Wins help NBC, ND out of slump

Published September 16, 2005

It was coming off a 6-5 season, punctuated by a shrinking fan base and television viewers with itchier trigger fingers when it came to channel surfing.

And yet, Notre Dame officials looked up from the depths of another dismal season knowing there was always that $9-million tossed their way from NBC.

Signed 15 years ago, it was revolutionary.

Extended in 2003, it looked crazy.

Today, it looks pretty smart.

Saturday at 3:30 p.m., Notre Dame returns to NBC for its home opener as one of college football's hottest teams with the hottest coach in Charlie Weis, leaving us to wonder if the network is really smart or just lucky.

Tyrone Willingham's 8-0 start in 2002 is a reminder for Irish fans and NBC to remain subdued after wins over Pittsburgh and Michigan, but neither seems eager to contain itself.

NBC's initial deal was extended in 2003 during the Willingham honeymoon, prompting many to wonder why the network would pay twice what anyone else was for a program that seemed to be on the decline.

The Irish did nothing to make NBC think it had made the right decision, going 6-5 and getting hammered by USC in the season finale last year.

The six games carried by NBC averaged a national rating of 2.6 for the second straight season. Since signing the deal with Notre Dame in 1991, when 10-win seasons were the norm, that rating was second lowest behind a 2.5 in the equally dreadful 2002 season.

But like it or not, Notre Dame, working on a record 150 consecutive games on national television, remained college football's equivalent of the New York Yankees and Green Bay Packers in NBC's eyes.

Citing the "aura and luster," NBC Sports president Ken Schanzer told ESPN.com "We really like being in business with Notre Dame."

And NBC really like the new coach.

It bet on Willingham; it got Weis, who was hired after Urban Meyer spurned the school for Florida.

So far, not a bad trade.

"I was impressed most of all with the swagger, something that has been missing from the Notre Dame team the last few years," NBC play-by-play man Tom Hammond said. "It seems to me, the expectation of expecting to win, the swagger, the "We are Notre Dame' sort of outlook, that was evident in both their games."

Saturday's win over Michigan on ABC drew a 4.3 rating. In Tampa Bay, the rating was 5.4, near the highest-rated college football game of the weekend, Ohio State-Texas, which was 5.7.

It's still early, but Irish eyes are smiling, and so are the faces at NBC.