Saturday, July 14, 2007

No Room at the Inn | by Jay

The cost of a defective, misguided scheduling philosophy rears its ugly head yet again.

After new Alabama coach Nick Saban expressed his desire to get a series with Notre Dame going, associate Irish AD John Heisler promptly poured a bucket of cold water on the idea. Check out his excuses in the Birmingham News today.

Irish can't make Tide fit in schedule

TUSCALOOSA - The chances of Alabama and Notre Dame facing off in a regular-season football game in the foreseeable future appear to be extremely slim.

"It's not for lack of interest," said John Heisler, Notre Dame's senior associate athletics director who is in charge of scheduling. "I just don't know where we'd put them."

Two days after Alabama coach Nick Saban proclaimed his interest in upgrading his out-of-conference schedule by adding the Fighting Irish, Heisler told The Birmingham News that a new agreement with the Big East makes finding room for programs like Alabama nearly impossible.

Beginning in 2011, Notre Dame, an independent, has agreed to play three Big East teams per year, a request that was made when Miami and Virginia left the conference in limbo by jumping to the ACC.

"Those commitments will give us more home-and-home games than we know what to do with," Heisler said. "It doesn't have anything to do with (not wanting to play) Alabama."

It was during a speech to the Rotary Club of Birmingham on Wednesday that Saban admitted to being "crazy" because he wants his teams to play one big-time intersectional game each season.

"I'd like to play Notre Dame," Saban said. "We played them three times at Michigan State and beat them three times. That was a great national game, it creates fan interest and TV will always jump on those games."

He also named Penn State, Georgia Tech, Oklahoma and North Carolina as teams he'd like to play. The Nittany Lions and the Yellow Jackets are already on future schedules.

The Irish won't be.

According to Heisler, he intends to schedule seven home games per season, one off-site home game, and four road games. Already in place are long-standing matchups with Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue and some combination of Southern Cal, Stanford and Navy. Throw in the three Big East teams, and there is little flexibility.

He has scheduled SEC teams in the past, such as the Tide and Tennessee, and Georgia has asked to schedule a game. But he hasn't talked recently with the Tide.

"Unless something changes, it would be pretty tough to do," said Heisler, who added he wasn't sure when the Big East agreement would end.
There it is, our wonderful new scheduling philosophy laid bare for all to see (in case you were dubious).

This raises a modest question. I have to wonder, if we can't find room for Alabama -- one of the most storied programs in college football, a school with spirit and character and near-unparallelled tradition; indeed, a true luminary of the sport -- what's the point of calling ourselves "Independent"?

It used to be that the beauty of being an Independent in football was playing all manner of interesting, regional teams, and mixing it up in a healthy variety. Even after you inked the regulars (Southern Cal, Navy, Purdue, Michigan State, and sometimes Michigan) at least half of the Notre Dame schedule was still a wonderful blank slate, just waiting to be colored in with lively opponents. Take a look back at just about any previous ND schedule and you'll find an exciting cross-section of college football galloping across the page.

Remember what Kevin White said last year, in explaining the new scheduling model?
"I think over time we've really begun to behave like a wannabe conference member," White said. "I think it was real important for us to go back to our roots and behave more like an independent -- go back to the coach Rockne barnstorming era if you will."
Well, this is anything but acting like an Independent. We've locked ourselves in, drawn the shades, killed the lights, and taken the phone off the hook. No Vacancy. Heck, even if you studied the future schedule and found a nook or cranny where you might be able to pencil in a home-and-home with the likes of Bama, well, you can put down the magnifying glass. Heisler, by his own admittance, isn't even talking to teams like that. It's simply not in the plans. The commitment to the Big East and the 7-4-1 model lock us into a rigidity that belies the term "independence".

And it's not just the elite games we're killing off; it's not just Alabama and LSU and Florida State and Texas that we're squeezing out. Under this new model, we can say sayonara to games against UCLA, Georgia Tech, Washington, Ole Miss, Wisconsin, South Carolina, Texas A&M, Cal, and all the other tasty, mid-tier matchups and road trips that used to pepper a Notre Dame schedule.

From here on out, it's gonna be a steady diet of Big East gruel. Hey, don't worry about the Big XII and the SEC. We've got Cincinnati! And Syracuse! And Rutgers! And the University of South Florida! They're our de facto conference partners now, dont'cha know.

Unless something changes, says Heisler. Indeed. Unless something changes, you can kiss Tuscaloosa (and a schedule worthy of a true Independent) goodbye.