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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.

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

Notre Dame

Navy

Army

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 1988

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

e-mail: jimr@desnews.com

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