference, wouldn't you think - particularly if you already are for all of your other sports programs?

Sure sounds good - a win-win for everyone concerned. But let's be careful and candid with ourselves. Just because something sounds and seems good, doesn't necessarily make it so.

What we and other proponents think about the notion of having Notre Dame as a member of the Big 12, even sans football, is irrelevant to the debate. It's what Notre Dame thinks, and perhaps what it would take to change their thinking, that counts. Nothing else really matters.

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