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College football: Being an independent presents many challenges

Published: Thursday, Aug. 19 2010 1:53 a.m. MDT

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.

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