It might be hard for some Notre Dame fans to fathom, but athletic director Jack Swarbrick might be the knight in shining armor that saved college football.
That could be overstating things a bit, but for those who clung to the idea that the status quo in college football wasn’t all that bad, they should be praising Notre Dame’s AD, a man who worked quickly and quietly behind the scenes, forging alliances and staying ahead of the rising tide the entire time, even when media reports fueled anxiety of not just fans, but collegiate coaches, administrators and university presidents. Make no mistake, this was college football’s Cuban Missile Crisis, and Swarbrick just stared down the enemy and saved the college football world.
While Nebraska and Colorado fled the Big 12 for the Big Ten and Pac-10 respectively, the mass exodus of six teams to the Pac-10 never happened, largely because Texas and the Pac-10 couldn’t agree on the value of the Longhorns’ television rights. With Texas unwilling to relinquish their local television rights, it opened the door for ridiculed Big 12 commission Dan Beebe to salvage the conference as a 10 team league, with Texas, Texas Tech, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Texas A&M all staying put after it appeared they were all but gone.
It bears mentioned that Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds and Jack Swarbrick spent a lot of time these past few weeks discussing realignment, and the two men might have come to some sort of agreement days before any news broke on Texas’ decision.
For Notre Dame, independence was the crucial element to all of this, and Swarbrick maintained that while also putting the Irish in the best place possible for future television negotiations. His willingness to back away from a 7-4-1 model that made scheduling impossible and embrace a 6-5-1 schedule will only benefit Notre Dame when it comes to finding attractive playing partners and networks willing to pay to broadcast those games. His ability to see through Big Ten commission Jim Delany’s smoke screen, which included a persuasive sales pitch based around a potential invitation to the prestigious AAU and fuzzy economic numbers for the Big Ten Network was something that the previous athletic administration might not have been able to withstand.
What will be the most interesting sidenote in all of the maneuvering this offseason will be the media’s role in all of this. For the first time in a few years, ESPN wasn’t out front powering this story, it was a select group of reporters with highly placed sources. Chip Brown at OrangeBloods.com, and an Austin-based radio personality, seemed to fuel most of the Big 12 based information, likely from a well placed source in the Texas administration. There’s no doubt in my mind that whoever at Texas was supplying Brown with his scoop was doing it to maximize the Longhorns’ financial grab, and from the sounds of the reports, they did so successfully.
From a Big Ten standpoint, Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune seemed to be the one waving Jim Delany’s flag. For the past few months, Greenstein was out in front of stories, writing about the virtues of the Big Ten Network as well as moving the story forward with insider information likely supplied from someone inside the league, which headquarters in Chicago. Even after it was fairly clear that the Big Ten Network was hardly the source of twenty-million dollar revenue shares, Greenstein continued to find reasons for Notre Dame to join the conference, writing this late last week:
If the Pac-10 does plump to 16 teams (by adding Texas, Texas A&M, Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State), conference officials reportedly will push for two automatic bids to Bowl Championship Series games.
That threat might help push Notre Dame into accepting a Big Ten bid. [Kirk] Herbstreit believes Notre Dame “has to” go the conference route because of that BCS instability and the extra revenue derived from the Big Ten’s lucrative combo TV deal (ESPN/ABC and the Big Ten Network).
“I’m not a Notre Dame hater,” Herbstreit said, “just a Notre Dame realist. When you look across the landscape and where we are headed, it becomes very important for them to align themselves with one of these power conferences.”
Notre Dame also could face additional pressure from its TV partner, NBC, which Comcast has acquired.
Industry analysts are certain the Notre Dame deal is a money loser for NBC. In 2008, the network agreed to an extension that pays the school an estimated $12 million to $13 million per year.
At the time NBC President Ken Schanzer spoke in comically glowing terms of the “elegance of the institution” and knowing that Irish officials will “comport themselves in ways that make you proud to be associated with them and allow you to live in the reflected glory of that nobility.”
Assuming Comcast cares more about its bottom line than “reflected glory,” the company could push to move some of Notre Dame’s lesser games from NBC to its cable sports outlet, Versus. (Efforts to reach NBC executives were not successful.) That might give Notre Dame another impetus to seek the Big Ten’s greener pastures.
It’s not hard to see what angle Greenstein is attacking this story from. Whether its the anonymous industry analysts that are certain Notre Dame is a “money loser for NBC,” or the threat of moving lesser Notre Dame home games to little-seen networks like Versus, this might be the playbook for Big Ten propaganda, all in one snippet of a column. He even got a quote from Kirk Herbstreit, one of college football’s more sensible voices, but one that is un-apologetically pro-Big Ten.
There is a large segment of Notre Dame fans that will forever be hyper-critical of their favorite university and the administrators in charge. They were the first to chastise Swarbrick when the “seismic change” quote started getting publicity after a small meet-and-great at the Big East basketball tournament. They openly questioned his ability to work for Notre Dame while living in Indianapolis, or his “real” goal of chasing the NCAA president job while just moonlighting as Notre Dame’s AD. Yet in college football’s most fragile state, many with inside information are crediting Swarbrick as one of the key figures that stopped Armageddon from happening.
Now about that Western Michigan game...