How realignment knocked Notre Dame off its pedestal

It's been a long time since Georgia and Notre Dame played each other (0:32)

Georgia and Notre Dame square off in Week 2 for the first time since the 1981 Sugar Bowl. (0:32)

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- It has been 29 years since Notre Dame won a national championship. It has been 28 years since Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany held a conference call for his athletic directors and told them -- he didn't ask them, he told them -- that Penn State had been voted into the league by its school presidents.

The news stunned the ADs into silence. Finally, Michigan's Bo Schembechler sputtered, "You gotta be s----ing me!"

That reaction, which the legendary coach recounted years later to the Harrisburg Patriot-News, captures the impact that Penn State's move had on college football. Penn State's move ignited the era of realignment, a benign word that doesn't begin to explain the power shifts that followed.

In the nearly three decades since, the Big 12 has come, the Southwest Conference has gone and Big East football has come and gone. College football on television has wallpapered the American Saturday. Every game of every major power is on the air, if not on the phone.

And in that time, Notre Dame stopped winning national championships. The Irish won 11 from 1924 through 1988, one every six years or so. Yes, there have been other dry spells in Fighting Irish history. The 10 years between Frank Leahy and Ara Parseghian (1954-63) defined mediocrity (51 wins, 48 losses). The Irish once went 17 years between national championships (1949-66).

Here's a new 17-year stat for you: In the 17 seasons of this century, Notre Dame has beaten exactly one top-five team, No. 3 Michigan, 17-10 in 2005. That was the second game of the Charlie Weis era, and we know how that turned out.

This is a generation of fans who have not witnessed the greatness that college football once took for granted. This is a sport in which legends are quickly preserved in amber. Some of us may believe that Reggie Bush is a recent memory, but today's college freshman attended kindergarten the last time USC finished No. 1. That means Notre Dame's last national champion seems prehistoric.

Or, to put it another way, Tony Rice, the Irish quarterback on the most recent national champion, turned the big Five-Oh on Tuesday.

So it has been a long while.

"I'm not here to say we've performed as well as we've should. I just can't find the connection to the realignment," athletic director Jack Swarbrick said. "I can't find the thing that I'd look to and say, 'Boy, if we had done something differently ... .'"

Brian Kelly, who has won more games (231) than any active FBS coach, is 60-31 (.659) in eight seasons at Notre Dame. He declined an interview request, saying he wanted to focus on this year's team, now No. 24, rather than look at the program's recent history.

It doesn't measure up. Once upon a time, Notre Dame served as the gold standard in college football. It was a national program in a regional sport.

"If you lived in this part of the country, you were interested in the SEC, period," said Roy Kramer, who retired in 2002 after 12 years as Southeastern Conference commissioner and moved to Tennessee. "The only other entity with name recognition was Notre Dame."

In the 1960s and '70s, when the NCAA controlled its members' TV rights and allowed no team to be televised more than two or three times a year, only one school had a nationally syndicated highlights show that ran on Sundays.

"You saw Notre Dame every weekend," former Fighting Irish coach Tyrone Willingham said. "If they weren't on the Saturday broadcast, I know, like a lot of kids, I ran home from church at noon to catch Notre Dame highlights."

In 1984, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the NCAA could not demand control of a program's TV rights as a condition of membership. Those rights belong to the schools. Seven years later, in 1991, Notre Dame sold its TV rights to NBC. A school with its own network ... that, as it turned out, became just one more game in a sea of Saturday football.

The Supreme Court decision triggered the rise of power among the conferences, which packaged their members' rights to sell to the TV networks. These days, every team is shown to someone pretty much every week.

To make those rights packages more attractive to the networks, conferences looked to broaden their geographic footprint -- in other words, realignment. The Big Ten stretches from the east coast to the border of the mountain time zone, which it shares with the Pac-12. The ACC takes in the eastern seaboard, Miami to Boston.

As the conferences became more powerful, they asserted control of the postseason. The Bowl Alliance begat the Bowl Coalition, which morphed into the BCS, which died so that the College Football Playoff may live.

With the rise of the BCS and the playoff, fans in Florida suddenly became interested in Boise State. Washington played a postseason game in Atlanta.

Notre Dame is still a national team. It's just not the only one.

"Notre Dame became just one of the players," Kramer said. "...As that TV picture changed, it changed the image of Notre Dame. It was not just a stand-alone."

There's Alabama, whose best defensive player, safety Minkah Fitzpatrick, is from New Jersey. There's Ohio State, whose fifth-year quarterback, J.T. Barrett, is from Texas. So is Ronald Jones II, USC's best rusher.

They are national teams, and they recruit whomever they want wherever they want.

Notre Dame no longer stands above the rest. It stands above most.

"I think if you go back far enough, guys came to play football at Notre Dame because they wanted to play at Notre Dame," said the Rev. William E. Beauchamp, the former executive vice president of Notre Dame who oversaw Irish athletics from 1987-2000. "That was the driving force. I don't think that's so true anymore.'"

In the original iteration of the BCS, when the conferences needed Notre Dame to participate to legitimize the format, Notre Dame received a conference-sized payout for making a BCS bowl. For instance, in 2005, the Irish received $14.5 million for playing in the Fiesta Bowl, the same as the Big Ten received and shared among its members for Ohio State being on the other sideline.

But beginning the following year, the Irish received only $4.5 million per BCS gig, along with a guarantee of $1.3 million annually whether they reached a BCS bowl or not. In the College Football Playoff era, Notre Dame received $2.83 million last season. The Power Five conferences split $55 million among their 65 members.

Maybe the Irish never should have been treated as a conference equal. But they were, and they are no longer. The financial windfall produced by the conferences in the realignment era is head-turning. The Indianas and Purdues of the world will reap $51 million annually from the conference alone, before they sell the first ticket or license the first T-shirt.

"I think the conference power is at its zenith now and is very, very strong," Swarbrick said. "You get a conference that's distributing $51 million [per team] versus whatever that school is getting from the NCAA, that just shows you. It's a great measure of the shift."

And Swarbrick wouldn't change a thing. Notre Dame is proud of its independence in football; time and again the university looked at joining a conference and decided against it. Notre Dame's decades-long dalliance with the Big Ten ended in the late '90s, and the school's one-foot-in, one-foot-out arrangement with the Atlantic Coast Conference has made both sides happy.

The Irish always have and always will play a difficult schedule, the wondrous byproduct of remaining independent.

"Has there been a financial consequence? Only recently," Swarbrick said. "But if the ACC Network works, we'll be fine. And I look to the other [independents] who made the choice [to join a conference]: Penn State. Miami. How do we look and how do they look over those 30 years? It's not very different. Miami had one period that they did a little better than us. But other than that, you look at the record and the top-20 finishes? The three of us, very similar."

Yes, but only if you believe that Notre Dame's historical standard of success is the same as it is at Penn State or at Miami. It is not.

Notre Dame is not the only traditional power to run aground. Alabama, the once and current king, had a 30-year stretch (1979-2009) during which it won exactly one national championship and exactly four Southeastern Conference titles. In the 10 seasons since Nick Saban arrived, the Crimson Tide has won four and five, respectively.

That may give comfort to the Irish fan that their plight is neither unusual nor irreversible. It raises the question that Notre Dame is just a Saban away from returning to glory. What might have happened if Urban Meyer had chosen Notre Dame over Florida after the 2004 season? In the long line of coaches since Lou Holtz retired 21 years ago -- Bob Davie, George O'Leary (for five days), Willingham, Weis, and Kelly -- the Irish have not found their Saban.

The Irish are blessed with the curse of past success. It hangs over the House That Rockne Built even in its new iteration, the result of a $400 million renovation that added classroom space and a new student union to the shell of the stadium while restoring its concourses to their original Art Deco look.

No. 15 Georgia travels to Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday. The Bulldogs beat the Irish 17-10 in the Sugar Bowl to win the 1980 national championship. The fervor of Bulldog fans made this ticket the most expensive in the secondary market this season. The hold of history is powerful.