How Tennessee State and Notre Dame decided to play football in 2023

The final question at a press conference to officially announce the September 2 2023 season opener between Tennessee State football and Notre Dame did not come from a reporter.

It came from Jerome Bettis, a former All-American running back at Notre Dame who played 13 seasons in the NFL mostly with the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Bettis directed his question to TSU coach Eddie George.

“At Notre Dame, we believe every game we’re going to win,” Bettis said Wednesday. “I know you personally and I know your commitment to competition. Do you believe you can win this football match?”

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With the quickness he showed in his NFL career as an All-Pro running back for the Tennessee Titans, George replied, “Without a doubt. Without a shadow of a doubt.”

Earlier, however, George had spoken about the vast rift that exists between TSU and Notre Dame. He said the Tigers, who went 5-6 in his first season, must first become competitive with some of the top FCS programs in the country before they can challenge an iconic football team like Notre Dame. They now have a year and a half to get there.

Tennessee State University head football coach Eddie George and Notre Dame head football coach Marcus Freeman prepare for a news conference about the school's game in 2023 on Wednesday, April 6, 2022 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

George also said he was surprised when he learned that Notre Dame contacted TSU to play the game and that school president Glenda Glover and athletic director Mikki Allen jumped at the chance.

The decision to play NBC’s nationally televised game, officials on both sides said, was made very quickly.

This will be the first time Notre Dame has faced an opponent from HBCU and FCS.

“When I got wind, we were playing at Notre Dame, I was like, ‘Oh my God,'” George said. “But when I really thought about having our kids come here and play on a national stage and show the nation what the State of Tennessee is holistically with our pageantry and our tradition and our rich history not only in football but as a university I realized it was a wonderful opportunity.”

Notre Dame’s decision to contact TSU about the possibility of playing came from AD Jack Swarbrick Jr.’s previous career, which involved managing HBCU programs.

Swarbrick was an official at the Circle City Classic in Indianapolis, which TSU entered seven times from 1985 to 2007.

“It was one of the best events of the year; the excitement around this event,” Swarbrick said. “Their alumni come to our town, their band and the game. It’s always been a goal to bring some of that here. Our planning matrix is ​​so complicated that you’re always trying to find that opportunity and it turned out. presented with how this year’s program worked.”

Swarbrick also said he was impressed with the direction TSU’s athletic department has taken recently, which made him feel better about the game’s planning.

“What struck me most was the trajectory of this program; I mean, what they achieve,” Swarbrick said. “Whether it’s the assessment of adding hockey in partnership with the (Predators) in the NHL or the investments they’re making in the football program. It was just that it was a program in the right position at the right time to do it.

With George as coach, Allen said he expected TSU to evolve into a program that would attract the attention of top institutions like Notre Dame.

“When we took on Eddie George I knew we had someone who was a strong character with a footballing spirit, but also someone who was going to really change the trajectory of our program and get us back to championship level,” Allen said. “This game is huge for our program.”

Notre Dame freshman coach Marcus Freeman, who like George played at Ohio State, said he was proud of his school for providing a big stage for TSU. Freeman was previously Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator.

“It’s a huge honor for me because I understand that I’m a representation of many others and I think this game provides opportunities for everyone,” Freeman said. “I take this with the utmost respect and appreciation.”

Contact Mike Organ at 615-259-8021 or on Twitter @MikeOrganWriter.

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