Today's SI Vault article highlights one of the more controversial decisions between Notre Dame and the rest of college football. In a decision that still is used as an attack on the Fighting Irish, Notre Dame signed a deal with NBC back in 1990. In doing so, they became the only college football program with an exclusive national television contract.
An article in the February 19, 1990 edition of Sports Illustrated titled We're Notre Dame and You're Not detailed the path the Fighting Irish took to secure their very own television network. From the start, the reaction to the ND-NBC deal was all negative.
Yet no Notre Dame gridiron victory ever jolted the football world quite like the one the school pulled off on what might be called the greediron. When the Irish made their power play with NBC , the protests ranged from outraged cries of betrayal to impassioned accusations of hypocrisy to a sort of panic about the future of big-time football. "It's been a fun year for all of us," said Penn State coach Joe Paterno . "We got to see Notre Dame go from an academic institute to a banking institute."Of course, as is pointed out in the article, ND was hardly alone when it came to looking out for themselves.
"I wasn't surprised by this, I was shocked," said Georgia athletic director Vince Dooley. "Surprise, shock, greed and ultimate greed. That's the reaction I'm getting from people."
"To me," said Arkansas athletic director Frank Broyles , "Notre Dame has vacated its leadership role. This is greed."
The Irish, however, by no means deserve all the brickbats. The CFA [College Football Association] and its executive director, Chuck Neinas, are guilty of missing signals at best, and of less-than-candid negotiating at worst. The other members of the CFA—which started the brave new world of college football on TV six years ago by wresting control of telecasts of their games from the NCAA—hypocritically blamed Notre Dame for doing to them what they had done to the NCAA : putting self-interest above the common good.Before getting to the actual move to sign with NBC, the article lays out the backstory between the colleges, the NCAA, and the television networks looking to broadcast the games; from how the NCAA got into the TV business in the first place in the 50s in order to keep ND from getting a national TV deal with the DuPont network, to how Georgia and Oklahoma filed a restraint-of-trade suit against the NCAA for dictating who could be televised when, to how a proposed major deal with ABC set the wheels in motion for ND to look elsewhere.
Notre Dame realized that ABC's new commitments to the CFA, when added to its obligations to the Big Ten and Pac-10 , meant that the network would have to cut back on national telecasts and carry more regional games (those sent to different areas of the country within the same time period). "There was to be a great deal of regionalization," [ND Athletic Director Dick] Rosenthal said, "and our constituency comes from all over the U.S. We expressed our concern to the CFA."The back and forth negotiating between Ebersol, Rosenthal, and ND executive vice-president Fr. Beauchamp was wrapped up in early February and the deal was announced. Part of the reason that the deal was received with such hostility wasn't strictly a reaction to ND's decision to leave the CFA, but the rapid change in attitude of the new Fr. Malloy administration from the previous Fr. Hesburgh one.
On Jan. 16, Rosenthal, who was in New York for a Notre Dame- Rutgers basketball game, visited NBC and CBS to talk about marketing the CFA in 1990. During those conversations, he let it be known that Notre Dame was unhappy with the CFA-ABC deal that would be announced the next day. The hint of Notre Dame's availability—if that's what it was—went right by CBS 's executives, but NBC 's Schanzer picked up on it. He called Rosenthal after ABC and the CFA had announced their agreement and asked if he would consider a separate deal. When Rosenthal said yes, Schanzer walked a few feet down the hall and into the office of Dick Ebersol , the president of NBC Sports . "I think we really have a shot here," Schanzer said. Ebersol told him to go for it.
The action of Rosenthal and Beauchamp stands in sharp contrast to that of former athletic director Gene Corrigan shortly before the Supreme Court rendered its 1984 decision. At that time, WTBS, the cable superstation, offered Notre Dame a blank check for TV rights to all of its games, both home and away. According to a former WTBS executive, Corrigan turned down the offer, saying, "We're going to do what's right for the CFA ."With the new ND deal in place, there were also the first signs of the SEC move to CBS.
In 1986 the Southeastern Conference was thinking about bolting from the CFA to accept a four-year, $25 million offer from ABC. [Fr.] Joyce was among the CFA representatives who tried hardest to persuade the 10 SEC schools to stay put, and the conference decided to remain in the fold. No wonder the SEC last week was irate. It questioned the role of Beauchamp, who in his capacity as secretary-treasurer of the CFA had recommended that the ABC proposal be presented to the membership. "The thing that has so many of our people upset," says Brad Davis , an assistant SEC commissioner, "is that Father Beauchamp almost led the charge to save the CFA-ABC deal, knowing all along that Notre Dame was going to pull out."
As it was criticizing Notre Dame, the SEC engaged in a little strong-arming of its own with Neinas. Understanding fully that the CFA would come unraveled if it bolted, the SEC floated a few trial balloons, including one that reached CBS . The SEC 's threat of defection was so thinly veiled that when the conference demanded a guaranteed number of TV appearances, Neinas had no choice but to capitulate.The ND move, along with the ABC/ESPN deal for the rest of the CFA really signaled the start of the race to get as many college football games on TV as possible. At the time, it would have been hard to predict that within 18 years there would be college games on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays as well as the traditional Saturdays and that conferences would attempt to create their very own personal TV networks. But some did realize that the floodgates were just opening.
So jeer, jeer for old Notre Dame, if you must, but also understand that Joe Fan might benefit from the Irish's power play. As Paul Hornung , one of the school's Heisman winners, said last week, "Money is the name of the game, and people want to see Notre Dame. That's the bottom line. But there's plenty of room out there for football on TV, and I think we've only touched the tip of the iceberg."