NEW YORK — Notre Dame wants to remain independent in football, but that might not matter if the Big Ten and Pac-10 decide to expand and create sweeping changes to major college sports.
“Our preference is clear,” Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said Tuesday. “I believe we're at a point right now where changes could be relatively small or they could be seismic.”
Swarbrick said it will be up to him and university president Rev. John Jenkins to “evaluate the landscape” if realignment happens.
“You can each come up with a scenario that would force our hand,” he told a small group of reporters at a Manhattan restaurant.
The Big Ten announced in December it will explore options for expansion in the next 12 to 18 months. Last month, the Pac-10 also made it known that it would be considering adding schools.
Notre Dame has had a non-football Big East membership since 1995.
Notre Dame to the Big Ten has been a constant source of speculation for years. Its South Bend, Ind., campus is located in the heart of Big Ten country and the Irish already have established rivalries with Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue.
The Fighting Irish rejected an offer to become the league's 12th member in 1999 and since then Notre Dame has gone about reaffirming and re-embracing it independent status in football.
Swarbrick has picked up where predecessor Kevin White left off, scheduling offsite and neutral site games around the country, a move that harkens back to Notre Dame's barnstorming golden age.
Last season, the Irish played Washington State in San Antonio, Texas. Next season, they'll play Army at Yankee Stadium and on Monday it was announced they would play Maryland at FedEx Field, the home of the Washington Redskins, in 2011.
New coach Brian Kelly said he likes the fact that Notre Dame plays games from coast to coast.
“It's great when you look at the schedule and see games all over; at Yankee Stadium, at USC,” he said.
Notre Dame's long and lucrative relationship with NBC, which airs all Irish home games, has helped the storied program flourish on its own, despite not winning a national title since 1988. Notre Dame's current deal with NBC ends after the 2010 season and was reportedly worth $9 million per year. Another five-year deal is set to begin in 2011.
Notre Dame is also guaranteed to receive money from the BCS every year, no matter how the Irish play.
Of the 120 major college football teams, only Notre Dame, Army and Navy are not in a one of 11 conferences.
The Big Ten has given no hints about what schools it might want to add or how many, but speculation has been rampant. Texas and Missouri from the Big 12 and Pittsburgh, Rutgers and Syracuse from the Big East are names that have been thrown around by media and fans.
But if Notre Dame ever had a change of heart, the Big Ten would no doubt welcome the Irish.
Since the Pac-10 announced it was interested in expanding — most likely adding two teams to reach the minimum 12 needed to hold a football championship game a la the SEC, Big 12 and ACC — the speculation ramped up again. Colorado from the Big 12 and Utah, BYU and San Diego State from the Mountain West are some of the teams that have been mentioned as possible Pac-10 targets.
“I've been around this business for 29 years,” Swarbrick said, “and this is as unstable as I've ever seen it.”
So what could lead Notre Dame to consider giving up its independence?
“What if realignment impacts the shape of the BCS?” Swarbrick said.
“The Big East has been a great conference for us,” he said. “If there is a fundamental change to the Big East, what does that do?”
Unknowns aside — and there are plenty more — if Swarbrick had his way, he'd choose the status quo.
“We're trying like hell to maintain our football independence,” Swarbrick said. “I think it's good for college football and it's good for Notre Dame.”