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Conference realignment 101

Andy Ziccarelli | Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Saturday night marked the end of Notre Dame’s annual early-season string games against Big Ten opponents. As such, it seems like a fitting time to discuss our relationship with our large, geographical neighbors. If you turned on ESPN at any time during the month of June, you know that the Big Ten Conference was looking to expand from its current 11 members to either 12, 14 or possibly even 16 schools. The motivation, simply, is increased revenue. If the Big Ten could expand to 12 teams, they could add an additional market for their self-promoting cable network and implement a corporate sponsored, prime-time football championship game (read: money grab). The Pac 10 followed suit and set out to raid the Big 12 conference, eventually swiping Colorado, nearly taking five additional schools, and setting off alarms all across the country. When the Big Ten set out to find the best candidate for its 12th member, Notre Dame, as the prominent independent in the country (located in the Midwest, no less), was obviously the Big Ten’s golden goose. As it turned out, Notre Dame stayed true to its independent roots (for now, anyway) and the Big Ten, looking to make a splash, ended up with football power Nebraska.

But the fact that the conversation even happened raises some important issues. I’ve heard some fellow students say, “I think it would be kind of cool to join the Big Ten” and, “It would be nice to be in a conference, for once.” And those are the kind of comments that will draw an angry glare from this writer. Many students simply do not understand why independence is not only preferable, but necessary for Notre Dame to maintain its identity. So, fellow students, if anybody asks you if you think Notre Dame should join the Big Ten, the answer is (and always will be) a firm, resounding “no.” Here’s why:

This is an issue that can be looked at from a number of different angles. I’ll first consider the highest profile case: football. Before you dismiss football as a secondary issue, consider the fact that Notre Dame, as a university, is what it is today thanks to the success of its football team. Notre Dame is, and always has been, an independent football team. Oh, we tried to join the Big Ten back in the early 1900s, but Fielding Yost and Michigan wouldn’t be associated with a group of blue collar Catholics. So, blackballed by our geographical neighbors, the Irish set out to play teams across the country, traveling from New York to Georgia to California and winning everywhere along the way. Since we didn’t have a conference to win, national championships became the only standard, and that standard continues today. What distinguishes Notre Dame from the other Midwestern football powers is its truly national appeal.

Every game is shown on national television, Notre Dame has legions of fans spanning the whole country and our team plays a national and diverse schedule. Within the next five years, Notre Dame is scheduled to play Oklahoma, Miami, Texas, Arizona State and Maryland, in addition to the regulars on our schedule which span across the country. Contrast that to playing likely nine or ten games per year in the Big Ten’s geographical footprint, with exciting games against teams like Indiana and Minnesota. Now imagine doing that every single year. Joining the Big Ten would only serve to further marginalize (and regionalize) a program that has been doing it to itself for the last 16 years. In joining a conference (any conference), Notre Dame would lose its most distinguishing characteristic.

Beyond football, though, Notre Dame is simply not a good institutional fit for the conference. The conference is populated by 10 (soon to be 11) mammoth, public, state universities and one secular private school. What unites all 12 is their non-religious backgrounds and their commitment to research over undergraduate education. Why I, and most students, decided to come to Notre Dame as an undergrad was the feeling of community that I felt on campus, which is fostered by an institution that prioritizes undergraduate growth and learning. Additionally, the religious aspect of Notre Dame cannot be overlooked, as our Catholic roots will likely put us at direct odds with potential research performed in the conference, like stem cell research. And, as the only likely objector, Notre Dame would likely be on the wrong end of a lot of 12-1 votes. That is, unless Notre Dame decides it wants to become a research institution (and there is a feeling that we are headed in that direction, anyway). If that ever happens, the University will be so fundamentally different that it will be unrecognizable, and Notre Dame as we know it will no longer exist.

And that, fellow students, is why we need to stay true to our roots. The Big Ten, despite my criticism, is actually a fantastic organization that has a lot of great people doing great things for the world. Many universities across the country would be proud to be part of such a group. Notre Dame just shouldn’t be one of them.

Andy Ziccarelli is a senior majoring in civil engineering. He welcomes your adulation and veiled threats at aziccare@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.