Irish say ‘no thanks’ to joining Big Ten

by Michael Dougherty

The University of Notre Dame’s Board of Trustees decided Friday the private school will not join the Big Ten, ending months of speculation that Notre Dame could become the conference’s 12th member.
The school’s decision to retain its independence was announced at the trustees’ winter meeting in London.
Chairman of the Board of Trustees Andrew J. McKenna and Notre Dame President Rev. Edward A. Malloy announced the board’s findings at a Friday morning news conference.
Notre Dame had been involved in what was called a “process of information-sharing” between itself and both the Big Ten Conference and the Committee for Institutional Cooperation.
McKenna and Malloy said the decision was based on Notre Dame’s desire to preserve what they called the school’s “institutional identity.” McKenna said that identity includes characteristics such as “Catholic, private, independent.”
“Notre Dame has a distinct identity that is the product of more than a century-and-a-half of institutional independence,” Malloy said. “As a Catholic university with a national constituency, we believe independence continues to be our best way forward, not just in athletics, but, first and foremost, in fulfillment of our academic aspirations.”
Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delaney said his office initiated contact with Notre Dame seven or eight months ago about the possibility of joining the conference.
Delaney said he has known for about two months that the likelihood of Notre Dame joining was virtually nonexistent. He said the decision, which he first heard about at 9:40 Friday morning, did not surprise him.
“After reviewing Malloy’s written statement, we not only respect those comments but concur with them,” Delaney said.
Delaney said he felt the addition of Notre Dame would be beneficial to both the Big Ten and Notre Dame. But he added that given the large and close community associated with Notre Dame, the issue was quite emotional for them.
The Faculty Senate of Notre Dame had endorsed the addition to the Big Ten because it would allow the school to be involved with the other conference schools in the sharing of research and information.
However, some Notre Dame alumni have expressed concern that the school could possibly lose the independent identity Malloy and McKenna discussed.
Current students at Notre Dame had also expressed opposition in the form of chanting “No Big Ten” at recent sporting events.
Before the decision came down, Notre Dame football coach Bob Davie told the New York Times, “It’s a win-win situation, though I’m glad I’m not making the decision. There is a concern about the unknown. Would Notre Dame remain as unique as Notre Dame is if it were aligned with a conference?”
Ultimately, Malloy and McKenna’s comments answered Davie’s question. But along with the pledge for securing the school’s storied tradition, finances had to have entered the equation.
The Notre Dame football team currently receives $7 million from NBC for the rights to televise its games. That contract jumps to $8 million annually next year and runs to 2005. The school also gets to keep its own gate receipts and bowl game payouts.
But by joining the Big Ten, those profits would have to be shared among the other schools.
While the football team remains an independent, most of the other athletic programs at Notre Dame are affiliated with the Big East. But the football team is indeed the Golden Dome’s golden goose.
Delaney said the discussions never extended into finances, but he did not rule out going after a 12th school somewhere else.
Minnesota women’s athletics director Chris Voelz called Notre Dame’s decision “pretty predictable.”
Voelz said Notre Dame had considered a deal similar to the one the school currently has with the Big East. However, she said the Big Ten was not interested if the deal didn’t include the football team.
“The Big Ten is all together in broad-band programs,” Voelz said. “We can’t have all sports, but not football. We said that’s not part of the deal.”
Voelz said the possibility of expansion still exists with schools like Syracuse and Missouri in the fold, but that, “We’re not dependent upon expansion.”
Voelz said speculation about financial stumbling blocks are unwarranted. Still, she said Notre Dame would have had to pay a “healthy fee to get in.”
The initial investment would have paid off for the school, however, because down the road Notre Dame’s affiliation with the Big Ten would likely help the football team land bigger and better bowl bids.
Minnesota men’s athletics director Mark Dienhart said he also expected this decision, and he didn’t think finances were a factor, either.
“Notre Dame certainly attracts a lot of revenue right now,” he said. “But they would also flourish financially in the Big Ten.”
Even with the possibility of adding a school sometime in the future, Voelz said she would be opposed to changing the conference name to adjust for a 12th team. But others disagree.
Indiana basketball coach Bob Knight said he thought Notre Dame would have been a great addition to the conference and that a name change for the conference is in order.
“I don’t understand why we have 11 teams and call it the Big Ten,” Knight said. “It’s a travesty.”
Voelz, who was on the committee that discussed a name change when Penn State was added in 1990, cited tradition and legacy as motivating factors behind the lack of a name change.
“We have 100 years of loyalty and brand name awareness with the Big Ten,” she said. “It’s something we would not want to lose.”
Both Dienhart and Voelz said they wanted to make clear that the Big Ten had not officially invited Notre Dame into the conference, nor had Notre Dame ultimately turned down being a Big Ten member.
They both said the decision made by Notre Dame on Friday was one that ended any possibility of the school joining the conference in the future.