Irish talk of softening schedule a little

Originally Published: September 23, 2004
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

Notre Dame vs. Louisiana-Monroe? Notre Dame vs. Eastern Michigan? Notre Dame vs. UAB?

Affronts to tradition? Sure.

Out of the question? Not hardly.

College football's peculiar institution -- which bows to no conference commissioner, has its own network and grazes from coast to coast for prestigious opponents -- could be changing its scheduling philosophy. Realizing the value of seven (or even eight) home games as a source of revenue and victories, Notre Dame is weighing whether to significantly modify its perennially ambitious schedule.

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"It's being slow-played internally right now," said Notre Dame associate athletic director John Heisler, who confers with athletic director Kevin White on scheduling. "... We have some ability to get to seven home games by 2009, but we don't know if we can do that without doing some drastic things, and walking away from things that are already penciled in.

"If we get to a permanent 12-game schedule, we could be looking at eight relationships home-and-home, and four others to come to South Bend."

The reward to those schools most likely would be "a generous guarantee, with TV part of the guarantee," Heisler said, plus the rare chance to visit the college game's premier shrine. Then the bought visitors would be expected to take their beating and go home, while furthering Notre Dame's chances of making a BCS bowl.

Even beyond the payday that every home game offers, BCS money dangles out there like a powerball in waiting. And as Heisler pointed out, the days of Notre Dame making the Fiesta Bowl with a 6-4-1 record, as it did in the 1990s, are long gone. The Fighting Irish aren't going to the richest bowls without nine or 10 wins, and lining up a few sure things would help.

The trick will be fitting them into the existing template.

Although it would seem that scheduling at Notre Dame is easier than a lot of places, given the lack of conference constraints, that isn't necessarily true. Being an independent means that the league office doesn't hand you a ready-made list of eight games, half at home and half on the road.

"We've got 11 dates to figure out," Heisler said.

And the Irish are constrained by other teams' conference schedules. Big Ten opponents, for example, must be worked in early, since the league generally avoids out-of-conference games during October and November. (Purdue being the exception this season, with that game slated for Oct. 2.) Big East, ACC and SEC schools have been willing to fill in the later dates.

Then there is the Michigan Issue. This year the Irish hustled to finagle its game at BYU from Oct. 30 to Sept. 4, so they would have a game under their belt before playing the rival Wolverines. Notre Dame lost the battle to the Cougars but won the war against Michigan.

Next year presents the same situation, with Michigan opening on Sept. 3 and Notre Dame not scheduled to play until Sept. 10 in Ann Arbor. Expect to see a game moved into that Sept. 3 slot -- most likely a home game.

The entire 2005 schedule is, as it stands now, a strange one. It calls for Notre Dame to open with four out five games on the road, then play a five-game home stand. Don't look for that to last.

"We kind of look at that, and it doesn't seem to be the perfect rotation," Heisler said. "Opening with four out of five on the road, I'm not sure too many head coaches are going to be happy with that."

As it stands now, Notre Dame has seven solid annual opponents: Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue, Stanford, Navy, Boston College and Southern Cal. The Irish have worked a nifty rotation with the Cardinal and Trojans, bringing one to South Bend every October and visiting the other in late November, pretty much ensuring that Notre Dame will end its regular season in California every year.

But outside of those opponents, nothing is set in stone in South Bend. Notre Dame has never played a Sun Belt Conference team and hasn't played a team from the current Mid-American Conference since 1920, but visits from directional and hyphenated schools could be on the horizon.

Pat Forde is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.

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