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The Pros and Conference of Notre Dame

Today’s Wisch List column from the Kankakee Daily Journal

The Pros and Conference of Notre Dame

The WISCH LIST

Dec. 12, 2009

I’m not Catholic, but I do have a confession to make.

Once upon a time (in a galaxy far, far away), I counted myself among this country’s legions of die-hard Notre Dame football fans.

This was back during high school in the early 1990s before I enrolled at the University of Illinois and purified myself as an orange-and-blueblood. Back when Notre Dame still competed for national championships instead of merely giving Navy competition. And back when Notre Dame actually won bowl games (like last season) rather than lose them (nine straight times from 1994 to 2006).

Or simply turn them down.

Back when Notre Dame was still, you know, Notre Dame.

It isn’t these days, if you haven’t noticed.

(But, I’m guessing you’ve noticed.)

This week, Notre Dame hired Cincinnati’s Brian Kelly as its new football coach, replacing the beleaguered Charlie Weis, who replaced the beleaguered Tyrone Willingham, who replaced the beleaguered Bob Davie. In an all-too-forgettable 13-season stretch, that trio combined for a record of 91-67, which might be just peachy if you’re Gerry Faust.

At Akron.

But, for Notre Dame, such run-of-the-mill records don’t do much for waking up the echoes, which seem awfully drowsy these days. So, for the Fighting Irish – who haven’t won a national title since 1988 and haven’t even competed for one since ’93 – it’s on to the next (hopefully) great coach.

However, the thing is, the name of the new coach attached to Notre Dame isn’t nearly as relevant as the name that’s not.

Namely, that would be: “Big Ten Conference member.”

In the face of all modern reason – except, of course, the almighty NBC TV dollars – Notre Dame football continues to retain its haughty independence from any conference. And it’s flat-out folly.

Just this week, during an interview with the New York Times, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick insisted that it remains a “priority” in South Bend to retain the university’s long-held independence. It’s a status that Notre Dame currently shares with only Army and Navy, which is great if the Fighting Irish want to start defending the country.

Although that would require them to first learn how to play defense.

“It’s not about wanting to stand alone,” Swarbrick explained. “It’s about who we are and the history of the place. So maintaining that is very important.”

To which I’d argue that history also says that Notre Dame is a champion. But history isn’t always right. And viewing things from a modern-day prism, rather than one that’s fogged with Knute and nostalgia, I’m of the belief that Notre Dame never again will run with college football’s thoroughbreds until it gets off its high horse.

And joins the Big Ten.

In 1999, Notre Dame came the closest it ever has to adopting conference affiliation, before ultimately snubbing the Big Ten. At that time, then-Notre Dame president Rev. Edward Malloy explained the rationale behind the decision by saying,

“Just as the Universities of Michigan or Wisconsin or Illinois have core identities as the flagship institutions of their states, so Notre Dame has a core identity. And at that core are these characteristics – Catholic, private, independent.”

As a Christian, a former Dean’s List member and a college football fan myself, I sincerely admire Notre Dame’s lofty religious, academic and pigskin ideals. But, I’m also a realist. And the fact is, Notre Dame cannot maintain its academic standards, be a Top 5 football program and remain an independent.

It might be able to do two of those things, but it cannot do all three. And for the Irish, academic and football excellence should trump independence (besides, there’s plenty of TV money to be made within a conference).

As Sports Illustrated senior writer Frank Deford noted this week, “the problem with Notre Dame is that for such a fine academic institution, it’s amazing that it hasn’t wised up to how much the football landscape has changed.

“It’s been decades since Notre Dame became America’s only national college team, back in the day when professional football was not popular and few Americans went to college.”

Yet, the Irish still continue to view themselves that way. And while Notre Dame games may indeed be everywhere thanks to its NBC contract (which currently runs through 2015), unless the Irish are competing for a national championship, without a conference, those games simply don’t mean as much as other schools’.

“So long as [Notre Dame] remains the only independent of any consequence, the current team’s only real rival is the past,” Deford astutely observed. “And it can’t possibly win against that glorious past. No matter who the coach is.”

Since the formation of Division I-A in 1978, 57 schools with football have held independent status at one time or another although three of them – Cal-State Fullerton, Cal-State Long Beach and Wichita State – eventually dropped the sport altogether.

If Notre Dame isn’t careful, people are going to start saying that the Irish have done the same.

The game has changed, Notre Dame. It’s time to start playing it.

In a conference.