Inside the scheduling of the first Ohio State-Notre Dame regular season game in decades
Martin Jarmond hasn’t forgotten the reaction.
It was the summer of 2014 when Jarmond, then an administrator at Ohio State handling football scheduling, walked into athletic director Gene Smith’s office on the top floor of the Fawcett Center and made his eyes light up.
Jarmond approached Smith in order to brief him about the potential of staging the first regular-season games against Notre Dame in a quarter century.
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“I hadn’t seen him get that excited about a matchup before,” said Jarmond, now the athletic director at UCLA. “I remember that distinctly.”
The idea for a home-and-home series with the fellow Midwestern blue-blood program originated at the outset of Smith’s tenure in Columbus.
After Smith, a former defensive lineman and assistant for the Fighting Irish in the 1970s, watched the Buckeyes face Notre Dame in the 2006 Fiesta Bowl, he wanted to recreate the matchup on the schools’ campuses.
“It was an exciting game for me,” Smith said, “and I had some emotions because it was my alma mater.”
Amid the bowl game’s pageantry, he also learned that a decade had passed since the schools had met during the regular season, furthering it as a priority for Ohio State’s athletic department.
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But a lot more waiting ensued.
Non-conference games in the top division of college football are booked far in advance, leaving administrators to bide their time until openings on the calendar emerge.
At least one attempt in the immediate years following the Fiesta Bowl proved futile.
It took until Jarmond spotted open dates for this year and next year on his scheduling white board, passing them along to Smith, that the possibility of putting together a series reemerged.
In a matter of months, an agreement was finalized, a contract signed in September by Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick and Smith to set the stage for Saturday’s much-anticipated primetime tilt of top-five teams at Ohio Stadium.
“I’ve always wanted to do it,” Smith said. “We just could never find the right dates to match up.”
The start of discussions between Ohio State and Notre Dame
Before Jarmond broached the possibility of adding the home-and-home series with Notre Dame, the topic came up in the spring.
Jarmond was serving on the College Football Playoff national championship advisory group.
The committee had been organized for the first year of the four-team playoff format, and at one of their meetings in Dallas he crossed paths with Chad Klunder, a fellow member who was the associate athletic director of football operations at Notre Dame and oversaw scheduling for the Irish.
The two of them found a mutual interest in arranging games, beginning a series of conservations.
“If that wouldn’t have been started,” Jarmond said, “I don't know if we would have had talks progress like they did.”
The dialogue laid the groundwork for Smith to get on the phone with Swarbrick. Soon after convening with Jarmond in his office, Smith dialed his counterpart to reiterate their desire to schedule the games.
“They understood the importance and significance of it,” Jarmond said. “Once we started down the path, it happened quickly.”
After waiting for almost a decade to schedule Notre Dame, Smith saw the home-and-home series materialize over a summer.
“They know their schedules just like we do,” Smith said. “It really just comes down to dates and what you’re willing to accept.”
If there was to be any potential holdup in their discussions, it was over a proposal by Notre Dame to hold this season’s game over the Labor Day weekend.
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The idea prompted some reservations from Smith.
It meant the Buckeyes would open against an annual national championship contender.
“You don't want to play a Notre Dame-caliber team right off the bat if you can avoid it,” Smith said. “You can't always avoid it.”
The rationale is that a top opponent affords Ohio State little room for error in its first game, a reason it looks to play teams from smaller Group of Five conferences in its season opener in most years.
Before this weekend’s game, the last time the Buckeyes had faced a ranked team in Week 1 was in 2003, when it hosted 17th-ranked Washington.
Part of the calculation is owed to the far-in-advance scheduling.
It’s near-impossible to project a team’s makeup so many years out. Eight years, the gap between the scheduling of this home-and-home series and the first of the matchups between Ohio State and Notre Dame, is a lifetime in the sport. A lot of things can change.
“It’s just risky from a team perspective,” Smith said.
At the time the agreement was struck, Urban Meyer was only on the cusp of leading the Buckeyes to a national championship in his third season at the helm, Ryan Day was the offensive coordinator at Boston College and C.J. Stroud was entering the seventh grade.
Smith ultimately didn’t let the quirk stand in the way.
“We just said the heck with it,” Smith said. “If this is the only way to do it, we’ll do it.”
The issue only arose for this season.
When the Buckeyes head to South Bend, Indiana, next year, they will do so late in September to wrap up their non-conference schedule.
While Smith and Swarbrick settled on the dates of the games, other details were ironed out between Jarmond and Klunder.
Those ranged from settling on a 5,000-ticket allotment given to visiting fans to deferring to the Big Ten to assign referees. None of them were obstacles. Jarmond pointed to Notre Dame’s history of non-conference games against Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue as making an obvious template.
“All that stuff was very turnkey because of the consistency they had in already playing Big Ten schools,” Jarmond said.
Future of the Ohio State-Notre Dame series
The excitement surrounding the matchup is high.
Tickets have been sold out for weeks. ESPN’s popular “College GameDay” pregame show will broadcast from the south lawn of St. John Arena.
Glimpses of Notre Dame are rare in central Ohio. Saturday will mark only the third time the Irish have gone to the Horseshoe and only the fifth time Ohio State and Notre Dame have met during the regular season.
Despite their shared success and proximity, located within bordering states, the teams have gone against each other on just a handful occasions.
They played against each other in 1935 and 1936, the first in the series of games becoming known as the “Game of the Century,” before reconvening for another home-and-home series in 1995 and 1996 and Fiesta Bowls in 2006 and 2016.
But the infrequency of games is unlikely to change. Ohio State has no other home-and-home series with Notre Dame on the books.
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Smith doesn’t see the possibility of another one being added until the 2030s.
“It’s probably not going to happen for a while,” he said. “Unless they come into the conference.”
Musing about the possibility, Smith, who has advocated for his alma mater to join the Big Ten following the league’s latest round of expansion, laughed.
“That’s probably not going to happen either,” he said.
Ohio State’s scheduling philosophy outside the Big Ten will remain the same, too. Smith’s preference is to reserve one of the three non-conference contests as a “major-major” game, putting the Buckeyes against another tradition-rich program that figures to be near the top of the polls.
Notre Dame fits that description, so do Alabama, Georgia and Texas, all of them involved in home-and-home series with Ohio State over the next decade.
Smith favors the mixture of opponents for these premier non-conference showdowns.
“There's not a team that you would play them two years, skip two years and play them again in two years,” he said. “I just don't see us doing that. I think there's too many other top-notch programs.”
Not only does it add variety for the players, but it also benefits the Buckeyes’ large fanbase, scattered across the country, with more potential sites to see their team in person.
Smith recalled a big turnout for a non-conference game at Washington in 2007, offering a more accessible trip to Seattle for a lot of fans on the West Coast.
The Buckeyes are playing the Huskies in their next home-and-home series in 2024 and 2025.
“I don’t know if we would ever have an appetite to just do Notre Dame,” Smith said. “I think the diversity is beneficial.”
Joey Kaufman covers Ohio State football for The Columbus Dispatch. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @joeyrkaufman