Commentary

Longhorns to rescue for Notre Dame

Big Ten tried to smoke out Irish, but Texas' pull preserved independence in South Bend

Updated: June 15, 2010, 5:46 PM ET
By Wes Morgan | ESPNChicago.com

Right about now, the mother of all gift baskets is en route to Austin, Texas, courtesy of the Big East Conference. Kansas State's College of Agriculture is devoting its entire research budget to Bevo's diet. Affluent Notre Dame alumni are trading their Mercedes-Benz hood ornaments for gold-plated longhorns.

Texas announced Monday it was sticking with the Big 12 and the league's other feared defectors, Texas Tech, Texas A&M, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, followed suit. Order, so it seems, has been restored to what was beginning to look like an apocalyptic free-for-all that would have made "Mad Max" look like a cute bedtime story.

And right about now, a defeated Jim Delany is just plain mad. The Big Ten commissioner, who lit the fuse on the Summer of Panic, was, in my opinion, content to start a national brushfire if it meant smoking the Fighting Irish out of their cherished independence.

That's what it was really about -- not Nebraska. Delany wanted Irish eyes glued to the Big Ten Network -- a national audience that would have required Al Gore, a laser-pointer and a hydraulic lift to measure the bump in the league's projected television revenue.

Adding Notre Dame to the Big Ten stable also would have made possible a lucrative conference championship. Meeting those two goals likely would have satisfied Delany.

But the entire free world knew that Notre Dame wasn't budging. So Delany had to ratchet the threat level up to 16. Still, ND athletic director Jack Swarbrick appeared to shrug off what he must have perceived as a bluff when Delany announced plans to expand by as many as five teams over the next 12 to 18 months.

Problem was, Pac-10 commissioner Larry Scott didn't shrug it off. Scott struck first by poaching Colorado, then flashed leg to every other Big 12 member worth taking.

Delany pounced and scooped up Nebraska quickly. Welcome to the league, Cornhuskers. Did I say 18 months?

Then it was Texas -- the coveted Burnt Orange cash factory -- that was on the clock, with the future of major college sports hanging in the balance. Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe, thanks to the 11th-hour television contract he brokered heavily in UT's favor, persuaded the Longhorns to stay, pulling the parking break on wholesale conference realignment.

Calm in South Bend. A good night's rest for Swarbrick, who sidestepped the "seismic" change that would have eventually forced his hand to accept the Big Ten's invitation.

It was coming, faster than proud Irish fans want to admit. Had the Longhorns migrated west and the Pac-10 reached mega status, Delany would have mugged the Big East to keep pace, leaving Notre Dame's non-football sports homeless. It's hard to believe any league of leftovers and misfits would have provided the Irish part-time shelter.

Rejecting Delany could have spelled disaster for Notre Dame in terms of football scheduling if the commissioner were to encourage league members to turn their backs on South Bend.

"I was very excited to hear that Texas held together the Big 10 or Big 12 or whatever you're calling it," first-year coach Brian Kelly told ESPN's Bruce Feldman on Tuesday morning. "I thought it was pretty telling. Obviously, if Texas goes to the Pac-10, there's a chance that there are super conferences and they'll cast a big shadow -- I would have been nervous whether we could've stayed on the sidelines.

"Now, if things stabilize, nothing really happened in the Pac-10 if you look at it: USC Trojans went on probation, the best quarterback got kicked off the Oregon Ducks' team and they took the Colorado Buffaloes. That's not such a big deal for me. The Nebraska Cornhuskers went to the Big Ten. Nothing else occurred for me to be nervous. Texas was obviously a huge piece."

Now that everyone's heart rates have dropped to safe levels, the truth about just how severely Notre Dame's independence was threatened came to light. Even Kelly, who followed the developments closely every day "just like everybody else has," was sweating through the tremors.

Swarbrick stood his ground as it gave way beneath him, though he was probably getting ready to pull the trigger until Texas put an end to the madness. The greed that started it all wound up saving ND from limping into the Big Ten as the 16th team.

Delany's stewing. Irish fans are rejoicing.

Hail Mary and Hook 'em Horns!

Wes Morgan covers Notre Dame for ESPNChicago.com.

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