Notre Dame — backed into a corner?

Despite all the schools that could be affected by the giant ash cloud of major conference realignment being discussed, the central figure is Notre Dame, and that school alone could have the biggest influence on the scope of the expansion to come.

Notre Dame has been at the top of the Big Ten’s wish list for a twelfth member, and it’s possible — though who knows how likely — that if the Irish were to agree to become that member, that the Big Ten might be content with that lineup.

Notre Dame, of course, isn’t going to make that move unless it has to. What would force its hand?

The destruction of the Big East.

This past weekend, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick told a group of alumni that the school had two priorities in all this:

1. Maintain football independence
2. Support the Big East (which is the home for the rest of its athletic teams)

It may well be that Notre Dame can’t do both.

If Notre Dame insists on a path of independence, the Big Ten likely will come for at least three Big East members, and the rest of that conference will wither on the vine.

You can talk about adding new football schools all you want, but there simply aren’t enough available options to make the league as strong as it would need to be. While conference commissioner John Marinatto has a plan, and he’s a capable leader, even the biggest Big East fan in the nation, former commissioner Mike Tranghese, sounded doubtful.

He didn’t want to say “no” when asked if he thought a Marinatto plan could work. But here’s what he did say. “I don’t know. I think when you have departures you get into emotions and multiple agendas. I went through it and wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. Every day it’s heartburn and a significant amount of pressure. I was lucky enough when it happened to have tremendous presidential support.”

The problem now is that one of the key presidents providing that support now is among those who could be headed to the Big Ten.

So back to Notre Dame. Faced with the loss of a home for all of its non-football sports — an athletic program that is one of the nation’s strongest overall — it would have to think about what is best for its total sports package.

Swarbrick has already said that the school’s hand might be forced by “seismic” shifts in the college landscape. Might the school see the shifting landscape and decide that it, in the end, will have two choices? Join a 16-team Big Ten or a 12-team Big Ten?

It just seems to me that Notre Dame has a choice to make. It’s not a slam-dunk that the Big East would survive if Notre Dame left to join the Big Ten alone. But this much looks sure — the Big East looks like the key to the Big Ten luring Notre Dame — either by its break-up, or the threat of its break-up.

One last note. The inevitable question I get is why wouldn’t Notre Dame join the Big East in football? I think it’s self-explanatory when you look at the two leagues in question, Big Ten vs. Big East, but I’ll let Tranghese speak to it (again from his radio interview):

Not going to happen. Never going to happen. Notre Dame is not going to play football in the Big East. When they were brought in in 1995, that conversation was held at the time. . . . They made it clear they had no interest in football, and they have never deviated from that. People have said to me, “Why don’t you throw them out (of the Big East)?” What are you going to throw them out for? They’ve been a good member. They’ve done everything they were asked to do. And they’re going to have to make a decision of their own. They keep talking about being an independent in football, but if all of a sudden something crazy happens to the Big East, Notre Dame could be left out in the cold with nowhere to go. So the question that remains open is, it might be in Notre Dame’s best interests to go to the Big Ten, and that’s the other part of this whole scenario that’s going to have to play out.

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