Senior College Football Columnist

Notre Dame in Ireland all part of the brand, football an afterthought


DUBLIN, Ireland -- There is this composite image of a Notre Dame official that smiles a little each time something negative is written about the football program.

Good, he/she thinks, at least they're talking about us.

The alternative is that Notre Dame wouldn't matter. And it definitely matters as the Irish's 124th season opens here Saturday against Navy. Just perhaps not in the way you think. One of the easiest topics to pull out of a backside for a columnist these days is to rip Notre Dame. The subject is becoming cliché.

Within the walls of the university there is a supreme confidence that nothing you know about Notre Dame, aside from football, is mediocre. Unranked -- and in a lot of places unloved -- but still an independent giant. Mediocre football, be damned.

Sorry about the language Fr. Jenkins, for I have sinned ...

As long as we're in the confessional mood, let's cleanse our souls. As the howls grow louder about Notre Dame's reserved spot at the BCS table, even that criticism is an argument unto itself. Notre Dame, like the Yankees and Texas, is an easy target. They have all built brands that endure through peaks and valleys of success on the field.

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The criticism focuses on the obvious: Notre Dame hasn't been to a major bowl in six years -- or that it is scrambling to find a reliable quarterback or that in Year 3, Brian Kelly is still seeking secure footing.

It also misses this nugget: This is almost the perfect Notre Dame season. The Irish play one of their toughest schedules ever in terms of opponents, travel and challenge. There are games in Dublin, Norman (against Oklahoma), Chicago (against Miami) and Los Angeles (against Southern California). That's before mentioning games against preseason No. 8 Michigan and No. 13 Michigan State. If that's not enough, Stanford (No. 7 in 2011) and BYU (10 wins in 2011) come to South Bend.

"Week after week of remarkable experiences, unfortunately very tough opponents," said athletic director Jack Swarbrick. "If you're going to be independent, be independent. Take advantage of it.

"[Taking these games outside the country is] all about the university. It has nothing to do with football."

If you have to be told again, all of the above is why Notre Dame won't be joining a conference anytime soon. This current five-year stretch (32 wins) is the program's worst since the first half of the 1960s. At the same time there is no evidence that the school's $15 million-per-year deal with NBC won't be renewed for something north of $15 million per year.

In these so-called "down" times, Notre Dame is Adidas' largest private-school client. Critics panned the new Shamrock Series uniforms but -- see above -- at least you noticed. The program has its own standalone time slot against a punching-bag opponent Saturday on national broadcast television.

How big a deal is that? The last time Notre Dame and Navy played in Ireland, the game was tape delayed in the U.S.

The Irish will share the revenue (along with the 10 FBS conferences) in a separate bid piece for the playoff beginning in 2014. The access bowls (Fiesta, Sugar and others yet to be determined) will be bundled with the national semifinals and championship for a TV rights holder. In that sense, nothing has changed. Major-college football is more valuable with Notre Dame as a part of it because you pay attention.

The networks aren't interested in a playoff without Notre Dame. Not because of what it is on the field at the moment, because of what it represents. The Longhorn Network has a footprint (so far shaky) in Texas. Notre Dame has the entire country.

"A lot of people have written columns that have said, 'If we want to play for a national championship we'd have an easier route in a conference,'" Swarbrick said. "I think there is probably a good argument to be made there."

But that's all it is, an argument. In a conference, Notre Dame would be locked into traveling to the likes of Ames, Iowa and Manhattan, Kan. In a conference, ND would have to share some of that revenue it produces on its own. And if you look around campus, there has been a lot of revenue lately.

There is a new façade on and renovation of the basketball arena. One of Swarbrick's personal triumphs is the new Compton Family Ice Center. (You've got to get one of the "Straight Outta Compton" t-shirts from the pro shop.) He personally lobbied officials to put down two sheets of ice so there could be more access for leagues, teaching and public sessions.

That's why Notre Dame is playing here this weekend, played Army in New York in 2010 and had planned on playing Stanford in China.

"My partner," Swarbrick said of former Stanford AD Bob Bowlsby, "became Big 12 commissioner."

The plan is on hold, not dead. Becoming a traveling road show in the early days is how Notre Dame became a worldwide brand. In that sense, Notre Dame looks more like Knute Rockne's Irish than Brian Kelly's.

"We've gone back to square one," Swarbrick said of the scheduling philosophy. "There are places where Notre Dame has a special presence because there are strongholds for the Holy Cross Order. We need to think very expansive. I thought that before we went to Dublin. The interest in this is like something we've never seen."

The Irish people have taken to the Irish team. The game at 50,000-seat Aviva Stadium is a sellout. Having to lug his program across the Atlantic, Kelly is on record as saying, "I'm not a big fan of playing football games in Ireland."

Sorry, Brian, you don't have much of a say. The game in 1996 drew less than half of the capacity of 82,000-seat Croke Park. Officials said this time the game would have easily sold out in the larger venue.

And for the future, Hong Kong has plenty of American ex-pat football fans.

"You're bringing Notre Dame to a city," Swarbrick reminded, "you're not bringing a game."

That traveling road show can't happen, as often, in a conference. Much of the conference speculation has centered around the ACC. The talk being ND could spread that brand from South Florida to the Northeast.

"If I were [ACC commissioner John] Swofford or Bowlsby, I'd go to a TV partner and ask, 'What are you going to pay me if I bring Notre Dame in?'" one industry source said. "Let's say the number, on average, is $25 million per school. Now you back to Notre Dame and say, 'You're making $17 million with NBC. Join the conference, we've protected your Olympic sports -- to which Notre Dame is nervous as hell about -- you're in a conference, you're going to make $25 million and what's the downside?'"

It isn't that simple. Notre Dame isn't going to do its own network because it doesn't need to -- and because it can't.

"We'll never have something like the Longhorn Network," Swarbrick said. "I'm a fan of the model but they have geography working for them. They have 10-12 million households in Texas. That's their distribution footprint. I have interest everywhere but I don't have concentrated interest that I can sell to a cable company."

Swarbrick is in love with the idea of the athletic department's reconfigured website and its possibilities. He had a revelation during the Olympics. Millions of people not only watched events live during the day on the Internet but turned in later to watch them again in prime time.

That convinced Swarbrick that viewers wanted to see how events were "packaged." Watching a faceless world feed is one thing. Watching NBC tell the cute gymnasts' stories and chronicle the swimmers' dominance is another.

"It's going to reinforce a trend that has already really begun, and that is to expand access," Swarbrick said. "You might stream the locker room. The [regular] broadcast is not going to be able to fit that in. Before you watch the Notre Dame game, the first hour of game-related material you may be accessing online."

That's going to be Notre Dame in the future -- on the Internet, on your IPad, on NBC Sports Network.

Football? It has to get better for Kelly, or any Notre Dame coach, to keep his job. Until then, we're writing, you're reading and, check Saturday's ratings. Bet you're still watching.

Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.

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