Notre Dame's Unique Business Model
Back in 1988, Lou Holtz's Notre Dame Fighting Irish won College Football's National Championship. Notre Dame was arguably College Football's most storied program and 1988 was the year of the famous Catholics vs. Convicts Game.
I don't want to dwell on that specific game today, I want to dwell on the Irish's '88 Schedule.
Michigan (9-2-1) [Won Big 10]
Michigan St (6-5-1)
Air Force (5-7)
Navy (3-8) Rice (0-11)
Penn State (5-6)
USC (10-2) [Won Pac 10]
W. Virginia (11-1)
At the end of the schedule, Notre Dame had won the National Title by beating the best on the East Coast, the best on the West Coast, and the best in the Midwest. Final rankings of their best opponents below:
#2 Miami (Fla)
#5 West Virginia
Notre Dame had the hardest schedule in the nation and it coincided with Notre Dame's last uncontested National Championship. If you look up at a calender, you'll notice that was over 30 years ago.
If there are 125 teams in Division I College Football, and the Fighting Irish are currently ranked #15 in the nation, how does Notre Dame do it? A hundred years of Football excellence. Not so fast, for about a decade around the turn of the millennium, the Irish floundered around like the average Big Ten team that they were. There were overtures to join the league that made geographic sense but Notre Dame thought that they were bigger than any conference.
So today they bypass the conference set up by manipulating the system.
Now Notre Dame's schedule this year was as follows:
New Mexico (2-10)
Georgia (11-2) [SEC Title Game]
Virginia (9-4) [ACC Title Game]
Bowling Green (3-9)
Virginia Tech (8-4)
Navy (9-2) [AAC Division co-champions]
Boston College (6-6)
Their record at the end of the year was 10-2. Which is a very good record.
Notre Dame played 2 teams in the Top 20.
Loss at #5 Georgia
Loss at #14 Michigan
Their strength of schedule was that of a good Big Ten team or a below average Big 12 team. (35th in the nation.)
The above graphic says that Notre Dame is an independent, but they're KINDA an ACC team. What exactly is Notre Dame? Technically they are weasels.
In 2013, Notre Dame signed an agreement to join the ACC, but in football they would remain an independent, yet play a 5-game ACC rotational schedule every year. They also wouldn't have to play in the pesky championship game.
So this year, the champion of the ACC, Clemson, ran the table then beat Virginia in the Championship Game. Their undefeated record placed them in the college football playoffs. Now Brian Kelly may not be happy going 10-2 this year, but the university is very happy. Notre Dame has an exclusive contract to broadcast home games with NBC and Notre Dame collects a stipend from ACC TV money. Notre Dame gets the bragging rights of a 10 win season while padding their coffers.
Notre Dame is the only team in America that doesn't play in a Conference Championship game that is in the conversation for the College Football Division I playoffs. The Fighting Irish prefer a national recruitment strategy over a championship game. Let's play this out for a second, pretend that Notre Dame beat Georgia earlier in the year. Notre Dame would have been 11-1 and arguing for that fourth playoff spot occupied by Oklahoma. Basically scamming the system by having 1 less opportunity to lose or trying to slip in a second team from a weaker conference. (You think those SEC schools are going to sit quietly by as 2 "ACC" schools get in?)
Now you could argue that everyone manipulates their schedule to some degree. Let's use the University of Minnesota for example. They're known as a hockey school (maybe not the last few years, go Minnesota State), but they set up their schedule so they can go 6-6 every year and go to a low level bowl game. They stack the first 3 or 4 games of the season with cupcakes, then hope to go 4-5 in conference to get a nice December paycheck. This year Minnesota outpaced projections, but they set the bar low.
The question should be: How does a school like Ohio State recruit the best high school athletes to a cold weather city? They tell you it's about THE Ohio State University, but it's really about the NFL. Ohio State sells itself as the best way to get to that pro football payday. Their selling point is capitalizing on the dreams of the athletes. Look at all the OSU grads in the big show. That's why OSU doesn't publicly whine when players like Nick Bosa drop out of school and head to the pro ranks.
Notre Dame doesn't do that. They are trying to sell you on the Notre Dame experience. College football steeped with tradition. Knute Rockne, The Gipper, and Rudy. When that doesn't work, then you need some, uh, creative ways to get athletes to the school......
Apparently Buttigieg had to tiptoe around a weirdly specific constituency when he was Mayor, the Fighting Irish Alumni. What makes the Notre Dame boosters happy? A winning football team. How do you have a successful Division I football team in 2019? Tweek the schedule. Now what Notre Dame should have done, a generation ago, was join the Big 10, but the alumni at ND are a powerful force. They wanted winning football without the constraints of a conference schedule. Notre Dame dumped historic rivalries in exchange for an easier path to the college football playoffs.
Now Navy is better than it was a generation ago. A lot better.
But joining the ACC was a curious football decision. Let's give Notre Dame the benefit of the doubt and say the ACC deal was better than the Big 10 deal. Then why not join full time?
If Notre Dame was in the Coastal Division of the ACC this year, this could have potentially been their schedule:
Virginia Tech 8-4
North Carolina 6-6
Georgia Tech 3-9
Non Conference Schedule:
If Notre Dame won the Coastal Division of the ACC, they would have played 12-0 Clemson (at the time) in the ACC Title game with Playoff implications on the line.
Which brings us back to the real world.
You have colleges that play by the NFL Farm Team Model, think Ohio State or Alabama.
You have colleges that play by the College First, Football 2nd Model, think Army or Navy.
You have colleges that are simply happy to still be in Division I, think Akron or Maryland.
But you only have one school that plays by the Per$$$onalized TV Contract/Alumni Relations/Do You Know Who We Are? Model......
You know what? I'm done here. Making Notre Dame split that NBC money with the players would change their business model real quick.