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Notre Dame football still wields influence others wish they had

It has been said so often the past 10 days, you could nearly label it as an official cliche.

Brigham Young is no Notre Dame.

It also never claimed to be.

Why on earth would it?

The Cougars have until Wednesday to inform the Mountain West of their 2011 intentions to remain in the conference or jump into the risky pool of independent status.

More and more, BYU appears to be leaning toward staying in its present home, what with its hope to place all sports but football in the Western Athletic Conference derailed now that Karl Benson’s collection of also-rans is less competitive than the Class 1A Southern League.

(Although I would like to see a line on New Mexico State-Pahranagat Valley.)

And while greater control over its football TV rights appears to be BYU’s desire, never would it come close to the powerful pull the Irish enjoy from NBC.

Nor would anyone else as a single entity.

Whatever BYU decides, like all college football teams that try to flex their muscles, it still trails the school with the golden dome and famous mural of Jesus signaling six points.

Which becomes more and more amazing with each season of mediocrity in South Bend.

Full disclosure: I have been a Notre Dame fan since watching Joe Montana fight through a bad flu and ice the size of the quarterback’s beak to beat Houston in the 1979 Cotton Bowl.

I still remember the plate of chicken and corn that smashed against the wall of my father’s office two years later, when Danny Ainge weaved his way past Notre Dame defenders and into NCAA Tournament history those final seven seconds of a one-point BYU victory.

Dad didn’t mind. His soda preceded my chicken.

But this is neither about making excuses for why Notre Dame still wields unparalleled power in college athletics nor to condemn it for doing so.

It’s just that when things work the way they did last week, with Notre Dame dictating to NBC what type of commercial breaks the university would prefer during football telecasts now that new coach Brian Kelly’s offense will supposedly work with Usain Bolt-type swiftness, we’re reminded of the lofty perch upon which the Irish sit.

NBC has agreed to five shorter breaks per quarter rather than four longer ones. I’m not sure that will mean anything on the scoreboard for a program that has been dead-flat average for most of a decade now, but few, if any, teams out there today could influence TV executives in the least. Actually, one could.

“All we’ve tried to do is address the model that we think would work well with us,” Kelly said of the request. “And there’s got to be a meeting somewhere halfway.”

NBC vice president of communications Chris McCloskey said: “Over the years, we have reassessed the structure of our commercial breaks numerous times to improve the experience for our viewers and the fans in the stadium.”

Translation: Notre Dame called. It wanted things changed. We obliged because had we not, that devil known as ESPN/ABC would surely come after the Irish harder than ever when contracts are to be renewed.

It’s a trivial matter in a larger picture for a school and network that have been joined at the financial hip for all Notre Dame home games since 1991, but yet another example of the school’s influence just the same.

It’s also why as the summer of conference expansion played out, rarely were the Irish mentioned as players within all the supposed movement.

Notre Dame isn’t near what it once was on the field, but its brand is still robust enough that the Irish in 2010 can continue to sit and wait and set themselves apart through independence in football. Its history is still as strong, its following as immense.

Notre Dame has never wanted to join a conference in the most important sport, nor has it had to. College athletics become a bigger and bigger business as the years pass, and yet no league — beginning with the Notre Dame-pursuing Big Ten — has proven giant enough to lure the Irish in football, even though the school’s last national championship came in 1988.

BYU is affiliated with a church whose football team enjoys a national following. That is where comparisons to Notre Dame end.

Most others don’t even have the church part.

Love them. Hate them. Nothing has changed when it comes to the Irish in the football world known as the Bowl Championship Series. They remain as relevant as ever.

Just ask the people selling commercial ads at NBC.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618.

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