Irish Independence

Stiofán Mac Fhilib brings you a two-part, long form history lesson into Notre Dame football, it’s path to independence in the conference-dominated landscape of college football, and the future for The Fighting Irish amidst the latest bout of realignment:


My O-level history teacher, Mr Corrigan, would doubtless be delighted at the thought of me writing over 3,500 words on Irish Independence, 35 years after he first tried to inculcate the finer points of the subject into my young head.  Though I suspect he would be as bemused by the omission of mentions of Michael Collins and Éamon de Valera, and talk of ‘NBC deals’ and ‘Atlantic Coast Conference‘, as younger readers may be just as confused by the reference to O-levels (they’re GCSEs in old money).  

As anyone who either at least likes or dislikes Notre Dame – most CFB fans in other words – will be aware, the single most popular retort to pretty much any story involving the Fighting Irish football team is a few short words: “(Why don’t they) join a conference!”  It doesn’t matter if the subject at hand is a proposed change to the CFB Playoff format, or Brian Kelly’s views on a third-string Mike Linebacker.  You can be pretty much assured that someone, somewhere will not be entirely happy with Notre Dame’s continued status as an independent in football.  

So let’s look at why football independence is so important to the university, what the main factors are that could affect its continuation, and how this summer’s developments in the sport may have an impact on the Irish – now, and in the future.

Irish Myths & Legends

First of all, however, let’s examine a couple of the common misconceptions and misinformation that surround Notre Dame’s Independent status.  

One is that somehow the Irish receive unfair and/or favourable treatment by virtue of not being in a conference.  This doesn’t stack up in reality though.  Notre Dame have always had the same two options open to every other FBS school: try to be an independent or try to join a conference.  Exactly the same situation every FBS program faces.  Most chose a different path from ND as is their right, but each school has to live with the consequences, good and bad, of the decision that each freely makes.  

Take the CFB Playoff, for example.  The rules that apply to what the Irish must do to make the final four are absolutely identical to those which apply to every other team, whether in a conference or not: be ranked in the top four at the end of the season by the Playoff Committee.  

Some may point to some conference teams needing to play an extra Conference Championship Game, but there are two key things to bear in mind regarding that.  The first is many such teams with 13 games play a ‘gimme’ FCS opponent in one of their ‘buy’ games.  Notre Dame, along with USC and UCLA, are one of only three remaining FBS programs that have never scheduled a game against a team from a lower division, with its lower scholarship player numbers, etc.  The Irish already play 12 FBS opponents every season.  And the second is that ultimately the ‘blame’ for having to play this ‘extra’ game lies not with Notre Dame AD, Jack Swarbrick, nor anyone else in South Bend.  Rather it was a decision made by that team’s own conference!  

Money Talks

The other main shibboleth is that Notre Dame remain independent because they make way more tv money from this than they would from joining a conference.  It’s certainly true in my experience that few things seem to provoke more apparent envy among some rival fans than ND’s 30 year old tv partnership with NBC.  

For the most part I think this is more of an historic thing.  When it first was agreed, it was a relative novelty, and other noses were put out of joint both by the monetary amounts involved and the nationwide tv coverage on one of the three main channels.  In today’s era, however, the coast to coast tv coverage is hardly unique to the Irish.  Which brings us neatly to the money.  

Notre Dame get around $15m from NBC annually under their current contract (which runs to 2025).  The more astute among you will already have recognised that such an amount seems rather, well, low compared to the figures now being discussed by other conferences.  And you would be quite correct.  

In 2020 the Big Ten distributed an average of $54m of tv income to its 14 schools.  For the SEC the equivalent figure was $46m.  For the Pac 12, $34m.  And for the ACC, $32m.  Notre Dame’s situation with the ACC is a little more complex, due to the participation of all other sports (bar hockey) in that conference.  In 2020 the Irish got $11m from the ACC, giving them a total of $26m, $6m less than the average for the other schools.  And bear in mind that in the ACC payoffs are based on how well you do post-season.  In 2020 Clemson received $37m, which would suggest that ND could also potentially often receive more than just the conference average were they a full member for football.  

In short that $6m (at least) shortfall between tv income as an Independent and as a full conference member is quite literally the price Notre Dame pay for independence.  

So Why Does ND Value Independence?

In a country where independence is generally regarded with such approval, and they spend the annual GDP of a small African country on fireworks every 4th of July to celebrate their own, it does seem a little incongruous to see so much antipathy towards the mere notion of a football team wanting to be independent in 2021.  

In the context of the history of the game a better question might be ‘why not?’  The last time the Irish won a National Championship, in 1988, they were one of 25 independent CFB programs.  In their Fiesta Bowl game to claim the title that season the Irish beat fellow Independent, West Virginia.  Indeed the 1980s were a golden era for such teams.  Miami (’83, ’87, ’89), Penn State (’82, ’86) and BYU (’84) were all Independents who won National Championships.  

The likes of, South Carolina, Boston College, Virginia Tech, Syracuse and Louisville were also without a conference at that time.  In a sport that has long prided itself on its idiosyncrasy, in sharp contrast to the homogenisation of the NFL, Independent teams have always had a place.  

The curious irony though, for all the pride that ND fans and the university today have around independence, is that a century ago they wanted to join a conference.  I mean, they really wanted to join one.  The Western Conference to be exact; what is today known as the Big Ten.  And the reason they did not is primarily down to one man, and a bitter grudge that ultimately had completely unintended – and presumably unwelcome – consequences for its holder…

Fielding A Vendetta

Fielding H. Yost. Credit: Detroit News Archive

Fielding H. Yost was Head Coach at Michigan in the early 1900s and eventually its Athletic Director.  To say he had a feud with legendary Notre Dame HC, Knute Rockne, the winningest coach in CFB history, would sell their mutual dislike somewhat short.  Yost hated Norwegian immigrant, Rockne, and his team about as much as Nick Saban hates losing.  When the Irish finally beat Michigan for the first time in 1909, Yost cancelled the 1910 scheduled rematch.  They didn’t meet again until after Yost stepped down as Michigan AD over 30 years later.  

Yost’s racism towards black people, Catholics and immigrants was no secret.  Not only did he actively ensure that the Western Conference would not admit ND, he also lobbied fellow conference schools not to play the Irish either.  That Michigan State and Purdue refused this request is one of the reasons they are among Notre Dame’s most frequently played opponents today.  

What Yost did not foresee, however, was the outcome of the approach he effectively forced the Irish to take.  Rockne’s Ramblers went on the road.  Or rather, often the railroad and travelled across the country playing whomever, wherever.  Games against the like of Army in New York in particular helped to create the massed ranks of Subway Alumni who may never have made it to South Bend, IN, but who followed the team’s fortunes religiously every Saturday.  

That Notre Dame went on to become the most storied and most successful team in CFB for a period of over 50 years was in part down to an anti-Catholic bigot, something the university has never forgotten.

Remaining Independent In The 21st Century

That is the historical context for ND’s initial ‘choice’ to be an Independent, but that was a century ago.  Why not consider joining the ACC full-time now, especially after an unbeaten regular season there in 2020?  Or choose the better geographical fit of the modern Big Ten, which would surely welcome the Irish now with open arms?  

In short, for the University of Notre Dame, the independence that was once effectively forced upon it has long since become part of the school’s DNA, and how it views itself and the rest of CFB.  Founded in 1842 by a French Catholic priest, it has always had a religious focus and for over a century now has tried to balance that with the success of, and interest in, its football program.  

The University sees its wider mission as promoting its ideals regarding Catholic education and regards the football team as one method of doing so.  In a modern CFB landscape where the Athletic Departments and specifically the football teams of some top schools often seem like the tail wagging the overall university dog, Notre Dame would like to think that it views the sport a little differently.  

Make no mistake, however, the University President and Board of Trustees are under no illusions as to the importance of the football program and the financial benefits it brings to the university as a whole, though some ND fans would complain that they are not doing enough to prioritise winning a national championship, compared to some of the more obvious ‘football factories’.  

National Identity

Credit: Matt Cashore (US Presswire)

One of the legacies of the success of the Irish back in the early and middle 20th century is the large, but geographically disperse fan base the team built.  As a small, private university they do not have a particularly large alumni base, certainly compared to most larger, public state schools.  And as attendances at their annual Spring Games demonstrate, they don’t have an overly large in-state fan base either.  

Rather they  have fans spread out across the United States, and particularly concentrated in areas associated with Catholic, and often specifically Irish, immigration.  New York, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, as well as in some major cities on the west coast.  That is where the freedom of ND’s independent scheduling is so important to the school.  Over 90 years after his death they continues Rockne’s tradition of travelling coast to coast to play road games.  

Current AD, Jack Swarbrick, introduced the ‘Shamrock Series’ to take a home game each season and play it in a range of venues aimed at increasing the visibility of the program in locations considered advantageous to both football recruiting and the promotion of the university.  

A conference schedule, with scope for perhaps at most four, and more likely only three, out of conference games would feel incredibly restricting, after over a century of barnstorming.  Playing 2020 as a full ACC member was both an option the school was grateful to have in the circumstances and also an interesting opportunity to ‘try on for size’ life as a conference member.  And if anything, while it was a curious experience, it only served to strengthen the preference for independence of the majority of fans and people around the program.  

Independence also has specific advantages to the Irish in recruiting.  As well as not having a large in-state fan base, Notre Dame is not situated in prime, fertile recruiting ground.  They have to cast a wider net and recruit nationally, something that it does fairly effectively, and their profile as a national rather than regional program, with a coast to coast schedule, is definitely a help in this regard.