Monday, February 14, 2005

Twelfth Game | by Jay

Picking up from Pat's post below, I think today's news from the USA Today article is quite important. Keep in mind this didn't just make the online edition, but also ran in the front page (sports) of the print copy today. It sure looks like our independent status has just been emphatically asseverated, and we shall proudly remain the Jim Jeffords of college football. Here's the entire text:

Irish look ahead by looking into past

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame officials are planning to reinforce a long-term commitment to the school's independent football status with a dramatic strategic link to the Rockne era.

Anticipating an NCAA decision in April that would make a 12th regular-season game permanent, Notre Dame intends to schedule a game each season in different parts of the country at sites the Irish hope will be anything but neutral.

The plan, the result of a two-year study, is expected to take effect in 2009. The Fighting Irish will increase the number of games at Notre Dame Stadium from the current six to seven, and four games will take place on the road.

For a 12th game each year, athletics director Kevin White said, the school is considering cities such as Chicago, Orlando, Jacksonville, New Orleans and Dallas. The Irish would negotiate terms that would include games, perhaps in prime time, in its agreement with NBC.

"It will be like a mini bowl game," White told USA TODAY. "We're going to take our football program around the country in ways that we haven't done."

The idea has roots in the 1920s, when coach Knute Rockne took his team, known as the Ramblers, from coast to coast.

John Heisler, a senior associate athletics director whose responsibilities include scheduling, said the school has not contacted potential opponents or representatives of sites. White said the initiative has been viewed favorably within the school administration because of its boost to recruiting and the way it could provide alumni and fans greater access to tickets.

White said an agreement to play at least three Big East teams a season would let the Irish play annually at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. They have played there 11 times, including a 27-9 win against Navy in 2004.

A 10-year extension of an agreement with fellow independent Navy, an annual Irish opponent since 1927, will include a game in Dublin, Ireland, where the programs met in 1996.

After considering a football involvement with several conferences the last six years, White said Notre Dame would celebrate its football independence rather than feeling resigned to it.

"If you think of yourself as an independent and you allow yourself to become regionalized," White said, "that doesn't make sense. We need to be a little entrepreneurial."

This is quite a policy shift for the White AD. Just over a year ago John Heisler wrote an article for ND Magazine postulating a move to conference affiliation for Irish football, specifically the Big 10 or the ACC. At the time, I took the article to be sort of a subtle way of greasing the wheels, a propaganda piece intended to prepare the alumni for the inevitable, and there was no doubt in my mind that the stage was being set. As Heisler wrote:
It's worth noting that Notre Dame lobbied unsuccessfully for Big Ten membership a number of times up through the middle of the Knute Rockne years, before settling on a course of independence now considered sacred to some. Some 80 years later, might ever-changing conditions be ripe to address the complex subject of conference membership again?
At the time, White, too, was on the record: "We're going to continue to monitor the landscape..." The message: it's coming someday. Get ready.

White said this morning, "If you think of yourself as an independent and you allow yourself to become regionalized, that doesn't make sense. We need to be a little entrepreneurial." Quite the shift, no? We went from trying to ease into conference affiliation to looking at how we can use our independence to our advantage. Imagine that. When White talks about our I-status as an "entrepreneurial" opportunity, you can almost hear the bell going off in his head -- "Now I get it" -- as if all along, he didn't know what he had. (I'm reminded of Trent's pep talk to Mikey in Swingers: "Kevin, you're Notre Dame, you've got these big claws and fangs, and you're like, I don't know what to do I kill the bunny?")

This is really fantastic news, and underlines just how much the new regime at ND understands the inherent strengths of an independent Notre Dame football program. The conference talk was a capitulation, a statement that ND football wasn't strong enough to stand on its own, and perhaps was an oblique desire for the shared academic benefits of being in the Big 10 or the ACC -- something that had nothing to do with sports. So this is a pretty big reversal. Of course you can only reap the benefits of conference independence when you play successful, winning football, and with our newfound commitment to that end (see Weis, Charlie) a reiteration of independence certainly makes sense. The proactive nature of the AD is a delight -- we're expecting to win, so why not set things up now?

So it looks like the Meadowlands discussions we previously heard about were part of this larger strategy to showcase ND football in neutral-site venues. Other possible sites are Chicago, Orlando, Jacksonville, New Orleans and Dallas (as well as another game against Navy in Dublin, Ireland -- one of the best road trips I ever made. If there's a another tilt at Croke Park, I'm there). I'm not sure who the natural opponents would be for those venues, although I can imagine a multitude of scenarios. Northwestern or Illinois at Soldier Field? LSU at the Superdome? Florida or FSU at Jacksonville? Lots of possbilities.

And last, but certainly not least, playing seven home games a year is great for the team, and great for us fans. Giving us home-field advantage seven times a year is quite an advantage, and hopefully the extra game will dilute the alumni ticket application pool a little bit, and allow more people to catch a game...right?

True story: in '93, a friend of mine bought a ticket on game day for the FSU game for $800, and he was happy to just get into the game. Flash forward ten years to the fall of 2003, and here we were giving away a pair of FSU tickets. There were so many people peddling extras outside the stadium that the best we could do was give them to a couple of kids who looked like they really wanted to go to the game.

If things go as we hope, we could play twenty games at home and tickets would still be scarce.