Bubba Cunningham began the conversation.
Bill Scholl added additional context.
Then Jack Swarbrick and Brian Kelly brought it to a conclusion.
That’s how Ball State ended up with a football game Saturday against eighth-ranked Notre Dame in Notre Dame Stadium in the first trip to South Bend for the Cardinals.
Cunningham is the former Notre Dame associate athletics director (now the athletics director at North Carolina) who left the Irish to serve as the Ball State athletic director from 2002-05.
Scholl is a one-time Notre Dame senior associate athletics director (now the athletics director at Marquette) who also did a stint in 2012-15 as the Ball State athletics director.
As the Notre Dame scheduling philosophy evolved, Swarbrick (the current Notre Dame vice president and director of athletics) and Kelly (the Irish head football coach) had to determine how to go about locating opponents for the one home game per season (in most years) in which a team would play a game at Notre Dame without that contest being returned as part of a home-and-home series.
As opposed to simply picking teams off a map, the Irish administration decided to talk to programs with some sort of Notre Dame connection.
Enter Cunningham, Scholl and Ball State.
Says Kelly: “We had this game set up with Ball State when Bill (Scholl) was there. It’s one of those games where you try to reward somebody that was part of Notre Dame. We did that with Chuck Martin and Miami of Ohio last year. We’re looking forward to it. It’s an Indiana school that has a lot of players from the state. I’m sure it will be exciting for everybody.”
As Kelly noted, that philosophy is how Miami ended up in South Bend last fall after former Irish offensive coordinator Martin became the head coach in Oxford, Ohio.
That’s also how Nevada played in Notre Dame Stadium in 2016 – with former and current Irish assistant Brian Polian then the head coach at Nevada.
That’s how Massachusetts was added to the 2015 Irish home slate – after former Kelly assistant Charley Molnar took over as the Minuteman head coach.
And next season New Mexico – coached by former Notre Dame head coach Bob Davie – comes to Notre Dame Stadium Sept. 14 to begin the Irish home schedule.
With Ball State providing the opposition Saturday afternoon (3:30 p.m. EDT on NBC), Kelly is just as concerned about evaluating his team after an opening win against 14th-rated Michigan.
“We have an exercise that we use within our program — offense, defense, special teams, support staff, everything that we do — and we call it well-better-learned.
“What have we done well?
“What can we do better?
“And what have we learned?
“I think when we look at the Michigan game, in terms of what we did well, our football team had an accountability and a responsibility to each other that was outstanding. It manifested itself
over seven, eight months in the working, and it showed itself on the sideline.
“It showed itself in the way they played together. There was great communication on the sideline. We had guys that were locked in. They were holding themselves to a high standard. They did that very well. They stuck to our process. When we talk about what they did well, that was great to see.
“What we learned is that we have to finish off an opponent. We had opportunities to put Michigan in a very difficult position, and we did not. So I think we learned a lot from that experience. When we see an opportunity to put an opponent away, we’ve got to have a dominant mindset and be able to do that.
“I think what we can do better is continue to grow the attention to detail on special teams. We have guys that are anxious and need to just continue to just focus on our process and relax and just have an attention to detail. There’s certainly a lot of really good players on that group, but the attention to detail is not where it needs to be. So we’ve got to be better there.
“I think what I’ve also learned about this team is that it’s a confident group. And I could tell that throughout the entire week. I could tell it leading up to the game. They were early for everything. They were not too high, they were not too low. They had an intensity about them.”
Kelly this week termed Ball State quarterback Riley Neal “an NFL prospect.”
“He reminds me a lot of a quarterback that I had at Cincinnati in Tony Pike. He’s 6-5 and 225 pounds. He’s got a live arm. He’s got some nice weapons around him. He’s got three very good backs, all quality backs, and they run them all into the game.
“Justin Hall at the wide receiver position does a lot of really, really good things for them. They’ve got a big tight end that they use. (Ball State head) Coach (Mike) Neu knows what he’s doing. So this is a really good offensive system. They were decimated last year with injuries, so I don’t even think you can count what happened to them last year. But we’ll have to play well. This is a good offensive football team.”
In their 42-6 win Saturday over Central Connecticut State, the Cardinals ran up 652 total yards (336 passing, 316 rushing). It’s a young Ball State team with only nine seniors, second fewest among all NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision squads.
Adds Kelly, “Defensively they’re in a whole new system. They went to a 3-4 defensive structure, so you’re going to see a lot of different things up front, a lot of stunts, a lot of movement, a lot of pressures, different fire zones. They’re going to keep the ball in front of them.
“They’re going to try to eliminate big plays, and with a 3-4 defense with the ability to do a lot of things, it’s a nice challenge with a new scheme that we’re going to see for the first time.”
Kelly hopes the Irish can stay on track this week despite a win over a major rival that jumped the Irish four spots in the polls.
“We have a standard,” he says. “They (the Irish players) know what the standard is, and they have met that standard for the last eight months. They know what our mission is, what our process is, and we’ll continue to reiterate that on a day-to-day basis.
“We play Ball State, but for them it’s a nameless, faceless opponent in the way they go to work every day. They’ll know Ball State’s scheme. They’ll know their players. They’ll know tactically what they need to do, but what overrides that is the standard that they have to live up to as a
program on a day-to-day basis.
“We’ve got a mature group of players that recognizes that it’s really about our preparation. It’s not about Michigan’s preparation or Vanderbilt or Ball State or Virginia Tech or any other teams that we play. It’s really about what we do and how we prepare, our total preparation — they’ve heard this now for the last couple years. If they stick to their process and their preparation, it really doesn’t matter the team that we’re playing.”
As for his team, Kelly noted that there were reasons why quarterback Brandon Wimbush earned the game ball against Michigan – and it had to do with his preparation.
“I think quarterbacks are always going to be judged by decision-making during games, and there will be times where you question a decision here and there. But by and large, he’s been a good decision maker. Accuracy, confidence, those things are on the up. But Brandon was another guy that had a great week of practice. His energy, his demeanor — you could sense that he felt really good about what he was going to do, and I think that’s going to continue to grow.”
Here are details of presentations and introductions that will take place Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium when Notre Dame and Ball State face off:
- The national colors will be presented before the game by John Affleck-Graves and his wife, Rita. The executive vice president of Notre Dame since 2004, Dr. Affleck-Graves recently announced his retirement, effective at the end of June 2019. He is the University’s chief financial officer with oversight of the budget, endowment, human resources, campus safety, construction and numerous other operations. A native of South Africa and naturalized U.S. citizen, Dr. Affleck-Graves has served on the Department of Finance faculty since 1986 and holds the Notre Dame Chair in Finance.
- There will be a pregame flyover by four U.S. Air Force T-6s from the Tigers of the 37th Flying Training Squadron, with the aircrew including Capt. Ben “Sloppy” Scott, Capt. Andrew “Chewi” Zaldivar, Capt. Cody “Droid” Nelson, Maj. Paul Farlow, Capt. Matthew “Ram” Schneider, Capt. Christopher “Latch” Gurrola, Maj. David “Tanck” Frank and Capt. Casey “Mist” Lhamon. The flyover participants will be recognized at the fourth timeout in the third period.
- The Presidential Team Irish Award will be presented to Irish1Card Team students, faculty and staff (first period, third timeout). That team was charged with redesigning the old ID cards of the past and implementing enhancements and efficiencies, as well as re-carding the whole campus community last year – printing about 25,000 new ID cards last year. The outstanding work resulted in the new Irish1Card being rated as the number-one campus tool in a recent ImproveND survey.
- The Irish hockey squad will be recognized Saturday at the end of the first period. Notre Dame’s hockey team took the Big Ten Conference by storm in its first year as a member of that league last winter. As part of an overall 16-game win streak, Jeff Jackson’s team won its first 10 Big Ten contests, claimed the regular-season title and then won the Big Ten Tournament with one-goal victories over Penn State and Ohio State. Next came three straight one-goal NCAA Championship wins over Michigan Tech, Providence and Michigan — on the way to an appearance in the 2018 NCAA national championship game in St. Paul, Minnesota. The Irish were led by goaltender Cale Morris, the Big Ten’s player of the year, MVP of the Big Ten Tournament and the top goaltender in the nation by virtue of the Mike Richter Award. Jackson earned the Spencer Penrose Award as national coach of the year for the second time.
- The student/military recognition this week pays tribute to former retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. William H. Wilkins III, a member of Notre Dame’s MBA Class of 2019 (fourth quarter, second timeout). Wilkins graduated from the University of Georgia in 1996 and was commissioned through Army ROTC as an ordnance officer with assignments domestically and in Italy and Germany. Selected to special operations as a civil affairs officer, he spent 13 years serving in roles of increasing responsibility in Yemen, Qatar, Iraq and Afghanistan. He retired from the Army last year and entered Notre Dame’s MBA program. He and his wife, Audrey, have two children.
- The Notre Dame and Ball State bands will perform at halftime.
- The Notre Dame faculty recognition goes to Ted Beatty, Professor of History (third period, first timeout). Beatty is a founding faculty member of Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs, the first new college or school at the University in nearly a century. As associate dean for academic affairs, Beatty played a key role in developing the curriculum for the Keough School’s master’s program, which challenges students to research, understand and address some of the world’s most pressing problems. His own research has led him to write two books, most recently the award-winning Technology and the Search for Progress in Modern Mexico.
- For the fourth consecutive year, the College Football Playoff Foundation and the University of Notre Dame athletics department have joined forces in the Extra Yard for Teachers Initiative, raising awareness and funds for teachers in underserved Catholic schools around the country (recognized Saturday at second timeout of second quarter). At Notre Dame, those proceeds directly benefit the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) program. Through Dec. 31, gifts made to the ACE program will be matched by the College Football Playoff Foundation. Last season, thanks to this initiative, ACE teachers from 30 different schools, were awarded grants providing the tools they need to help their students succeed. The last three years, Notre Dame finished in first place among the 100 universities who participated, raising over $1.6 Million for ACE. In celebration, please welcome ACE teachers, representatives from the College Football Playoff Foundation and members of the ACE administration. Make a donation to ACE today at supporting.nd.edu/cfpf, or text NDACE to 41444. Message and data rates may apply.
- The official game program for the Notre Dame-Ball State game will include feature stories on the evolving history and tradition of the official Notre Dame plaid and how it’s used by the Band of the Fighting Irish (by John Heisler), former Notre Dame and Ball State player and current FOX Sports producer Brandon Newman (by Karen Croake Heisler), Notre Dame football traditions both known and unknown (by John Heisler), the 2017-18 Irish hockey season that ended in the NCAA title game in St. Paul (by John Fineran), the Carter Work Project (by Dennis Brown) and Irish captain Drue Tranquill (by Joanne Norell).
- The Notre Dame-Ball State pep rally will be held at Eddy Street Commons from 6-7 p.m. Friday. A live band will perform beginning at 4 p.m.
- Fans coming to campus this weekend also can attend Irish softball games at noon and 2 p.m. EDT Sunday against Valparaiso. All other Irish teams are competing out of town this weekend.
- NBC Sports’ coverage of Saturday’s primetime game featuring Notre Dame and Michigan on NBC produced a Total Audience Delivery average of 7.179 million viewers and set numerous viewership milestones, according to Fast National Data provided by Nielsen and Adobe Analytics:
- The game is the most-watched Notre Dame Football on NBC broadcast in 13 years, since the iconic 2005 game vs. USC (10/15/05; 10.072 million);
- NBC’s most-watched primetime Notre Dame game on record;
- NBC’s most-watched Notre Dame season opener in 24 years, and the third most-watched season opener on record, behind 1994 and 1992, both of which were Notre Dame-Michigan games.
In addition, NBC won the night in primetime and was No. 1 in the advertiser-coveted Adult 18-49 demographic. Viewership peaked in the 10:45-11 p.m. ET quarter hour with a 4.54 HH rating and nearly eight million viewers (7.945 million) as the Irish held off the Wolverines’ comeback attempt. The game delivered a 4.01 HH rating.
Viewership of Saturday night’s game was up 73 percent vs. last year’s first primetime Notre Dame game vs. Georgia on NBC (9/9/17; 4.144 million), and up 52 percent vs. the last Notre Dame-Michigan game on NBC in 2014 (9/6/14; 4.667 million).
Digitally, Notre Dame-Michigan ranks as NBC Sports’ most live-streamed Notre Dame game on record, delivering an average minute audience (AMA) of 88,500 viewers, 19.7 million live minutes, and 296,000 uniques. Those metrics are up 69 percent in AMA (52,300 viewers), 61% in live minutes (12.2 million), and 47 percent in uniques (201,000) vs. last year’s primetime Georgia game.
John Heisler, senior associate athletics director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 1978. A South Bend, Indiana, native, he is a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a member of the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame. He is editor of the award-winning “Strong of Heart” series.