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Friday, December 18, 2009

No Means No

posted by Mike Coffey
My mother is one of those social souls for whom exiting a party is three times the effort of entering. She'll say she's leaving, then run into someone on the way to the door. 10 minutes later, the process repeats. Eventually she finds her way out, but it usually involves half a tank of gas used up by my father, who had found his way to the car right after mom's initial pronouncement.

Having observed this phenomenon for over 40 years, I'm quick to recognize it when I see it elsewhere ... like in Notre Dame's repeated dalliances with the Big Ten conference (or, as I prefer to call them, the Integer). Having dodged this bullet in 1998, we now find ourselves looking down the barrel of the same gun, with the conference recently announcing a renewed effort to find a 12th member and participate in a championship game.

Like Michael Corleone, just when we think we're out, they pull us back in.

While we're sometimes accused of tilting at windmills on this topic, Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick isn't helping matters. While professing loyalty to the independent state of Notre Dame's football program, his statements to the press are peppered with phrases like "we'd sure like to try to maintain [independence]", which is now thought of as a "strong preference" that must be balanced with "implications" in the "industry" of college football while "scenarios play out".

Sounds a lot like those non-denial denials that were so in vogue during our two-week football coaching search. And like Oklahoma fans three weeks ago, we're a little uneasy.

With the Chicago Tribune endlessly beating the drum of Integer assimilation, columnist-by-default David Haugh can't resist chiming in either. A decade of reading his work has taught me that, while he may be erudite on a number of subjects, to call him semi-educated on the topic of Notre Dame and what makes it tick would be overrating him by several orders of magnitude. So for David (since I know he just tingles to read my stuff) and anyone else who may be unclear on the concept, let's review the issues.

Many reasons exist for ND to remain a football independent, regardless of how the "industry" goes. But those reasons get thrown into sharp relief when applied to a conference like the Integer, and can be summed up in three words: Geography, Diversity, and Differentiation.

Geography. Notre Dame sits square in the middle of the Integer's geographic footprint, so at first glance, it might seem to be a good fit. But the value of Notre Dame's brand (because, let's face it, this is a money discussion more than anything) was built based on national appeal. There's a reason update and op-ed columns regarding Notre Dame's pursuit of Brian Kelly were written for or published in Tampa and New York City and Chicago and Boston and Los Angeles and Washington D.C. and Seattle and any number of other cities. You don't waste column inches on stories in which no one is interested.

But how long will that interest be maintained if the Fighting Irish end up playing 9 of their 12 games every year in a Midwest geographic footprint against other teams from that same footprint? Sure, a Notre Dame/Michigan game will pull in national interest for a while. But a steady diet of ND/Minnesota? ND/Iowa? ND/Northwestern? Why should people in Florida and California and New York and Washington care about those games? How soon before their disinterest shows and Notre Dame becomes yet another marginalized regional school, pushed further behind the eight-ball due to its small graduating classes relative to those geographic "peers"?

Diversity. The Integer comprises ten large state universities and one private [edit] secular university. Outside of a desire for scholarship at the 20,000-foot level, Notre Dame has little, if anything, in common with any of them. Notre Dame graduates about two to three thousand people per year, while the Integer factory in total cranks out numbers in six figures. Notre Dame's graduation rate for undergrads typically operates north of 95 percent, and its rates for student athletes leads the nation. The rates for most of the Integer schools, by comparison, are downright embarrassing.

When you join a conference, the needs of the many supplant the needs of the few. Decisions get made by the majority, and with the masses of humanity on land-grant campuses who (based on the numbers) really don't give a rip about the academic side of things when it comes to their athletes, Notre Dame will be subjected to a steady diet of being on the wrong end of 10-2 and 11-1 decisions. Michigan and Ohio State have owned the Integer lock, stock and barrel for long and long. That ain't gonna change any time soon. The idea of voluntarily subjecting ourselves to their whims for 30 pieces of silver makes my brain hurt.

Differentiation. When a recruit comes to Notre Dame's campus, aside from being presented with the scholastic and spiritual ways in which Notre Dame is different from their competitors, they also see the opportunity to play a national schedule. Why limit yourself to games against your neighbors, the coaches can say, when you can play Southern Cal and Navy and Tennessee and Florida State and Pittsburgh and Oklahoma and Boston College and Arizona State, all of whom have appeared recently or will appear on future Notre Dame schedules? Why play just about all your games in flatland stadiums a bus ride away when you can play in Los Angeles, New York City, Washington D.C., Dallas, and Ireland? Granted, the 7-4-1 abomination is hurting Notre Dame in this area in the short term, but that's a self-inflicted wound that could be healed up should the program desire.

Think about how that discussion changes if Notre Dame joins the Integer. How would we differentiate ourselves from the Michigans and Ohio States of the world? We'd all be located in the same area of the country. We'd all play the same schedules. Why should they come to Notre Dame and have to apply themselves when they can just skate by as a Buckeye or Wolverine? Integer membership makes it all the more difficult to set ourselves apart from a rather low caliber of company, and this holds true not only for football but perhaps even more so for Notre Dame's other sports.

Those who favor conference membership have their mantras, of course. Haugh points out that "an independent Notre Dame team with two losses by midseason -- the rule more than the exception lately -- struggles to find motivation. A Big Ten team with two losses by midseason after expansion would have a shot to win its division and play in the lucrative conference title game."

What he fails to note is a two-loss Notre Dame team doesn't deserve to play in a "lucrative conference title game" or any other high-profile contest. They should earn their way into those games like they always have in the past. The solution is to improve the product on the field so standards are met, not dumb down expectations to the point that a "conference title game appearance" is viewed as something to applaud.

National Championships are remembered forever by the people who saw them. Conference titles are recorded on banners that everyone sees but no one looks at. The BCS gives mediocrities access to the championship structure by virtue of their membership in a particular group of teams. And yet those mediocrities scream about how Notre Dame gets "special treatment", even though you'll never see a 9-3 ND team even sniffing a BCS bid like Purdue and Stanford have in the past. Even Alanis Morisette would find that ironic.

Notre Dame is a national brand because of the efforts of those who came before -- Rockne, Leahy, Hesburgh, Joyce, Parseghian, Holtz. Joining the Integer will effectively undo those efforts more effectively than just about any choice I can fathom. Becoming a small regional school with a small regional following may be attractive to those who want the money but don't want to make the effort, but to those alumni and fans who believe those heights can be reached, it smacks of being lazy and cheap, neither of which are words I want associated with my school.

Let's also not forget these people hate us. There's no love lost between Notre Dame and any Integer school at any level, from the alumni and fans on up. The Integer and its members benefit from Notre Dame's involvement much more than the other way around, and all they're interested in is our money and the reflected attention they can get from us. If Joanna Barnes could make herself look like a crappy football stadium, it'd be a natural.

So Jack, the next time a reporter or alumnus or anyone else asks you what Notre Dame's interest in Integer membership is, there's no reason to be complicated or to hedge. Keep it simple.


The car is running, and gas is expensive these days.

For those of you who might feel the need to print this out and mail it to our friend Jack, his address is:

Jack Swarbrick
Director of Athletics
University of Notre Dame
C113 Joyce Center
Notre Dame, IN 46556

Remember, every little bit helps, and snail mail always gets more attention. Forward it to your friends and encourage them to do the same.

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Friday, October 30, 2009

Men Without Chests

posted by Mike Coffey
Guest author: Frank Pimentel

In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis argued that modern education produces "what may be called Men without Chests. It is an outrage that they should be commonly spoken of as Intellectuals. This gives them the chance to say that he who attacks them attacks Intelligence. It is not so. They are not distinguished from other men by any unusual skill in finding truth nor any virginal ardor to pursue her."

Sadly, we see this in full effect at Notre Dame today. First, in their initial bumbling attempt to defend the commencement invitation to President Obama, the University distributed laughable "talking points" to the Board of Trustees, which managed, in one swipe, to insult the intelligence of anyone who questioned the propriety of the invitation and to directly insult the initial Laetare Award honoree.

Then Fr. Jenkins compounded the error by issuing a statement to the effect that he, presumably in contrast to the shanty Catholic rubes who saw through the artifice concocted by Notre Dame in its perpetual desire for respect by those whose opinions matter in academia, was going to deliver an "inclusive and respectful speech." In other words, as Lewis predicted, those who attack him, attack "Intelligence."

Alas, the commencement debacle was not the most recent example at Notre Dame of Lewis’ foretelling. Last week, Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick announced that next October, Notre Dame would be fortifying its football schedule by playing Western Michigan University. Parenthetically, I’ll state that for all I know, WMU is a great school and runs a fine football program. But that’s kind of the point; about all I know of WMU is that it is in Kalamazoo – and I doubt that most anyone not from Michigan or northern Indiana even knows that.

Of course, that announcement understandably caused instant deflation among nearly anybody who harbors hope that the Fighting Irish will once again become the team it was under Rockne, Leahy, Parseghian, or Holtz. By way of brief examples, on our way to the 1988 national championship, ND played Michigan, Miami, and USC in the regular season. The next year we played Michigan, USC, Penn State, and Miami before the bowl game. In ’90 we played Michigan, Miami, Tennessee, Penn State, and USC in the regular season.

But that wasn’t the end of the consternation. Instead, echoing Jenkins’ pronouncements surrounding Commencement, Swarbrick announced with respect to the inevitable backlash, "It reflects a not very sophisticated view of what's going on out there." As with Jenkins, those who attack him attack "Intelligence."

But I am not fooled. In the case of football, the problem isn’t finding opponents on short notice, it’s finding opponents who will be bought, not expecting a return visit by Notre Dame. This scheduling philosophy, deemed "7-4-1" for shorthand, means 7 home games, 4 road games, and 1 "neutral site" game televised on NBC -- amounting in substance then to 8 home games and 4 road games. It requires materially watering the schedule down and making it, frankly, boring.

I believe this was intentional. Notre Dame knew that if it shorthanded itself by establishing a Potemkin 7-4-1 "requirement," it would eviscerate future schedules so badly that, by contrast, a league schedule (Big 10? Big East? ACC?) would be appealing. Of course, this is a false choice. Simply returning to a more balanced home/road schedule (6-6, or even 7-5), with the historical norm of playing home-and-home series with marquee schools, would immediately solve the problem.

But that itself is the problem. The powers that be don’t want the supposed scheduling problem solved. Rather, while alumni have always overwhelmingly opposed joining a conference for football, those in the Dome and JACC – specifically John Heisler – "know better" and want it (and for reasons having nothing to do with athletics and everything to do with those whose opinions matter in academia).

They don’t want to solve the scheduling "problem" that they created themselves. Rather, they have set us up to "solve" the scheduling "problem" by, sooner rather than later, throwing up their hands and arguing that the only feasible solution left will be to, surprise, join a conference.

But my Intelligence will not be insulted. Until Notre Dame places Men with Chests back into leadership positions, my checkbook – which had heretofore been open – will remain closed.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

More Heavyweights

posted by Mike Coffey
NBC's Notre Dame contract includes seven Irish home games and one prime-time neutral site game annually through 2015. "You could do [a series with Miami] ... plus do one home and home."

A quote from a post on Rock's House or Cartier Field? Nope. It's a quote from Notre Dame Athletics Director Jack Swarbrick.

Yesterday's Miami Herald had a story about a renewal of the Notre Dame/Miami football series, a brief but intense rivalry from the program's last period of prolonged excellence. According to Barry Jackson, UM AD Kirby Hocutt got on the phone with Swarbrick, who showed much interest, and the two will talk more in April.

This obviously is a great thing for the football program. ND was being boxed into a corner schedule-wise with excessive promises to outside entities. Between the 7-4-1 structure and three Big East games and an alleged "buy games" philosophy, it was looking like one-game-or-bust for fans wanting a quality opponent on the Irish sidelines instead of the multiple choice options a 4-4-4 strategy would bring. Instead, Swarbrick will use the neutral site games to augment a quality home-and-home contract rather than replace one.

The list of eye-opening moves by Swarbrick doesn't stop there. The wildest dreams of Irish hockey fans came true earlier this year when Notre Dame announced plans for a new ice arena. After years of meandering renovation plans for the current (and inadequate) facilities in the North Dome, Swarbrick talked to Jeff Jackson and other benefactors, and made the bold choice. According to folks on campus, he also recognizes the bass-ackwardness of the current renovation project and is putting together plans for the long-overdue practice facility for the basketball programs, to be built between the Joyce Center and the baseball field.

Sea change, indeed.

For the last eight years, ND's athletics leadership seemed to be stuck in neutral ... vast periods of ennui punctuated by poorly-handled coaching searches. Statements by the AD evoked cringes far more often than cheers.

Now we have action on plans, not never-ending plans of action. "Why not?" instead of "Why me?" Instead of focusing on "Sunday through Friday", we're looking to "position our program as one of the best in the nation".

We weren't sure what we were getting back in August when Jack Swarbrick took the reins. ND had passed on more experienced candidates like Steve Orsini to hire a lawyer from Indianapolis, and initially it smelled like another "don't rock the boat" hire. The moves so far, though, are very encouraging. While no one hits 100 percent of the notes, at least Swarbrick seems to be singing from the right hymnal.

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Thursday, December 04, 2008

Polar Football?

posted by Mike Coffey
Ever since the move to Conference Championship Games Brought to You By AllState Because You Could Die Tomorrow Just Like John David Stutts, it seems the college football schedule has crept later and later. The Pac10 and Big East, not saddled with a made-for-TV event, followed ESPN's financial siren song and now consider the first weekend of December a viable date for games. While on the good side, it's allowed teams like USC to fiddle with their schedule and move the UCLA rivalry game to the very last weekend, why anyone would want to sit in a place like Piscataway and watch horrific football in the chill is beyond me.

The ACC, SEC, and BigXII teams that aren't in their title game are handcuffed, so there's plenty of broadcast space looking to be filled. Ending your season on Thanksgiving weekend has almost become an anachronism, and ending it before that puts you at a competitive disadvantage (as the Integer is finding out).

So the question becomes: Should the Fighting Irish get into the act?

Spending Thanksgiving in California (or someplace else warm) has become almost a tradition in and of itself for Notre Dame. But now we have this extra weekend hanging out there, and given its possible use to create a beneficial bye week during the meat of the season, perhaps ND should think about this a little.

I'm not suggesting they play in South Bend in December. Late November games are bad enough. If they're going to do this, they'd end up on the road two weeks in a row.

Warm-weather destinations, though, are attractive. The "barnstorming" plans call for games in places like Orlando and New Orleans. Is it possible a decent Big East or Pac10 team could be coaxed into an appearance somewhere like that?

Indoor destinations are another possibility. Indianapolis has a beautiful new facility just down the road. Detroit could use something like a Notre Dame game as a financial shot in the arm.

If Miami weren't locked up in the ACC, it'd be a natural to sign a four-year deal with them. Games in Miami, Indianapolis, New Orleans and Houston on the first Saturday in December would be financial and ratings winners.

Perhaps the readership could come up with a suitable opponent.

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