Independence, but in name only

Notre Dame's independence, born of prejudice nearly a century ago, will die of asphyxiation. With the announcement Wednesday morning that the school will play five football games a year against Atlantic Coast Conference opponents as a condition of its league membership in all other ACC-sponsored sports, the Fighting Irish are still, barely, independent.

But the vital signs of Notre Dame's ability to forge its own path have weakened over the two-decade life of the BCS and its antecedents. That independence has been central to the Catholic university's identity since it was forced upon them nearly a century ago. Michigan athletic director Fielding (Hurry Up) Yost led a movement to blackball Notre Dame from what is now the Big Ten Conference.

Forced to fend for itself, Notre Dame did just that. It became the most popular team in America, thanks to the millions of first- and second-generation Catholic immigrants from all across Europe. The Fighting Irish climbed to the top of the football polls thanks to the descendants of those immigrants, players with names such as Bertelli and Lujack, Stuhldreher and Connor.

Wednesday's announcement underlined how long ago that was. Notre Dame won eight AP national championships in only 46 years: four in an eight-year period from 1943 to 1949, and four more from 1949 to 1988. Its longest drought in that time was 17 years. But Notre Dame hasn't won a national championship since 1988, a 24-year drought that shows no signs of abating.

It was in the wake of that last national title that the first predecessor of the BCS, the Bowl Coalition, came to life on a cocktail napkin in the hand of the late ACC associate commissioner Tom Mickle. Notre Dame had just brandished its independence by breaking its bonds with the College Football Association in order to sign a television contract with NBC.

As upset as the CFA schools (all the conferences but the Big Ten and Pac-10) were with Notre Dame, they couldn't make a Bowl Coalition deal without it. Notre Dame came in as an equal partner with the other conferences.

But as Notre Dame's performance on the field has waned, and as the Bowl Coalition begat the Bowl Alliance that became the BCS, the school's influence within the BCS waned, too. It is no longer an equal partner with the other conferences.

Irish football has done little to help itself. Since Lou Holtz retired in 1996, the coaches who followed him have all proved that they can win more games than they lose, which is as damning with faint praise as you will read today.

It's hard to say which is the chicken and which is the egg. It is obvious that the ACC is an improvement for Notre Dame's other sports. But since when would Notre Dame give up nearly half of its football schedule to provide a home for the men's basketball team?

The fact is that the BCS that Notre Dame helped form has altered the landscape of college sports so that conference affiliation is all. The muscular Notre Dame that was there at the creation, a team you could pencil into the top 10, has gone the way of flannel grunge and Wu-Tang Clan CDs. In its place is a school that, if it didn't make the BCS lineup, was having trouble finding a bowl game worthy of its tradition.

Notre Dame was powerful enough to join the Big East in 1995 without surrendering any of its football independence. Contrast that with today, when Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said in a news release that the deal with the ACC will "maintain our historic independence in football."

Technically, he is correct. But it is independence by a vote of 7-5. Notre Dame will play seven games against whomever it chooses, and five games against the ACC. It is a weaker, meeker Notre Dame that made a deal with the ACC, the Monty Python knight yelling, "merely a flesh wound" as it loses limb after limb. Notre Dame has made sacrifices that the university and its partisans never dreamed would have to be made even a decade ago.

Notre Dame is not a full-fledged member of the ACC yet. But the trend is unmistakable.