PROVO — The three Division I football programs that remain independent have kept that status for one main reason — to appease a national and international fan base.
"We really have a national and international following, and don't have a fan base from one particular region that we have to satisfy," said John Heisler, senior associate athletic director at Notre Dame. "There has not been any interest from our fans or alumni in regionalizing or changing anything in what we're doing."
Notre Dame, Navy and Army are the only major college football programs not affiliated with a conference.
"Most of our alumni and fans cling to and cherish our independent position, and whenever we tell them that we have no interest in joining a conference in football the only response we get is applause," Heisler said.
Most of the 48 football programs that were once independent but eventually hooked up with a conference did so because they did not have a comparable national fan base from which to draw.
For those programs, joining a regional conference alleviated scheduling challenges, and created rivalries that increased fan interest, increased attendance, enhanced broadcasting revenue and provided stability to the non-revenue sports.
Miami, which won national football championships in 1983, 1987 and 1989, joined the Big East in 1990 because it still didn't feel secure as an independent. In fact, Miami board of trustees chairman Ray Goode said at the time that the school's dependence on football revenue "makes us extremely vulnerable in down years, and logic tells us our success can't continue forever."
Former Hurricanes athletic director Sam Jankovich echoed Goode's perspective for why Miami discarded its independent status.
"Our football has way too much financial pressure on it. We have been relying far too much on [revenues that come with] a January 1 bowl bid," he said when Miami accepted the Big East's invitation 20 years ago.
Penn State joined the Big 10 in 1993 for similar reasons. Nittany Lion athletic officials said non-revenue sports were struggling and weighing on the overall health of the athletic program. While football was paying the bills, the entire department was at risk if football revenue declined.
Then university president Bryce Jordan also felt it was important for Penn State to align itself with universities with comparable academic goals.
"It makes good sense to affiliate athletically as well as academically with institutions of similar academic mission and structure," Jordan said at the time.
The reason Army, Navy and Notre Dame are able to overcome those obstacles, however, is their wide-spread fan base. But even Army, which joined Conference USA from 1998-2004, tested the other side before returning to its independent status.
For Notre Dame football, other keys are its ability to annually put together a competitive schedule, fill its 80,000-seat stadium, maintain strong TV deals and an agreement with the BCS, and continue to recruit top athletes from around the country.
"We feel like we're in pretty good position as long as certain things stay in place that we take for granted. If a bunch of those things ever go south, then maybe we'll be in a different situation," Heisler said.
The biggest challenge of independence, Heisler said, is scheduling. Notre Dame has, so far, been able to overcome that because of its strong tradition and history that began in 1913 when the Fighting Irish and the legendary Knute Rockne traveled to Navy for the first meeting in a rivalry that continues today.
"That kind of set the stage for us to play football games all over the country," he said.
Notre Dame now enjoys regular battles with USC, Stanford, Michigan, Michigan State and schools from the Big East. Future deals are in place for annual games against Texas and Miami. Still, maintaining a quality schedule is not a given.
"It's a continual challenge to get it all to work and make the puzzle pieces all fit. We actually try to meet every week just to keep up with it," Heisler said.
Notre Dame's tradition, which schools like Penn State and Miami found out, is not enough to maintain scheduling for the university's other programs — which require the scheduling of many more contests. That's why Notre Dame reached a deal in 1995 with the Big East, similar to what BYU is considering with the WAC, to have a conference affiliation for its other 23 sports.
"That has been somewhat of a unique position, but it's been a very good combination for us. It's really been good for us in basketball," Heisler said.
Football programs that are currently Division I-A (FBS) Independents
Football programs which were once Division I-A (FBS) Independents
School . . . . . . . . . .Conference joined and year
Air Force WAC 1980; Mountain West 1999
Akron Mid-American 1992
Alabama-Birmingham Conference USA 1999
Arkansas State Big West 1993; Sun Belt 2001
Boston College Big East 1991; ACC 2005
Cal-State Fullerton Dropped football 1992
Long Beach State Dropped football 1991
Central Florida Mid-American 2002; Conference USA 2005
Cincinnati Conference USA 1996; Big East 2005
Colgate Patriot League 1986
Connecticut Big East 2004
East Carolina Conference USA 1997
Florida State ACC 1992
Georgia Tech ACC 1979
Hawaii WAC 1979
Holy Cross Patriot League 1986
Illinois State Missouri Valley 1985
Indiana State Missouri Valley 1986
Louisiana Tech Big West 1993; WAC 2001
Louisiana-Lafayette Big West 1991; Sun Belt 2001
Louisiana-Monroe Southland 1996; Sun Belt 2001
Louisville Conference USA 1996; Big East 2005
Memphis Conference USA 1996
Miami Big East 1991; ACC 2004
Middle Tennessee Sun Belt 2001
UNLV Big West 1982; Mountain West 1999
North Texas Southland 1983; Big West 1996; Sun Belt 2001
Northern Illinois Big West 1993; Mid-American 1997
Penn State Big 10 1993
Pittsburgh Big East 1991
Richmond Colonial 1984
Rutgers Big East 1991
South Carolina SEC 1992
South Florida Conference USA 2003; Big East 2005
Southern Mississippi Conference USA 1996
Syracuse Big East 1991
Temple Big East 1991; Mid-American 2007
Tennessee State Ohio Valley 198834 comments on this story
Troy Sun Belt 2004
Tulane Conference USA 1996
Tulsa Western Athletic 1996; Conference USA 2005
Utah State Big West 1978-2001; Sun Belt 2003; WAC 2005
Villanova Colonial 1985
Virginia Tech Big East 1991; ACC 2004
West Virginia Big East 1991
Wichita State Dropped football 1986
William & Mary 1993 Colonial