BYU football: Cougs’ ties to Irish key for independence
By Jay Drew
The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published Nov 21 2013 03:35PM
When Notre Dame plays host to BYU on Saturday for the second straight year at historic Notre Dame Stadium, some will undoubtedly refer to the get-together as Mormons vs. Catholics, Part II.
After all, BYU is owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Notre Dame by the Roman Catholic Church. Mormon players comprise better than 90 percent of BYU’s roster; Notre Dame’s is much more religiously diverse.
But the relationship between the schools’ athletic departments since BYU joined Notre Dame as a football independent in 2011 has been far from adversarial. In fact, it is downright friendly. So much so that Notre Dame is determined to continue playing BYU in football, even at the expense of some of its longtime rivals, such as Michigan.
Notre Dame Director of Athletics Jack Swarbrick told The Salt Lake Tribune this week that upholding a six-game agreement the Irish signed with BYU in 2010 on the day the Cougars went solo in football is extremely important to his school. Dates for the remaining four games — two in Provo and two more in South Bend — which are contracted to be played before the end of the 2020 season, have not been announced.
"It is impossible for me to look further than the next three years, so that is what we are trying to manage against right now," Swarbrick said. "But certainly, our interest long-term is to find ways to continue to play BYU. I am hopeful we can do that."
A year ago September, Notre Dame entered into an agreement with the Atlantic Coast Conference to play five ACC opponents a year, beginning in 2014. That seemingly put the BYU series in jeopardy, because Notre Dame is also committed to playing rivals USC, Stanford and Navy every year.
"Quite literally, I have some years where we have 15 or 16 games under contract, if you include the ACC commitment with the deals we previously had," Swarbrick said. "So we are just working our way through that. But in doing that, BYU is a priority."
That’s music to the ears of BYU Director of Athletics Tom Holmoe, because the series with Notre Dame was trumpeted as a cornerstone to BYU’s plan for success as an independent, along with its eight-year deal with ESPN and its school-owned broadcasting platforms, BYUtv and BYU Radio. Holmoe said via correspondence this week that the prospect of some games being canceled hasn’t been an issue.
"We have both agreed to be flexible with when those games are played, based on what might be best for both schools," Holmoe said.
Although BYU has acknowledged from the beginning it will never be the "Notre Dame of the West," as some have suggested, it hasn’t been shy about emulating one of the most well-known brands in the country in college athletics, if not the most.
That starts with having a strong relationship, which Swarbrick said is a two-way street the Irish are happy to accommodate.
"Number one, we are like institutions," he said. "Both are faith-based. … So there is a natural affinity, given our approaches, and that creates sort of a kinship," Swarbrick said. "The other thing, I would say, is the notion of independence in football, understanding both the challenges and opportunities of that, and wanting to be a good partner to anybody else who chooses to go that route."
Swarbrick said he remembers back in the summer of 2010 how BYU officials were gathering information and seeking advice "about the challenges and opportunities of being independent" and that he recognized fairly quickly that the school had the assets and characteristics in place to make it work.
"Certainly, your ability to succeed with an independent football model in collegiate athletics today depends upon having some of the assets that BYU has," Swarbrick said. "One of them is you have to be able to articulate a basis for doing it. It has to be something like a faith affiliation, or a military academy."
Swarbrick, Notre Dame’s AD since July of 2008, said football independence is a "really hard row to hoe" without having a national reach like BYU has. Thousands of BYU fans show up at road football games far from Provo, such as at Georgia Tech, Virginia, Ole Miss, Texas and Wisconsin, in addition to a decent showing last year at Notre Dame. Most are LDS Church members who live within driving distance of those places.
Additionally, Swarbrick said, "You have to have a very robust media platform, and clearly they do. So they have the assets, and when you have the assets, if you think it makes sense for you, Notre Dame’s view is, ‘That’s great, more power to you. We hope you succeed.’ "
Holmoe said his school’s relationship with Notre Dame is so strong that he feels like he can pick up the phone and ask Swarbrick for counsel at any time. That doesn’t happen as much as it did in 2010 and 2011, because BYU has found its footing, but the athletic directors make a point of talking at national meetings and conventions.
"It is great for BYU to be associated with a university with such incredible tradition," Holmoe said. "Primarily, it is a great game for BYU, but secondarily the two schools are similar in many respects off the football field. We have a great respect for what Notre Dame stands for and we have been told by many of their officials that the same feelings exist towards us."