Joe Theismann was at Dulles International Airport the other day, traveling, as he does frequently in his role as an analyst for ESPN's NFL broadcasts. On these trips -- and especially at places such as Dulles, within a touchdown pass of the Washington Redskins' training facility in Ashburn -- it would make sense that Theismann would be recognized as the former Redskins quarterback, the guy who led the local franchise to one of its three Super Bowl titles.

"But even here," Theismann said through his cell phone, "it's not the Redskins. It's Notre Dame. Notre Dame first, the Washington Redskins second. And it's not just when I'm in this country. As I travel around the world, people bring up Notre Dame. It's different."

In the past -- with tales of Knute Rockne and the Four Horsemen still prominent pieces of the Fighting Irish lore -- "different" has always been good for Notre Dame, which has never been part of a football conference, and has liked it that way. The school's alumni and administration take pride in being independent, and even with all the seismic shifts in conference alignments that occurred in 2003, the Irish ended up right where they started -- a member of the Big East in almost all sports, but an island in football.

"That's what's worked for us in the past," Athletic Director Kevin White said, "and it continues to work for us. It's an important part of our culture."

The question, though, continues to nag at college athletics: Can the Notre Dame culture -- independent, Catholic, powerful, proud -- maintain its status quo as college football evolves? The school's football program is, in some ways, its own conference, its own television network, and its own marketing machine. Its famed "subway alumni" -- largely Irish Catholics from the Northeast who didn't attend Notre Dame but have a devoted interest in its football success -- make up a fan base like no other. The external pressure, it would seem, can be excruciating, with each game seemingly a referendum on the current team.

"It's a national school," said former Irish coach Lou Holtz, now the coach at South Carolina. "You're under a magnifying glass with whatever you do there. There's a lot of pros about it, and a lot of cons about it. But it's all on the outside. . . . It's the 'subway alumni' that make it different. But the administration was no different than any place else I've coached. . . . The administration, in my entire 11 years there, never once said, 'We've got to win this game.' "

Thus, it is the fan base, not the administration, that has made so much noise during the two-year, four-game tenure of current coach Ty Willingham. The era began in 2002 with revitalization and enthusiasm, but has become something of a game-to-game evaluation of Willingham and the offense he wants to run, which is more wide-open than Holtz's option attack. When the Irish lost their opener to Brigham Young last month, following a 5-7 campaign in 2003, Willingham heard the doubters again.

With his team 3-1 and on the brink of the national rankings headed into today's key matchup against No. 15 Purdue, Willingham has kept his strong jaw straight, and encouraged his team to look at the large picture amidst what he considers to be too much negativity provided by fans and, in particular, the media.

"To me, it's very simple," Willingham said. "Life is full of ups and downs and goods and bads. Simply show both sides of the coin."

Notre Dame's coin, though, is multifaceted, and it is at least rooted in what the school was -- and what it still represents to a lot of its fans. Football fans who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s still talk about waking up on Sunday mornings and flipping on the TV. The only football to be found was the Notre Dame replay show. The Irish were omnipresent, and had an enormous impact on recruiting nationwide.

"I grew up in College Park, Georgia," said former Alabama and Georgia Tech coach Bill Curry, "and all I ever heard was the Notre Dame fight song."

Even with NBC's $45 million contract to broadcast Notre Dame home games through 2010 -- the only school to ever have its own national television package -- the Irish are just one of many choices fans can make each Saturday. Games are broadcast all day on ESPN and ESPN2 and night. CBS and ABC make college football -- from the Southeastern Conference, the ACC, the Big Ten and the other major conferences -- the bulk of their programming on Saturday afternoons. Thus, that automatic exposure edge -- and thus, the recruiting edge -- has eroded over time.

"I don't want to diminish anything about Notre Dame," said former Pittsburgh coach Mike Gottfried, "but Notre Dame has got to work like everyone else now. TV has done a lot for other schools. They're right there with Notre Dame now."

So the inherent advantages of being a national, independent school have, to some extent, been lost in a world where players can choose nearly any school and be assured of playing on television. And the Irish's ratings are linked directly to the team's success which, analysts say, make them either a boon or a bust, depending on whether the team wins. In 2001, Bob Davie's last season as the Irish coach, enthusiasm for the program was low, and the result was the Irish's lowest average rating on NBC since 1992. That number was matched last year during Willingham's second season.

"They have a very high-risk, very high-return strategy," said David Carter, a Los Angeles-based sports business consultant. "They find themselves in the position that they eat what they kill."

Schools in conferences treat the money generated by football and men's basketball as one big pie, to be shared relatively equally among all the members, regardless of success on the field or court. The classic example: Lowly Duke and powerful Florida State each earn the same amount of annual revenue from football through TV because the Atlantic Coast Conference divides it equally.

"That's central to who we are," ACC Commissioner John Swofford said earlier this year.

The Irish have no such fallback. If they win big and go to one of the four Bowl Championship Series games, they get to keep all that money for themselves, a windfall of, say, $15 million that will be given back to the university and used for a variety of purposes, not just athletics, according to Notre Dame associate athletic director John Heisler. The flip side: If the Irish fail on the field, there's no windfall, and no payday. Notre Dame hasn't qualified for a BCS bowl since 2001.

"It's kind of a crapshoot," Heisler said.

The NBC contract, however, can offset the lack of consistent bowl revenue. The more serious questions will come in the next decade, when the BCS is likely to again undergo changes. Much has been made of the fact that schools from smaller conferences have very little access to the BCS. Now, though, some in college athletics -- as well as in school administrations -- are wondering if the Irish, who don't have to win a conference title to earn a BCS berth, should be included in the mix.

"Right now, they have an ability to get in the BCS games -- and into the rankings -- that a lot of other schools don't," said T.K. Wetherell, the president of Florida State and a former Seminoles football player. "If we end up with a playoff system, which I believe we will, it will be increasingly more and more difficult for them to maintain their position. . . .

"People look at that and say, 'Well, they're not a conference in their own right.' I think they're going to have the conference issue, and they're going to have to fight the whole fairness issue."

So the questions come up constantly. Will the Irish join the Big Ten? Will the Irish join the ACC? When the latter conference expanded last year -- adding Miami, Virginia Tech and eventually Boston College -- there was heavy discussion about whether the league could lure Notre Dame. Wetherell, who said he has enormous respect for Notre Dame, was adamant that the league do everything it could to pull off such a coup.

"I think they were a little bit interested," Wetherell said, "and I think, at one point, they may have been more interested than not. I think they were concerned about some things, and they have awfully strong ties to the Big Ten. I think, eventually, they're going to have a touch decision to make. But right now, from what I can see, they are not of the mindset that they'll join a league."

So today, the Boilermakers, from the Big Ten, will come to South Bend, Ind., for one of the best games of the day. Willingham, who coached at Stanford, used to pursue the Pacific-10 title, and a berth in the Rose Bowl. Today, he will coach the Fighting Irish -- which means something entirely different.

"We have a national opportunity," he said, "and our pride. [They] will be the major things that we will put in front of our team."

Notre Dame has its own TV deal and no conference affiliation. But with the advent of ESPN and others, the Irish no longer have the eyes of national recruits all to themselves.WILLINGHAM