Fighting for independence

Historically unaffiliated, Notre Dame is feeling the pressure, financial and otherwise, to join the Big Ten conference.

The Four Horsemen of Notre Dame, from left, Elmer Layden, James Crowley, Don Miller and Harry Stuhldreher, are the symbols of tradition for the Fighting Irish football team.
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Nearly a century ago, when the University of Notre Dame was spurned by teams in what is now the Big Ten conference, Jesse Harper, the football coach, did not stand still. He put together a schedule against some of the powerhouse teams of the day, including games at Army, Penn State and Texas. When Notre Dame beat Army in 1913 - using the then-unorthodox forward pass - the Fighting Irish suddenly had the attention of the media and Catholic immigrants across the country.

The decision to go it alone still resonates today. Notre Dame are the most storied name in college football - and possibly the biggest brand - and publicly declare a love for the independence considered so key to their football and academic reputation. "It's core to who we are," says Jack Swarbrick, the athletics director. "It's so uniquely interwoven with the identity of the school. It played a role in bringing Notre Dame to the national conscience."

Yet Notre Dame's independence in football may be in jeopardy. With the Big Ten considering adding at least one team to the 11 it already has, theories abound whether the Irish will join the fold. Swarbrick has said he and the Rev John Jenkins, the university president, would "evaluate the landscape" if Big Ten realignment happens. Last week, he said nothing has changed. "From our perspective, quite literally nothing has gone on," he says.

But it was Swarbrick who said in March that Notre Dame's hand might be forced if there are sweeping changes in college football. And there is no shortage of speculation about what they might do. Gene Corrigan, Notre Dame's athletics director from 1981/87 and the Atlantic Coast Conference commissioner from 1987/97, understands why. Notre Dame, located in South Bend, Indiana, have a vast fan base, which means good television ratings, outstanding academics and a history of success that for decades was the measuring stick for other programmes.

"Everybody would love to have them," Corrigan says. "If they're going to be a full member, there isn't any conference that wouldn't love to have them." Jenkins told The Chronicle of Higher Education on May 4 that although the Irish want to remain independent, talks about conference realignment have created an unusual climate of stress. "It's like musical chairs," he says. "You don't want to be left standing when everybody else has a seat."

Notre Dame have been an independent in football for all of their 121 seasons, although not always by choice. They tried several times during the early 1900s to join what is now known as the Big Ten, but were rejected in large part because of anti-Catholicism, according to Murray Sperber, who has written books on Notre Dame's football history and college athletics. "They became independent almost out of necessity," says Sperber, a professor emeritus of English and American Studies at Indiana University. They stay that way because tradition is so important at Notre Dame, he says.

"In fact, some would argue what it has is mostly tradition, that the present Notre Dame can't compare to the tradition. That's really true." Notre Dame have won 11 national championships, had seven Heisman Trophy winners and inspired movies from Ronald Reagan's Knute Rockne All-American to Rudy. But they have not had a Heisman Trophy winner since 1987, have not won a national title since 1988, have a lone bowl victory since 1994 and have just completed the worst decade in the school's history.

Neal Pilson, the president of media consultants Pilson Communications and a former president of CBS Sports, said there would be some advantages to joining the Big Ten, which were reportedly given $22 million (Dh81m) per member last year. Media reports have said the Irish receive $15m annually from NBC to broadcast home games. The university, with an endowment of more than $5bn, also receives $1.3m a year if it does not qualify for a Bowl Championship Series berth and $4.5m if it does.

Swarbrick said money will not be a factor in any decision. "Questions of this nature are too fundamental to be about money," he says. Big Ten officials were meeting in Chicago this week, though Jim Delany, the commissioner, has said it could be months before any decision on expansion is made. Brian Kelly, the Notre Dame coach, drew cheers last week when he told about 300 people attending a National Football Foundation scholar-athlete dinner that there is nothing better than being independent in football, referring to a video shown about Moose Krause, who was the school's athletics director from 1949/81.

"I know you hear all these rumours about the Big Ten and other things, but let me tell you, the history that we saw today in the video, the tradition of Notre Dame football is steeped in that independence," Kelly says. "As head coach, I'm getting that it's above my pay grade where those decisions are made. But I can go on the record and tell you we want to be an independent football team. We want to be able to play coast to coast."

* AP