By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
I’m pretty sure that old Charles Dickens didn’t pen those words with Notre Dame in mind, but here in the waning days of 2012, he certainly could have.
That’s because, on one hand, the Fighting Irish are flying as high as ever with a No. 1 ranking and a chance to win their first national championship in a quarter century when they face Alabama on Jan. 7 in the BCS Championship Game. But on the other hand, the future of Notre Dame’s athletic programs – despite the football team’s current success – has never been less stable, or clear.
On Monday, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick acknowledged that the implosion of the Big East has left the Irish in an oh-so-precarious position. Notre Dame announced in September that its sports teams – except for the fiercely independent football program – are leaving the Big East for the ACC but that the school is contractually obligated to play in the league for two more years.
However, with the Big East’s seven Catholic basketball schools declaring last week that they’re departing the conference, the Big East may not exist at all by next fall. And, as a result, Notre Dame could be without a conference in which to play basketball and other sports next season.
“It is an untenable situation and we have to actively consider how we can get to resolution,” Swarbrick told SI.com on Monday. “You have two halves of a conference splitting and that creates real uncertainty for Notre Dame given the things that have to be negotiated among those parties.”
However this drama plays out, it appears the Irish will eventually bolt one train wreck of a league (the Big East) for another one (the ACC) that’s resembled a sputtering jalopy ever since charter member Maryland announced last month that it’s bolting the conference for the sanctuary of the Big Ten.
Now, of course, if Notre Dame itself had joined the Big Ten – that deep-pocketed, powerful and highly stable league right in its own backyard – none of these annoying headaches involved with crumbling conferences would exist.
But those headaches aren’t likely to cease soon. And considering how drastically the college sports landscape has changed over the past few years – and surely will continue to do so for several more – here’s my advice for Notre Dame:
Just join the Big Ten already.
As I’ve written before, here in this age of emerging “superconferences,” a situation is almost certain to arise where Notre Dame is going to have to join a league – all the way – or find its football team left out of the evolving power structure. And when that does happens, Notre Dame football would be a much better fit in the Big Ten than the ACC, which (if it even survives) will always be more of a basketball conference than it ever will be a football one.
And as we all know, football is what Notre Dame is really about. Today, tomorrow and forever. However, in spite of pigskin being such a priority, a few years ago a friend of mine who is a Notre Dame alum said that despite the school’s powerful desire to maintain its football independence, it wouldn’t cling to that if it ended up hurting the school’s other sports programs.
Right now, it looks like the Irish’s other sports programs could indeed be hurting badly if they don’t have a conference home next year. A few years down the line, Notre Dame football could end up hurting too if it’s ultimately forced into a weakened ACC that’s lost marquee members and is instead dominated by lackluster ones.
While I still consider it unlikely to happen, what I’d like to see is for Notre Dame to get off its high horse and politely knock on Jim Delany’s door. If Notre Dame asked, I’d be willing to bet that the Irish basketball team and its other sports programs could be fit into the Big Ten schedule next season. And then the Notre Dame football team could join the Big Ten along with Maryland, Rutgers and a 16th member TBD when the 2013-14 season rolls around.
Now, would it be simple to pull all that off? Of course not. Notre Dame’s entanglements with the Big East, ACC, NBC and future football opponents would all have to be sorted out and appeasements would certainly have to be made. But nothing in college sports is impossible – especially with Notre Dame’s and the Big Ten’s money.
This week, for example, rumors are swirling that Butler – which is in its first year in the Atlantic 10 – may leave already and instead link up with the “Catholic 7” from the Big East in forming a new hoops-centric league.
“Our administrators, our coaches, our trustees and our team will continue to do what is right for Butler and its students,” Butler president James Danko said in a statement Monday, not committing the school one way or another while showing that changes can always be made.
If Notre Dame was truly honest with itself, I think it would see that the Big Ten is still the conference that’s best for the Irish athletic programs and students-athletes. Just like it always has been.
I suspect that even Charles Dickens would agree with that.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.