Irish Scheduling Anything but Luck of the Draw

By Brad Prendergast

With each game, the talent of tailback Autry Denson has mademore and more people take notice. And with newly establishedtrends in the scheduling for Notre Dame, more people nationwidewill be able to see the Irish’s top rusher play.

Why else would the likes of Arizona State and Louisiana State- not the typical names on a Notre Dame schedule – be listed asopponents on future dockets?

The Sun Devils and Tigers stand out as sore thumbs among themore familiar names on the Irish schedules in recent years, butAssistant Athletic Director George Kelly says there’s a reasonfor playing those teams. According to Kelly, who develops theschedules for the football team, a three-pronged plan is usedwhen finding teams for the Irish to play. First and foremost, hesaid, Notre Dame looks to maintain a highly competitiveschedule. And that includes trying to play teams – such asStanford, Northwestern and Vanderbilt – that share a similarethos about education while also providing a high level ofcompetition on the field. Then the athletic department tries toselect opponents that provide alumni around the country with anopportunity to watch the Irish in action. But, said Kelly, it’shard work.

“Being an independent, we have to work with a little morezest,” Kelly said. “We try our darndest to satisfy all thepockets of alumni around the country.”

And, of course, the visits to various parts of the countrydon’t exactly hurt the Irish’s recruiting chances, either. NotreDame benefits a great deal from the ability to guarantee thatall home games will be televised nationally and that the awaygames are usually aired, too, said Kelly. But making a visit toa recruit’s home state can sometimes make the difference inwinning him over.

“It’s important for a recruit to know thatwe’ll be coming in to his backyard,” Kelly said. “That certainlywill have some influence.” As a result, the Irish will beplaying schools in top recruiting states such as Texas andFlorida more often in the future. Baylor, based in Waco, Tex.,makes an appearance on the schedule beginning in 1998, and theIrish are set to play a game against Navy in Orlando, Fla., in2000.

The series against Navy has developed some added benefitsfor Notre Dame. Besides continuing a long-standing traditionbetween the Irish and the Midshipmen, a recent trend establishedby the Naval Academy allows the Irish to play a game in anotherregion of the country each year. That trend begins thisNovember, when the two teams move their annual contest toDublin, Ireland.

Future schedules call for the Irish andMidshipmen to play in Washington D.C. in 1998 and Orlando in2000. Each of those games do not count among the traditional sixhome games scheduled for the Irish. Rather, the games are mostlyorganized by Navy as a means to ensure that the Midshipmen candraw a big enough gate to make the series financially rewardingfor both sides, Kelly said. Noting the costs involved intransporting players and equipment across the country, Kellysaid Notre Dame must be certain that the gate receipts will makea game against any team worthwhile. Not only is the Irishfootball team expected to cover its own costs, but the athleticdepartment also relies on the team to provide for Notre Dame’snon-revenue sports. That expectation, Kelly said, comes fromstaunch desire to make sure the athletic side of the Universitydoes not detract from the academics.

“Football is the bell-cowthat funds the gender-equity sports,” Kelly said. “The day thatathletic (funding) takes away from the academics at thisUniversity is a day that I don’t want to see.

“The exposure innew regions of the country created by the Navy series will becomplemented by changes in what teams the Irish will play.Beginning near the turn of the century, teams like FloridaState, Maryland, Duke, North Carolina and Virginia may begin toappear on the Irish schedule. “The ACC (Atlantic CoastConference) is very anxious to include us in their schedule,”Kelly said.

In the athletic department, prosperity in the finances andcompetitiveness on the field go hand in hand, which is whyfuture schedules continue the tradition of including top-notchprograms. Besides Florida State, schedules after 1999 alsoinclude Nebraska, Tennessee, Texas A&M and the traditionallyscheduled powers of Southern Cal – which could very easilyremain on the schedule perpetually, Kelly said – and Michigan.

Thankfully, Notre Dame won’t play all those teams in the sameyear. “We are always interested in maintaining a competitiveschedule,” Kelly said, noting that the chance always remainsthat a school which is competitive when the contract is signedwill not be competitive when the game is actually played.

“But by and large, with the people we have on this schedule,there is a good chance they’ll remain competitive,” he added.The Wolverines and Michigan State return to the schedule after atwo-year hiatus beginning in 1997.

Kelly also stated that the University of Miami has approachedNotre Dame about renewing a rivalry that became heated in themid- to late-1980s. “They have approached us, but whether or notwe can work them in, I don’t know,” he said.

Kelly stressed that Notre Dame has recognized the stridesMiami has made in cleaning up its program in recent years. “Wecertainly respect their new leadership and their efforts. Ittakes time to make amends for errors in judgment.

“We want to play people that will bring people that arerespectful,” Kelly continued. “We have to be careful of that,and I think we are. You can have a great rivalry withoutprofanity.”

Schedules have been completed for every year up through 2002,said Kelly, but won’t be released until all contracts with theother schools are finalized.

Other dates have already been planned through 2007, but Kellynoted that, in the complicated world of football scheduling,those dates could possibly change.

“To get a team on the schedule, you have to work around theiropenings and yours,” Kelly said. “You have to have somecooperation.” Being an independent also makes scheduling alittle more interesting for Notre Dame. And the changing face ofconferences nation-wide adds another twist to the puzzle.

For example, the merging of the Big Eight and four teams fromthe now-defunct Southwest Conference means those schools havefewer dates with which to try to schedule Notre Dame.

“With the Big 12, it removes those teams (from being possibleIrish opponents) for nine weeks out of the year,” Kelly said.But in the end, the Irish still hold one impressive drawingcard. “Because of our TV situation (with NBC), we are in aposition where we are fortunate enough to bargain,” Kelly said.