But will that change in the near future?
Scheduling has always been a challenge for the athletic department since most other teams are tied up with conference games in October and November. The landscape of college football has changed recently with some teams moving between conferences and the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) tweaking their formula for admission.
For Notre Dame to roll with those changes, according to Associate Athletics Director John Heisler, it has had to take a look at that landscape and make a few changes to its scheduling philosophy. Heisler, a 28-year veteran of the Notre Dame athletic staff, plays a large role in most of the football scheduling, and says that while the Irish will still play a national schedule, they will need to make some changes to their thinking in regards to scheduling to adapt to the current landscape of college football.
You Have To Play To Win
Driving these changes is the goal of consistent post-season participation and championships, and to realize that goal, the Irish need access to the BCS games. In 1998 and in 2002, the Irish felt the BCS sting when they were passed over for at-large bids even though they were qualified for a bid based on their record. Losing the 14 million dollars associated with a BCS bid is not something any athletic department would take lightly, let alone Notre Dame.
"You've probably got to be 10-1 to get into the BCS right now," Heisler said, "and you have to go back and look at '98 and '02, [when] two losses didn't get it done. We've got to look at our whole situation and try to figure out how we can get our football program into position to land a BCS game. That's got to be the ultimate goal."
The Irish have had a tie-in to the BCS with the Big East conference, of which they are a member in all other sports but football. Notre Dame continues to remain independent in football, but has also committed to playing a set number of Big East teams in the future, which will also affect scheduling.
"We've wanted to secure that relationship, so we've agreed to play three Big East teams per year," Heisler said. "We won't be able to do that for awhile, but as the further out we go, the easier it will be."
One of the changes coming is schedules featuring seven home games.
But that change may come at a price. Guaranteeing the three Big East contests each year along with seven home games makes the scheduling much more difficult for Heisler and Irish fans who want to see Notre Dame match up with other top teams from around the country.
"If you talk about playing seven out of 11 at home," Heisler said, "you're going to have about eight home-and-home relationships. You can tick off those eight pretty quickly when you talk about Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue, three from the Big East, then throw in Stanford, USC and Navy. You've already got more right there than what you can make work.
"To get to the seven home games, the other three games are going to be games that are not going to be returned [right away]. Unless you're going to have some breaks in those series, it's going to make it difficult to even have a two-year home-and-home series with teams from the SEC or the Big 12. As much as you want to play in that part of the country, I don't know if it's going to be realistic to do that on a home-and-home basis."
To meet the challenge, Notre Dame has tried to come up with some creative ideas to play in front of its fans across the country. "The other thing we're looking at is what we're going to refer as these off-site games," Heisler said. "The idea was to get to some parts of the country beyond the Big Ten and the Big East and the West Coast. We've looked to the states of Texas and Florida in particular for some of these off-site games [because] those are important for a recruiting standpoint."
While the picture for four of the home games will be clear, the remaining three home games will have to come from teams looking for opportunity ... which are not the top-flight teams Irish fans are used to seeing on the schedule every year. "It's going to put you in a position where you're looking for games where people will come to South Bend without us returning those games," Heisler admitted. "If you're thinking about coming to Notre Dame to play a game, you're looking at what it might mean competitively, financially and exposure-wise, and we think we can offer a very fair and attractive guarantee to a potential visiting team in those circumstances."
Working the Calendar
Heisler said he and White are very cognizant of the way the schedule will play out in the future as to home games versus away games and where they'll land on the schedule. "We use this year as the example of where we don't want to be: playing four out of the first five games on the road," he said. "The further you go out, the more control we have over that. Short-term there are some obstacles, but long-term there are opportunities to create a schedule that flows the way you want it to flow. We've got one more game coming up in this next contract, so that's going to create a little more flexibility."
The "one more game" has come about because of the recent expansion of the NCAA-allowed limit of games from 11 to 12 per season. Heisler feels the university might be close to announcing some future opponents for the 12th game to be added in 2006.
"We would have every expectation that we would be able to play at home as quickly as this is going to come about in 2006," he said, "and we're not far away from getting those things done. I would hope by the end of the summer that we would have some things in place that we could let fly."
Heisler also wouldn't be surprised to see the season lengthened in the near future because of the addition of the 12th game. "Can we fit the 12 games into the window that exists now? There are a lot of discussions that maybe the window should be widened. Now you're going from the Saturday before Labor Day until Thanksgiving. Will we see games beginning on the last Saturday of August in the future?"
Speculation that Notre Dame might be entertaining the idea of playing another game in Ireland as they previously did in a game against Navy in 1996 couldn't be confirmed. "We'd like to find to way to make it happen again," Heisler admitted, "but there's nothing concrete right now. That's one of the things we've talked about internally and tried to figure out if we can we make it a priority. We'd love to find a way to make that work"
Logistics, though, might make such a game difficult. "Last time we played games [the week immediately] before and after that game, and some coaches might not be comfortable with that. Then you have to look at when you play the game. Is it the season-opener? Do you do that midseason? As much as you'd like to create one of those cultural experiences, the coaches are going to focus on the football part of it. At the end of the day you're still trying to find a way to win football games like that."