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Sunday, March 3, 2024
The Observer

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Miller: Notre Dame football needs to embrace the spotlight to stay relevant

Last week, the day after the Dallas Cowboys’ early exit from the playoffs, ESPN’s First Take saw a record audience of 1.516 million viewers. People were interested in hearing analysts’ thoughts on the team’s disappointing end to a promising season. But as to be expected on such a show, the focus was not on the game itself. Instead, nearly the entire show focused on the futures of Mike McCarthy and Dak Prescott.

Of course, this is a fair question to raise. The Cowboys may have the best roster in any professional sports league, and McCarthy has failed to accomplish much of note in the postseason. Maybe the Cowboys should move on. While it’s an interesting discussion, it’s not a groundbreaking one. At the time of the Cowboys’ exit, eight teams were left in the playoffs, and we just saw an amazing week of football, including an all-time clash between Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes.

And yet again, on First Take this week, the majority of Monday’s show featured a discussion on whether Sean McDermott and Josh Allen were enough for a Bills franchise that has suffered for so long.

America loves to sit in the owner’s chair, thinking about coaching and roster decisions and making executive calls on the future of a franchise. However, it’s unfortunate that these decisions often overshadow the quality of the game being played on the field, court or pitch. The college sports world is prone to some of the same gossip, especially during the current era of realignment. In the past year, we saw a mass coaching exodus in college football with changes all throughout the country. In the SEC, since 2020, 12 out of 14 programs have changed coaches. In the same period, 11 of the Big Ten’s 18 have seen changes. It’s a crazy, volatile landscape, but because of all these changes in the past few years, I’d argue that the next few should be calmer. What happens, then, to college sports? What can a team like Notre Dame do to create national media attention?

At this time next year, assuming Notre Dame’s 2024 season is somewhat normal, Marcus Freeman and CJ Carr will be on track to be leading the program forward. Pete Bevacqua will have just finished his first year as athletic director. Barring something beyond fathomable, Bevacqua will have an easy job — none of his coaches should be on the hot seat.

This poses a unique challenge. Notre Dame should have very little drama. The focus will be on the field. However, this might not create the national attention that successful franchises have come to know. Sure, Notre Dame has a consistent, national mid-afternoon window on NBC. But that has less meaning now in a world where we have more than five channels. Thirty years ago, Notre Dame’s TV slot was a huge deal. It guaranteed that any fan in a living room would have a consistent team to root for. But now, there are tons of games available to anyone with even the most basic of cable packages.

So, if Notre Dame doesn’t automatically have national attention because of its time slot, can it create it on the field? Possibly, but look at the modern sports landscape. Michael Penix Jr. just had one of the best (and flashiest) college football seasons in the history of the sport, leading his underdog team to the national championship. Yet the game’s focal point was on Jim Harbaugh, his role in sign stealing and his likely return to the NFL. The extracurricular aspect of sports is taking over.

I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing. However, I do think that it’s important to recognize. For Notre Dame, attracting new fans and gaining attention on social media has to be a major goal. Of course, winning at the highest level is Freeman’s primary goal. But right behind that, selling tickets, gaining air time on the media and trending on social media are very legitimate secondary goals.

At times, the program shines in these areas. The offseason “Jerry Maguire” and “Hangover” videos have gone viral — as they should have, given the great production quality. But for every day Notre Dame spends in the limelight, months are spent without controversy. The athletics department needs to tighten that gap. I think that there’s a way to do this without succumbing to the level of someone like Lane Kiffin, constantly posting Tweets demeaning his rival schools. But at the same time, Lane Kiffin built an entire transfer class that way. Of course, he didn’t pick up the likes of Riley Leonard, but he added to his brand and persona, which has a significant impact, albeit not always a tangible one.

As the long, dreary offseason continues, here’s to hoping that Freeman and Bevacqua can keep Notre Dame in the headlines. From recruiting players to new fans, Notre Dame has a high bar. Willingly refusing or ignorantly devoiding itself from any level of controversy is a mistake that will affect the program’s performance moving forward.

The views expressed in this column do not necessarily represent those of The Observer.