Chicago Tribune sportswriter David Haugh recently penned an almost obscenely ill-informed editorial on Notre Dame football that I feel requires a slightly more informed response.
His article rehashes the same tired arguments the Notre Dame family has heard for years: the conferences are passing us by, we’ve become irrelevant, we haven’t won a national championship in 22 years, and my new personal favorite, “joining the Big Ten would help the Irish forge an identity.”
David Haugh adds,
“An independent Irish team that loses its second or third game by Halloween potentially loses focus and incentive with the national title and BCS goal gone. But the same Notre Dame team, in the Big Ten, still would have a shot at winning a league title — no small goal or achievement.”
Yes, Mr. Haugh, it is a small goal. It is a small achievement. Let’s acknowledge conference “championships” for what they really are: mental attitude awards, consolation prizes, and, in the scope of the Big Ten’s modern history on the gridiron, little more than silver or bronze medals after the inevitable BCS Bowl beat-down. If I wanted to stick out my chest about our head-to-head record versus Woody Hayes and our dust-covered shelf of Big Ten trophies while conveniently ignoring the fact my sainted coach won zero national championships while amassing the worst record versus Top 10 teams of any Div I-A head coach who coached in at least 100 games, I’d buy an autographed two-dollar Bo Schembechler glossy off eBay. But, as it stands, I prefer to live in the real world, where being the best matters. If it’s a national championship-or-bust, feast-or-famine cycle for the Irish, so be it. That’s what makes the victories that much sweeter.
You say Notre Dame’s 22-year title drought makes for a compelling case to join the Big Ten. Well, we still have 12 more years to match Ohio State’s drought between its 1968 and 2002 national titles. Michigan went nearly a half century between its ’48 title and its half-title in ’97. And Penn State, after winning two national titles in four years in the ’80s–AS AN INDEPENDENT–has now gone 24 years without a national championship in football. I’m guessing I could find a fan or two in State College, PA who will dispute the Big Ten’s ability to fast-track a team to national title contention. (For further reference, see “Penn State football, 1994.”)
As for the Notre Dame brand’s #1 overall ranking in terms of value, this isn’t the nebulous number you make it out to be. The school has an undergraduate enrollment of 8,300 kids. While its gross margins might not match a school flush with Big Ten Network virtual cash, its net margins as a measure of dollars generated per cost of student–i.e. its actual profit–leave OSU (39,000 undergrads), UM (42,000) and PSU (81,000) in its blue-and-gold dust.
Sorry, Mr. Haugh, but I still can’t get over this quote: “joining the Big Ten would help the Irish forge an identity.” How do you figure? The loss of ND’s national recruiting base–the loss of its identity–stands as the single biggest threat to Notre Dame if it joined the Big Ten. The evidence is right there in black and white, but all the haters and idiot talking heads simply ignore it. Compare ND’s roster to Ohio State’s, Penn State’s or even Michigan’s. When you’re one of the Big Three in the Big Ten, all you need to do to recruit (especially in the case of Ohio State and Penn State) is bar the door at your state line. You ever look at the rosters of USC? How about Texas? Or Florida? Notre Dame does not have the luxury of simply walking outside and casting its line for the best 4- and 5-star athletes in its zip code. Nearly every other elite football program has that luxury, with the commiserate lack of academic standards to grease the wheels with admissions.
Admittedly, I have to give Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delaney some credit for being an evil genius. He’s managed to create the biggest cash cow in collegiate sports–replete with the most television revenue and most January bowl bids–even with the conference generally sucking on the sports world’s biggest stages. Here are some numbers, just for a little perspective. In football, Notre Dame by itself has won six national championships since 1966. The SEC has won six BCS titles since just 1999. Meanwhile, the Big Ten can claim a whole 2-1/2 national championships since 1961. How about basketball? Well, since the men’s hoops tourney expanded to 64 teams in 1985 the ACC has won eight national titles. In that same time period the Big Ten has won a whopping three championships. Again, kudos to Delaney for selling people a plate of dog crap and convincing them its filet mignon.
The cost of conference affiliation is simply too high to bear for ND. Not only will it severely regionalize a national recruiting base, it spits in the face of a century-long independent tradition forged–there’s that word again–when Fielding Yost and Michigan, fueled by anti-Catholic sentiment, blackballed Notre Dame as it sought conference membership in the early 1900s. (Ah, irony never smelled so sweet.) If you want to blame someone for ND’s hubris and isolationism, Mr. Haugh, point your finger in the direction of Ann Arbor, not South Bend. And while you’re at it, do some research before your next Notre Dame diatribe. Any research, at all, would be refreshing.