Brothers in independence: Notre Dame's presence at playoff talks may help BYU football

Published: Friday, June 22 2012 10:24 p.m. MDT

BYU's Jonny Harline makes a TD catch against Notre Dame in 2005.

Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News

Editor's note: This is the first in a four-part series examining the relationship between BYU and Notre Dame and the impending start of a six-game football series between the Cougars and the Fighting Irish. Today: How Notre Dame's future could impact BYU in conference realignment. Read Part 2. Read part 3.

PROVO — Once again, as always, Notre Dame is the biggest piece, and biggest prize, of college football's conference realignment puzzle.

As one of only a few of independent programs — along with BYU — the Fighting Irish have stood alone for decades.

But due to the rapidly changing landscape of college football, will Notre Dame abandon that longstanding tradition and join a conference? Or will the Irish continue as an independent? And how will Notre Dame's ultimate decision affect BYU?

The Cougars seem to have an ally in its move to independence in the Irish, evidenced by the six-game series in football that starts this fall (Oct. 20) with a game in South Bend, Ind.

When BYU announced its intentions to go independent, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick eagerly embraced that bold move.

"Independence is not for everybody, but they certainly fit the profile of an institution for whom it probably does make great sense — frankly, in the same way it still does for Army and Navy," Swarbrick told the Chicago Tribune about BYU. "All the schools currently in that category have some common characteristics — national profile, strong history and traditions that are important to honor. BYU adds to that, as I think Notre Dame has, media access (BYU has partnered with ESPN, while Notre Dame has a contract with NBC). Not everybody can produce on their own. It certainly looks like a smart move, from where I sit."

It should be noted that earlier this year Navy did accept an invitation to play football in the Big East beginning in 2015. At the time, Navy athletic director Chet Gladchuk told ESPN.com that "opportunities to exist as independents into the future are clearly in jeopardy," so independence isn't for everyone.

So how long will Notre Dame remain independent?

For now, the Irish seem determined to stay the course, but if the new college football postseason format, which is scheduled to change in January 2014, features only conference champions, Notre Dame — and BYU — could be left on the outside looking in.

At that point, Notre Dame and BYU could be searching for a league affiliation. Because of its tradition, fan base and power, the Irish could join any conference it chooses.

Big 12 officials have stated that they are not looking at expansion for now, but if Notre Dame decided that it wanted in, it would happen.

As Oklahoma State president Burns Hargis said recently, "Notre Dame is a brand like no other. If they had some interest, it's something we ought to consider."

Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds told CBSSports.com that the league has had discussions with the Irish since 2010 about having their Olympic sports move out of the Big East and compete in the Big 12.

"Notre Dame has options," said Dodds, who is a good friend of Swarbrick. "I think they love their position. I certainly think they can continue to do what they're doing and do it well and be a major player. But they have options."

As for BYU's options, could the Cougars join the Big 12 as a football-only school? Or does BYU join the Big East? The Cougars have had conversations with both the Big 12 and the Big East, and the Big East extended an invitation to BYU last fall. Notre Dame's basketball team and Olympic sports play in the Big East, which has experienced major changes, and instability, in recent months.

Then there's Florida State and Clemson, who made noise this spring about their interest in ditching the Atlantic Coast Conference for the Big 12. If the Big 12 does expand, is it looking east instead of west?

When it comes to trying to forecast BYU's future, keep eyes on Notre Dame.

"There's always talk and speculation about what Notre Dame might do," said Dan Murphy, staff writer for Blue & Gold Illustrated, a publication devoted to coverage of Irish athletics. "There are more people now than in the past saying that maybe it's time to get rid of the old traditions. But the majority of people understand that independence is a big part of Notre Dame's identity. The conference realignment stuff is obviously governed by money. I think it's a little bit different for Notre Dame. They have other things at stake. They're not just looking to see who is willing to pay top dollar. Notre Dame will do whatever it can to hold on to independence."

Murphy added that when Swarbrick was hired as the athletic director a few years ago, "a big part of his job is to see Notre Dame through everything that's going on (in college football realignment) and remain independent if at all possible. He's made that clear through all of the meetings and realignment, that his top priority is, if there's any possible way for Notre Dame to remain independent, he's going to make sure that happens. Their hand will have to be forced for Notre Dame to join a conference."

If the Irish do align themselves with a league, which would it be? Big 12? Big Ten? ACC?

"Until recently, I would have said the ACC, because of academics and other factors," Murphy said. "Notre Dame is an East Coast team. A lot of their alumni is on the Eastern seaboard. It kind of has that mentality. It doesn't have the same mentality as most Midwest schools, in my opinion. If the ACC falls apart, who knows? Maybe the ACC is willing to take Notre Dame as a non-football school and focus on basketball and the other sports. That would work out well for the Irish. The ACC and Big 12 are the two that get talked about most often and are the most likely future homes if Notre Dame decides to join a conference."

And if Notre Dame does join a conference, what does BYU do?

Athletic director Tom Holmoe told the media in April that he is constantly monitoring the situation. He added that the school has a contingency plan for every scenario and will continue to adjust those plans as necessary.

"I certainly need to keep in touch with key friends of mine in the business," Holmoe said. "That open communication continues."

While Notre Dame has a seat at the table with conference commissioners when making decisions about college football's postseason and other major issues, BYU does not.

But are the Irish an advocate for the Cougars in those meetings?

"I wouldn't say that Notre Dame goes into those meetings representing the independents of college football," Murphy said. "But what's good for Notre Dame is good for BYU. Having Notre Dame at the table helps BYU I would think when it comes to conference-only playoffs. Obviously, Notre Dame would work hard against that. One of Jack Swarbrick's main talking points during the playoff meetings has been making sure the strength of schedule is a focal point in deciding which teams might be included in the playoffs. That would probably work in favor of a team like BYU, which can schedule whoever they want. Notre Dame is definitely an advocate of trying to play top competition."

Swarbrick has said he is "comfortable with Notre Dame's place" in a future four-team playoff format.

How comfortable is BYU about its place?

Holmoe has said the Cougars are happy to remain independent for the foreseeable future, adding that Notre Dame stands as an example of what BYU hopes to be as an independent.

"We look at them," he said, "as a model that they make (independence) work, and they have had success."

Editor's note: This is the first in a four-part series examining the relationship between BYU and Notre Dame and the impending start of a six-game football series between the Cougars and the Fighting Irish. Today: How Notre Dame's future could impact BYU in conference realignment. Read Part 2. Read part 3.

email: jeffc@desnews.com

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