Notre Dame Calls the Tune for the College Football Dance


College football fans hate it, but Notre Dame is the Big Dog and will do as it pleases.

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Missouri head football coach Gary Pinkel has a beef with Notre Dame. With no conference membership, other than a goofy arrangement with the ACC to play a few games, Notre Dame avoids the burden of a conference championship game.

Notre Dame also sets a schedule to its advantage and leverages the Notre Dame brand to inflate its status. The result is a much easier path to the Division 1 football national championship tournament.

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Coach Pinkel receives high marks for challenging the Notre Dame football machine. And like you, I’m pretty sick of the Irish tail – its been wagging the college football dog for a century.

But nothing will change. Ever. Notre Dame is the Big Dog.

Notre Dame’s football wealth is second only to Texas and with it the Irish maintain their independence. Notre Dame is free to do as it pleases. It always will be.

If independence works so well, why don’t others emulate the Irish? Others tried and failed.

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Georgia Tech is the textbook case. After departing the SEC in 1964, Tech spent a decade trying squeeze back in the SEC. Once the biggest name in southern collegiate athletics, Tech fell to the rank of a local joke in two decades before coming off life support thanks to a membership in the ACC.

How did Notre Dame do it?

Notre Dame mastered football.

Notre Dame’s independent success is a contrarian story. In the first half of the Twentieth Century, many university leaders across America perceived football’s rising popularity a distraction to the educational mission. In the vast middle, factions within individual colleges pulled in different directions and football programs lacked direction and focus. Extreme actions included that of the University of Chicago in 1933.

By the 1930s, the University of Chicago’s storied football history included head coach Amos Alonzo Stagg, the first Heisman Trophy winner Jay Berwanger, and a future referee, Bob “Tiny” Maxwell, who is more famous for the award named for him, the Maxwell Award.

Notre Dame University mastered football and it never looked back

But Chicago, a founding member of the Big Ten and six-time football  Big Ten Champion, eventually eliminated football to avoid distractions to the student body and the professors.

In contrast, 40 miles down the road, Notre Dame, either by design or accident, took the opposite approach. The right man’s appearance coincided with football’s rise in national popularity and the nearby Chicago news hub drove Notre Dame to national prominence.

Head Coach Knute Rockne, the right man, went undefeated five times and won two national championships at Notre Dame from 1918 to 1930. In those 12 years Rockne increased the size of Notre Dame’s home stadium from 3000 seats to 54,000. Crowds poured in from Chicago, Notre Dame radio broadcasts pounded the rapidly expanding nearby factory workforce. Notre Dame created a huge fan following seemingly out of thin air and became the darling of the Midwest.

But Rockne did not stop at winning. Rockne upgraded the schedule and he upgraded the venues, playing the best football program in the country, Army, at Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds, making Notre Dame the biggest name in college football.

Rockne backed up his on field success by fiercely defending his football program against accusations of professionalism, illegal pay for players, and overburdening travel. As he publicized his team endlessly, he fended off faculty angered by football’s rise.

Notre Dame University mastered football and it never looked back.

It never will.

By raising the profile of Notre Dame football, Rockne raised the profile of Notre Dame University. Notre Dame, a tiny Catholic college that once admitted as a student Knute Rockne – a postal clerk without a high school diploma – became America’s dominant Catholic educational brand.

Notre Dame’s bread is buttered with football and the Fighting Irish never waver from their commitment to football excellence. They never will.

Notre Dame football will never give an inch to its critics.

Notre Dame is the Big Dog. Win or lose, when Notre Dame howls, college football jumps.

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