The obvious answer to this question is, “Well, most schools aren’t in the Big Ten.”
One could just as easily ask, “Why isn’t Cincinnati in the Big Ten,” or, “Why isn’t Ball State in the Big Ten?” (Actually, don’t be surprised when you see my “Why isn’t Iowa State in the Big Ten?” article.)
But Notre Dame is different.
Not only is Notre Dame situated near the center of the Big Ten’s geographical footprint, but it also has existing football rivalries with Michigan, Michigan State, and Purdue.
Notre Dame is third on the list of the all-time winningest college football program, joining Big Ten schools Michigan, Ohio State, and Penn State in the top ten. (I’m focusing on football because football was largely responsible for the formation of the major athletic conferences and because football continues to drive conference expansion and realignment today.)
The Big Ten, more than any other major conference, cherishes and guards its academic reputation. And Notre Dame, by almost any measure, is an academically elite institution.
More significantly, the Big Ten wants Notre Dame.
The richest conference in America—a league that dominates the region in which Notre Dame resides and whose members get to be part of a prestigious collective of top-flight research universities—has been courting Notre Dame for two decades, and America’s favorite Catholic football-playing university has consistently responded, “No thanks. We’re good.”
Last weekend, Syracuse and Pittsburgh announced their intentions to leave the Big East for the ACC. Rumor has it that Connecticut and Rutgers could follow.
Notre Dame needs the Big East to provide a home for it’s non-football programs. Were the Big East, as we know it now, to fall apart (and it looks now like it probably won’t), the Irish could find themselves in need of a new conference for their basketball, baseball, softball, soccer, and Olympic sports teams.
Notre Dame may even have to eschew football independence to maintain an affiliation with a major conference. (I doubt that we’ll hear Father Jenkins announce in a press conference, “We’ve decided to join the Horizon League in all sports except football.”)
The ESPN ticker on Monday cited sources who said that, if Notre Dame football were to join a conference, it would join the ACC, not the Big Ten. Yahoo’s Dan Whetzel earlier this week wrote a column explaining why Notre Dame should head for the ACC. He cites population trends (Rust Belt states are growing slowly or not at all, while southern and mid-Atlantic states are blowing up) and argues that Notre Dame would stand out as the ACC’s top game day destination (as opposed to being in the Big Ten, where the Irish would have to compete for that distinction with Michigan, Ohio State, Wisconsin, etc.).
In the ACC Notre Dame would join former rivals Miami and Florida State and private, sectarian schools such as Duke and Boston College.
Would Notre Dame really join the ACC before the Big Ten, given its location and historic rivalries? For that matter, why isn’t Notre Dame in the Big Ten already? The Irish played a century’s worth of elite football in the middle of the Big Ten’s neighborhood. Why didn’t the league bring in Notre Dame decades ago?
There have been times when Notre Dame would have done anything short of blasphemy to get into the Big Ten, and there have been times when the Big Ten would have done anything short of renaming itself the Archdiocese of Football to add Notre Dame to its roster. But there has never been an occasion when both parties were interested in each other at the same time.
When the presidents of Northwestern, Purdue, and the Universities of Chicago, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin founded the Intercollegiate Conference of Faculty Representatives (later known as the Big Ten) in 1896, Notre Dame—though growing in prestige and enrollment—was just one of many private, sectarian universities in the Midwest.
In 1887 a group of football players from the University of Michigan taught the game to Notre Dame students. Though Notre Dame’s football team had some success in the late nineteenth century, the program was hardly remarkable.
That changed in 1913 when Jesse Harper took over as head football coach. In Harper’s first season, Notre Dame scored wins over national powers Army, Penn State, and Texas. In 5 seasons under Harper, Notre Dame went 34-5-1.
The program’s success continued after Knute Rockne took over as head coach in 1918. During Rockne’s tenure, Notre Dame completed five undefeated seasons and won the 1925 Rose Bowl.
In 1926 Notre Dame, having established itself as the home of one of the nation’s elite football programs, applied for admission to the Big Ten. The league had expressed interest in expansion and was considering adding Michigan State. Rockne visited the Big Ten schools, making his case for Notre Dame. Michigan was opposed to adding the Catholic school from South Bend; Chicago and Illinois weren’t warm to the idea either.
(Chicago football coach Amos Alonzo Stagg accused Notre Dame of using its prep school as a four-year training program for its football team. In truth, Notre Dame no longer operated a prep school by the time it applied for Big Ten membership. Michigan coach Fielding Yost accused Notre Dame of developing players for five or six years in its intramural program before promoting them to varsity.)
Though the student paper at the University of Minnesota published an editorial in favor of adding Notre Dame and Nebraska (and changing the name of the conference to the Big 12), the league voted 6-4 against expansion. Opposition to Notre Dame could have stemmed from anti-Catholic prejudice, a dislike of Rockne, rumors of impropriety, or a combination of the three. And even then there were some in the Notre Dame community who didn’t want the school to give up its athletic independence.
(You can read the full account of Notre Dame’s 1926 appeal for Big Ten admission in chapter 23 of Shake Down the Thunder, available through Google Books.)
When the University of Chicago left the Big Ten in 1946, Notre Dame—along with Nebraska, Iowa State, Pittsburgh, and Marquette—were considered as possible replacements. In 1949 the league settled on Michigan State.
A Changing Landscape
Notre Dame and the Big Ten would flirt with each other again, perhaps most notably in 1999.
Today only 4 Division I-FBS schools are independent in football: Notre Dame, Army (which was a football-only member of Conference USA before the Great Realignment of 2004–2005), Navy (which the Big East was reportedly preparing to invite as a football-only member before Pitt and Syracuse bolted), and BYU (which left the Mountain West earlier this year and is reportedly one of the top schools on the Big 12’s wish list). All four schools are members of conferences for all sports other than football. (Notre Dame is in the Big East; Army and Navy are in the Patriot League; and BYU is in the West Coast Conference.)
As recently as the early 1990s, there was nothing unusual about being an independent, in football or in general. 26 schools were football independents during the 1990 season, among them Notre Dame, Florida State, Penn State, Miami, South Carolina, Virginia Tech, and West Virginia.
The following year the Big East decided to sponsor football and welcomed former independents Miami, Rutgers, Temple, Virginia Tech, and West Virginia as football-only members. Penn State would soon join the Big Ten, Florida State the ACC, and South Carolina the SEC. Louisville, Cincinnati, Memphis, Southern Mississippi, and Tulane would form Conference USA.
Television dollars were largely responsible for the change in landscape.
From the birth of television until the 1980s, the NCAA negotiated all television contracts for its member schools. After a series of legal battles (including one spearheaded by Notre Dame itself), member schools won the ability to enter into their own agreements with television networks. Since TV networks preferred negotiating with conferences instead of with dozens of individual schools, many independent schools decided they were better off joining leagues.
But Notre Dame didn’t need a conference to strike a football deal with NBC in 1991.
Before long Notre Dame was the only high-profile football program to maintain its independence. In 1995, the Irish joined the Big East in all sports other than football.
“Catholic, Private, Independent”
Meanwhile the Big Ten, which had added Penn State as an eleventh member, was courting Notre Dame as a twelfth. In December 1998 the university’s Faculty Senate voted 24-5 in favor of pursuing membership in the Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC), the academic wing of the Big Ten.
The Big Ten schools, along with the University of Chicago (who left the league in 1946) founded the CIC in 1958 as a research cooperative. But the cost of joining the CIC would be Notre Dame’s athletic teams—and particularly the football team—joining the Big Ten, and that was not a price that the school was willing to pay.
In February 1999 then Notre Dame president Father Edward Malloy released a statement including the following:
The process of sharing information with the Big Ten and CIC has been of great value to Notre Dame. It encouraged us to consider a variety of issues integral to our pursuit of academic and athletic excellence, as well as to our distinct mission as a Catholic university. We have great respect for both the academic stature and the athletic integrity of the Big Ten universities.
Why, then, not take the ultimate step in partnership and become a member of the Big Ten? That answer, in the end result, transcends the many individual factors, academic and athletic, that weigh either for or against conference affiliation. Ultimately, the answer lies in the institutional identity of Notre Dame, its overarching definition. Just as the Universities of Michigan or Wisconsin or Illinois have core identities as the flagship institutions of their states, so Notre Dame has a core identity, and at that core are these characteristics—Catholic, private, independent.
Malloy noted that Notre Dame would have been, by far, the smallest Big Ten member. Northwestern, who has an undergraduate population similar to Notre Dame’s has three-times as many postgraduates.
Notre Dame also would have been the only Big Ten school with a religious affiliation. (Northwestern was founded by the Methodist Episcopal Church but severed formal ties with the church decades ago.) All of the existing Big Ten schools—save Nebraska, which got booted earlier this year—are members of the American Association of Universities (AAU), a collective of 59 of the top research universities in North America.
When you look at the AAU’s roster, you’ll notice that many of the nation’s best religiously affiliated schools, including Notre Dame, are not on it. The Catholic University of America, for instance, left the AAU in 2002, saying, “it has become clear that CUA and the vast majority of AAU institutions are moving forward but on different trajectories.”
Last year Notre Dame’s student senate adopted a resolution opposing membership in the Big Ten and CIC. The resolution expressed “concern about Notre Dame aligning itself with 11 other Midwestern universities ‘who do not embody our unique national, Catholic and undergraduate characteristics.’ ” Students feared that membership in a regional conference might threaten the school’s identity as a national university (which doesn’t make sense to me, but whatever) and that membership in the CIC—which emphasizes research and graduate programs—would threaten the school’s emphasis on undergraduate education.
At any rate, Notre Dame’s decision to remain independent and reject the Big Ten’s overtures is about more than just football.
If the Big East had imploded earlier this week, as some assumed it would, Notre Dame would have a tough decision to make. But as long as the Big East remains a viable basketball (and field hockey, etc.) conference, as long as the Big East doesn’t give Notre Dame a join-us-in-football-or-leave ultimatum, and as long as NBC agrees to broadcast Notre Dame football, the Irish have no need for the Big Ten (or the ACC, for that matter).
But if you’ve ever wondered why they didn’t join the Big Ten at some other point in history, now you know.
Josh Tinley is the author of Kneeling in the End Zone: Spiritual Lessons From the World of Sports. Follow him at twitter.com/joshtinley or send him an e-mail.