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Notre Dame

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Playoff might force change for Notre Dame

Swarbrick

Anytime a Bowl Championship Series meeting is held, it involves 11 conference commissioners and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick.

Anytime a story about college football and the BCS is written, there will be at least one reference to “11 conference commissioners and Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick.”

So what’s wrong with this picture?

Nothing, really.

Yet I wonder how much longer Notre Dame will be able to remain on an island before it gets washed away by a tidal wave of change.

When the BCS was born in 1998, Notre Dame became a part of it simply because of what it was.

The most major of major independents, Notre Dame signed a television contract with NBC in 1991, giving the Peacock the right to televise all of its home games.

Talk about a rich history: From Knute Rockne to Frank Leahy to Ara Parseghian and Lou Holtz, the team that plays in the shadow of Touchdown Jesus has a college football tradition that is almost sacred.

It’s easy to see why the Irish were given most-favored-program status by the leaders of what was once called Division I. While there were other conferences that would send their champion to a BCS bowl (and all the money it brings), Notre Dame could get an automatic bid by finishing in the top eight of the BCS standings.

That setup rankled some. But for the millions of Irish fans, it seemed like a birthright.

After all, South Bend was the center of the college football universe for many, many years.

But in the rapidly evolving world of big-time school-sponsored football – a billion-dollar business – the Fighting Irish business model doesn’t seem to work so well anymore.

As painful as it is for fans to admit, this team hasn’t been a national-championship contender since 1993, when the Irish finished 11-1 and No. 2 in the final Associated Press poll.

In fact, the Irish haven’t ended the season in the AP Top 25 since 2006, and haven’t cracked the top 10 since 2005 when they wound up 9-3.

Tradition is great: Rockne, Gipper – even Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger, if you like your legends with a side of cheese – make wonderful memories. They always will and should be a source of pride for the school’s supporters.

But the times they are a changin’.

For modern college football fans, Rockne and Co. are but grainy, black-and-white images of a time long gone.

All of those national championships – and if you count every one from every single source, they number 13 – serve as reminders of old days that were better days.

The marriage between Notre Dame and NBC is showing signs of strain.

The deal runs through 2015, but Nielson ratings have tumbled steadily as the Irish have tumbled from perennial title contenders to just another team. The 2011 game against Air Force drew a 1.1 rating – the lowest on NBC for a contest involving the Irish.

Notre Dame would prefer to remain an independent in football, and you can’t fault school officials for wanting their program and brand to stand alone.

But the BCS is going just as playoffs are coming, and super-conferences are the future of major-college football.

When it comes to TV, the major leagues will continue to get richer and those out of the loop will be out of luck.

With all the dizzying changes taking place in the Football Bowl Subdivision, it’s no time to be stranded on an island.

As it stands now, Notre Dame runs the risk of being a castaway.

Scott Adamson writes for the Anderson (S.C.) Independent-Mail. His columns appear periodically in The Journal Gazette.

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