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Football Analysis: Schedule in shambles? Not quite

Ken Fowler | Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Notre Dame expects to play at New Jersey’s Meadowlands sports complex against Connecticut at least once and another team or other teams multiple times after Rutgers broke off discussion of holding a series there and in South Bend.

John Heisler, Notre Dame’s senior associate athletic director in charge of football scheduling, said Tuesday that Notre Dame and Connecticut are in the process of finalizing a contract for a reported six-game series. Notre Dame expects that Connecticut’s three home games will be split in some way between the New England Patriots’ Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass., and games at the new home of the Giants and Jets, set to open in 2009.

Notre Dame is in talks with other Big East teams to play in the new Meadowlands stadium, Heisler said, though he declined to mention specific teams. Athletic Director Kevin White told the South Bend Tribune that after discussions with Rutgers broke off, Notre Dame quickly received a “euphoric verbal” from another Big East school.

Rutgers says ‘no’

Rutgers decided against playing the series because of Notre Dame’s desire to play all Rutgers home games in the soon-to-be completed home of the New York Giants and New York Jets.

Rutgers is beginning $100 million renovations to its relatively small stadium, upgrading the facility and increasing its capacity by almost 50 percent to 55,000. The new professional complex, located in East Rutherford, N.J., is a little more than 30 miles from Rutgers’ campuses in Piscataway and New Brunswick.

Notre Dame would have been guaranteed only 5,000 tickets, Heisler said, though its fans likely could have swooped up a significant potion of the additional 25,000 seats if the game were played in the larger, professional stadium. In a terse statement issued late last week, Rutgers’ athletic director, Bob Mulcahy said that all “Rutgers’ home games should be played on-campus in Rutgers Stadium.”

News of the discussion’s ending made headlines in New York and attracted negative commentary toward Notre Dame by longtime columnist Harvey Araton in Tuesday’s New York Times and more gentle criticism by writer Charles Rich on AOL’s popular sports blog, “FanHouse.”

Heisler, however, suggested that this was not a case of Notre Dame trying to make a power play on less-storied schools.

“This was just a proposal of playing a handful of games, and it could have been anything from two to 10. All these conversations are open ended with the Big East,” he said. “We propose things they can propose things back. … We’re not asking people to make a lifetime commitment.”

The loudest criticisms, which have been voiced by people outside the Rutgers athletic department, bemoan Notre Dame’s supposed bully tactics. Araton argued that, “as soon as Mulcahy asked for a competitive campus edge every other season, a true partnership, Notre Dame went looking to leverage someone else.”

The view that Notre Dame feels it is “too sainted to play in your conference, too special to step into your house if it does not meet our dimensional specifications,” as Araton said, ignores at least part of the history of this series possibly beginning.

About three years ago, White agreed to the Big East’s request to play three conference schools a year because three of the league’s strongest football schools – Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech – left for the Atlantic Coast Conference. White has insinuated several times that the Big East asked Notre Dame for the commitment in an effort to stabilize the conference at a time when a further fracturing of the league – if not wholesale collapse – seemed possible. And when White first unveiled that plan, in May 2006, he mentioned hopes to play several of the Big East games at the Meadowlands.

Thus, it seems the case of Rutgers and Notre Dame is two schools trying to reconcile their own needs within the constraints of prior commitments but failing to do so – and not a malicious power-grab by White and Heisler. That would explain why Notre Dame has had an “Oh, well” reaction to the recent events and Mulcahy has been noticeably muted in his response.

UConn series nearly set

For the past month, Connecticut has been wrestling with a similar question in regard to Notre Dame.

Several lawmakers there complained that the Huskies were set to agree to a 10-year series with Notre Dame in which no games would be played within the home state of the publicly-funded university. Taxpayers footed the bill for Connecticut’s five-year-old, $91 million Rentschler Field, and politicians agreed to a compromise of a six-year series after Huskies coach Randy Edsall argued it would help generate interest in his team, even if the Connecticut “home” games were away from campus.

The result was an agreement, yet to be signed in a finalized contract, that the two teams would play a total of six games between 2011 and 2017, three at Notre Dame and the other three being “home” games for the Huskies either at the Meadowlands or at Gillette Stadium.

Still committed to conference

Even if other teams were to decline Notre Dame’s request for games in the Meadowlands, Notre Dame is unlikely to rescind its commitment to play three Big East teams annually, Heisler said.

Notre Dame’s teams are members of the Big East in most sports except for football, in which is an independent.

When asked if Notre Dame is focusing its scheduling efforts on more common past opponents in the league (like Pittsburgh) or Big East teams with fewer past games against the Irish (like West Virginia), Heisler reiterated that Notre Dame has had discussions with all eight Big East football teams.

“We’ve had some sort of conversation with everybody in the Big East,” he said.

A logical, possible choice for an opponent would be Syracuse, which has a large following in the New York City area. Notre Dame has played Syracuse five times, including once in 1963 at Yankee Stadium. The Irish and the Orange played in 2003 and 2005. They will meet again in the upcoming season.

Other possibilities

Heisler said that, among a wide array of requests for games, teams from outside the Big East and the Northeast have tried to open discussions about playing a neutral-site game in New York.

Heisler said there were no major factors barring that the Meadowlands from hosting a game between Notre Dame and an elite opponent – similar to the way Madison Square Garden hosts major college basketball matchups of teams from around the country – though he did not indicate that such a possibility was particularly close to fruition.

New York tradition

The New York market has a large contingent of Notre Dame fans and has long been a target “barnstorming” site for Notre Dame. It’s also been a kind location for Notre Dame: The Irish are 30-6-3 all-time in the New York City metropolitan area.

Notre Dame has won all 11 of its games at Giants Stadium since 1977, and the Irish went 15-6-3 at games in Yankee Stadium from 1925-1969, according to George Macor’s Notre Dame football database. The Irish also won games at New York’s Polo Grounds in 1921 and 1924, beat Army at Ebbets Field in 1923 and topped the Black Knights at Shea Stadium in 1965.