SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick is an articulate man who is gracious with reporters, but he also knows that the subject of conference expansion is a complicated topic that presently is grounded almost entirely in speculation.
That absence of substance meant reporters spent a lot of time casting hooks baited with hypothetical situations toward Swarbrick and the conference commissioners who were gathered for three days of BCS meetings this week.
The bait provoked a few sniffs, but no real, on the record bites.
"There's enormous risk in trying to articulate hypotheticals," explained Swarbrick, repeating the ultimate mantra of the meetings.
Massive change may be ahead in college football with the Big Ten leading the way. "Super" conferences may be the future. But the endgame isn't clear. Nor is how the first ripples will break.
Swarbrick and Notre Dame could make everything easy by becoming the Big Ten's 12th team, but man, institution and fanbase don't want that.
Still, Swarbrick has consistently left a door open based on the idea that cataclysmic change might make independence untenable.
"In the context of what is going on, we need to monitor our environment," he said.
In other words, if the Big East, where Notre Dame plays its basketball, is smashed by the Big Ten, starting a massive contraction of elite teams within, say, four major conferences, then Notre Dame might have to abandon the independence it cherishes.
Why the focus on Notre Dame? Because the Fighting Irish are great symbols here. Expansion is not only about potentially further marginalizing college football's have-nots outside of BCS conferences, though that's an alarming part of it if your team plays in a non-AQ conference. Plenty of "haves" also are concerned. Notre Dame and, say, Oklahoma certainly aren't going to be left behind. But they may have to alter their present course, their own strategic vision.
"It would be negligent not to be concerned," Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe said. "You have to plan for any kind of contingencies. We’ve been highly active internally talking about what might change in the college landscape and how we position ourselves."
Independence, Swarbrick said, is part of Notre Dame's "identity." But he and university president Rev. John I. Jenkins started fretting the changing landscape as soon as the Big Ten Network took off.
He called the present "a dynamic environment," but he also added that the status quo, which some might read as "tradition," will fall by the wayside in the new, constantly changing media environment.
"Those days are over," he said.
After BCS executive director Bill Hancock told reporters that the Mountain West Conference is in position to play its way into automatic qualifying by the 2012 and 2013 seasons, there were questions about the formula the BCS uses to make that determination. Hancock released the formula Thursday. Let's just say the folks at Baseball Prospectus would love it. Here's how the AP's Ralph Russo simplified it: "The BCS uses three criteria that measure conference strength over a four-year period. The criteria are: the ranking of the highest-ranked team in the final BCS standings; the final regular-season computer rankings of all the teams in a conference; and the number of teams in the top 25 of the final BCS standings."
Hancock also handed out a sheet that showed how the conferences ranked from 2004-2007. The Pac-10 and SEC ranked one and two by the first two measures. In the third, the SEC was No. 1, Big Ten No. 2 and the Pac-10 No. 3.
The BCS's estimated 2010-11 revenue distribution projections for each AQ conference: $21.2 million. If a non-AQ team earns a BCS bowl berth and Notre Dame does not, the five non-AQ conferences will share $24.7 million.
The commissioners seemed pleased that the NCAA basketball tournament expanded only to 68 teams, instead of 96. "They preserved the character and integrity of the event," Big East commissioner John Marinatto said. "It's elegant and they kept it elegant."