As the Big Ten grows stronger, the Notre Dame question looms

INDIANAPOLIS — While pursuing his accelerated MBA at the Mendoza College of Business last fall, former Notre Dame running back Adam Shibley gave a presentation to professor Patrick Gibbons’ class.

Shibley, then a graduate student at the University of Michigan, developed the case for Notre Dame to give up its football independence and join the Big Ten Conference in all sports, not just hockey.

“I got an A,” Shibley said this week at Big Ten Media Days. “People liked it. Obviously, I’m a little biased, but I’ve always been a fan of it. Notre Dame is a perfect choice.”

The theme seems particularly prophetic given the events of the past month. With USC and UCLA pushing the Big Ten to 16 members by the fall of 2024, the big conference season is upon us.

Just as Shibley prepares to begin a two-year fellowship in the Big Ten office, where he will conduct research projects and meet regularly with Commissioner Kevin Warren, an age-old question has once again reached a fever pitch.

Is Notre Dame better off remaining independent as a football power or should it make the jump to full conference membership?

And if the latter is the case, it shouldn’t be in a league like the Big Ten that shares its academic, athletic and geographic profile more closely than, say, Notre Dame’s partial alignment with the Atlantic Coast Conference since 2014?

“It would be really nice to see it come to fruition,” Shibley said, “and I think Commissioner Warren is the perfect person to do that.”

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Elephant on the dome

Set aside for a moment the “concession” deal with ESPN that handcuffed all ACC football schools through 2036. That deal could be redrawn, and even if it isn’t, Notre Dame’s de facto exit fee Paris would likely be much more moderate than it will be for full ACC members.

Everywhere you turned for those two days at Lucas Oil Stadium, it seemed like Notre Dame was the elephant in the dome.

Even when ActionNetwork.com reported that six schools beyond Notre Dame were under consideration from the Big Ten – Oregon, Washington, Stanford and California out of the Pac-12, Miami and Florida State out of the ACC – the Irish remained in front line of public debate.

Former Wisconsin football coach and athletic director Barry Alvarez, wrapping up his first year as the Big Ten’s special adviser on football, shared his perspective as a former Irish defensive assistant from 1987-89. He noted several times that the trips to both coasts as well as to Texas would remind Lou Holtz’s coaching staff at the time of the program’s broad reach.

“I could see the size of their fan base and how important it is to be independent,” Alvarez said. “I don’t know what will happen with the leagues as they continue to expand. Will it be harder to schedule? I don’t know, but that’s something to consider.”

Noting all the necessary attributes for any Big Ten additions, Alvarez did not name his former employer in South Bend. It wasn’t necessary.

“The profile of the school has to match the profile of the Big Ten,” he said. “Academics are important, brand. You have to bring something to the party… whether it’s eyeballs or the location.”

After five consecutive 10-win seasons, Notre Dame football has never been in a better negotiating position in the sport’s modern era. If USC and UCLA had full revenue shares from the upcoming TV rights deal Warren was negotiating, imagine what kind of sweeteners the Irish could ask for.

“Those two schools that we just added, they bring LA,” Alvarez said. “They are famous schools that have been successful, they have a long tradition. Academically, they are strong. So, they bring a lot. They bring a lot to the league.”

Doing the math

CBS Sports reported that it could take $75 million annually to bring Notre Dame back to NBC when its current deal expires in 2025. That would mark an average fivefold increase over what’s in place if and such agreements are usually backloaded.

If the Big Ten pushes to 20 members, Irish or no Irish, $1.5 billion a year in broadcast rights would amount to $75 million per institution.

Warren, a 1990 graduate of Notre Dame Law School, wisely declined to give a run on where the new Big Ten broadcast rights deal might fall. However, $75 million per school annually is about right.

“I don’t think it’s a secret,” Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman said. “Everyone believes Notre Dame would be a great addition to the Big Ten Conference for many reasons. But ultimately, of course, they have their own decisions to make.”

Notre Dame’s Jack Swarbrick is not one to act rashly, no matter the circumstances. Given the lack of clarity about the future expansion of the College Football Playoff — and Notre Dame’s oft-stated ability to “maintain sustainable access” to it, whether the playoff is eight, 12 or even 16 teams — it seems wiser to wait until the dust settles.

“They’re in a very unique place in college sports,” Whitman said. “We certainly respect the tradition of independence that they have enjoyed for a long time and they will make those decisions that are in their best interest at the time that they think is most appropriate. We’ll be there to have conversations as they might want to have conversations.”

When asked to share his elevator pitch at Swarbrick, Whitman laughed.

“I don’t know that I’m the one who has to take the elevator,” he said as he entered his seventh fall on the job. “I think the Big Ten is very well positioned right now to take full advantage of the changing landscape in college sports. It feels like there is a consolidation underfoot. It appears that these partnerships will be truly critical to future programmatic success.

“Geographically, of course, we’re obviously a good fit for what they’re doing. I think philosophically we align well with a lot of things I understand from Notre Dame. But then again, everyone makes their own decisions on their own schedule.”

Meanwhile, Warren and Swarbrick might want to request a copy of Shibley’s class presentation from last fall. At this stage in what has become an incredibly high-stakes game of poker, these two savvy power brokers need all the data points they can muster.

Mike Berardino covers Notre Dame football for the South Bend Tribune and NDinsider.com. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBerardino.

This article originally appeared in USA TODAY: Notre Dame football to join Big Ten under commissioner Kevin Warren

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