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Notre Dame’s spurning of Midwestern rivalries hurts college football

Updated: September 11, 2013 10:57PM



Too bad Notre Dame doesn’t want in.

Saturday’s trip to Ann Arbor was a reminder of what the college football world will miss out on as the Fighting Irish take another step away from their most logical conference home.

ND certainly has a right to stop playing Michigan. And it clearly is entitled to enter into its unusual arrangement with the ACC, in which it will play five games but not be a member of the league.

It’s understandable that the Irish believe retaining their cherished independent status will give them their best chance at being in the national-championship hunt, which is their obsession.

But it’s still another disappointing sign of the college football times: Fans, alums and media love it as a great sport. But it’s a very big business to those who manage it.

Wouldn’t you rather see Notre Dame-Michigan and Maryland-Wake Forest than Notre Dame-Wake Forest and Michigan-Maryland?

Too bad. That’s where the world’s headed.

It’s not as if the Big Ten was completely altruistic when it first entered into serious talks with Notre Dame in the ’90s. The Irish are in a league by themselves, so to speak, when it comes to box office.

You could put 11 North Pole penguins across the line of scrimmage from Notre Dame and NBC would do good numbers. Even Illinois and Northwestern would sell out games if ND were the visitor.

The practical reasons why the Irish don’t want to take on partners are obvious. After a century of making decisions on their own, why would they want to sit around a table?

The other answer is: Because they can. Older fans will recall a time when independents flourished. Miami, Florida State, Penn State, Pitt, Syracuse — basically, the whole Northeast — disdained conference ties.

Times change, though. Now every school except Notre Dame wants a conference with partners for television-dollar purposes. If they also happen to make competitive, geographic and academic sense, so much the better. But not necessary.

And so, we get West Virginia in the Big 12 and Missouri in the SEC when it should be the other way around. We have a Big 12 with 10 teams and a Big Ten with 12 teams, soon to be 14.

There was a time when a 12-team conference was pushing the envelope. Now the world seems headed toward four 16-team super-conferences. Sixteen teams isn’t a conference; it’s a fast-food chain.

Four 16-team conferences. And Notre Dame. In that light, the Irish’s steadfast independence seems almost traditional.

It’s excellent that Notre Dame maintains its historic rivalries with USC and Navy. And it’s nice that it wants to open new vistas with schools like Texas.

But what would be so terrible about paying attention to the Midwestern alums? Instead of playing five games against N.C. State and Duke, ND could renew interesting and historic ties with schools like Penn State and Northwestern.

The Nittany Lions played some great games with Notre Dame in the ’80s and early ’90s before they joined the Big Ten. Northwestern, which has played the Irish 47 times and gave them Ara Parseghian, also is a rival that makes a lot of sense. Except for cameos such as a 2014 meeting, though, that matchup also is diminished by ND’s curious arrangement with the ACC.

There will be one last chance for the Irish to get together with their neighbors and historic rivals — when the Big Ten expands to the inevitable 16 teams, which will create two watered-down leagues pretending they are one.

After that, the Big Ten-Notre Dame window will be closed for good. Unfortunately for the world of college football, all indications are that there will be no deal. Which should be very unsatisfying for those who are passionate about college football.

Email: hgould@suntimes.com

Twitter: @HerbGould



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