Notre Dame and the ACC didn’t need one another 10 years ago, five years ago or even six months ago. But after an historic, seismic and downright bizarre spring and summer, they do now.
Their partnership, announced Wednesday, is imperfect. But as Fighting Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick said, the move is mutually beneficial and rooted in “shared values.”
Sure, the ACC preferred that Notre Dame forgo its football independence and join as a full member. ESPN would have written a blank check, and fans would have celebrated St. Patrick’s Day year-round.
But despite a 24-year national-championship drought, Irish football remains unique, with a coast-to-coast cache that makes annual games against the likes of Southern California and Navy non-negotiable.
“We didn’t think we could give (independence) up without losing our identity,” said Rev. John Jenkins, Notre Dame’s president.
So starting in 2014, the Irish will play five ACC teams each football season. The opponents will rotate, meaning each league school will face Notre Dame once every three years.
“I’m excited that Notre Dame will be coming to Blacksburg to play Virginia Tech and that we’ll be going to South Bend to play them,” said Hokies athletic director Jim Weaver, who, like many of us north of 50, grew up watching Irish highlights on Sunday mornings.
“You’re talking to a guy who coached at Boston College," Virginia football coach Mike London said, "so I’ve had the chance and experience to go there and coach in that stadium. They have all of those historical artifacts - the Golden Dome and Knute Rockne and Touchdown Jesus. Some schools have an atmosphere that is special to play in. There’s no doubt Notre Dame is one of those places."
Notre Dame also will be part of the opponent pool opposite the ACC champion in the Orange Bowl and will be eligible to represent the conference in bowls other than the Orange.
As soon as negotiation and/or litigation allow, Notre Dame’s other sports programs will exit the Big East for the ACC, especially enhancing the league in basketball, lacrosse, tennis and soccer.
Commissioner John Swofford said he expects the arrangement to increase the conference’s 15-year, $3.6-billion contract with ESPN and that negotiations have started. The ACC will keep its football revenue from ESPN, while Notre Dame retains its windfall from NBC.
For basketball, which accounts for about 20 percent of television monies, Notre Dame, as the 15th school, will receive one-fifteenth of ACC revenue.
"With the additions of Syracuse and Pitt, and now Notre Dame, this is going to be as powerful of a basketball conference as I can remember,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said in a statement.
So why now?
The tipping point for the Irish was this summer’s adoption of a football playoff and the trickle down effect on other bowls. Teaming with the ACC improves Notre Dame’s postseason options outside the playoff exponentially.
Long opposed to accepting partial members, the ACC began reconsidering during a turbulent spring and summer replete with uninformed criticism of its new television contract and wanderlust rumblings about member schools such as Florida State and Clemson.
Quoting Clemson president James Barker, Swofford said: “What was best 20 years ago isn’t necessarily what’s best in today’s world.”
In unanimously inviting Notre Dame, Barker and his fellow presidents also doubled the ACC’s exit fee to approximately $50 million. So please, no more realignment foolishness.
The $50 million penalty lets “everyone know that we’re ACC brothers ... now and forevermore,” Florida State basketball coach Leonard Hamilton told the Orlando Sentinel.
Fans and media love to roll their eyes when presidents and commissioners mention academics as a driving force in conference decisions. But that is absolutely the case, especially here.
As a renowned private institution, Notre Dame is bathrobe-and-slippers comfortable with schools such as Duke, Boston College, Wake Forest and Syracuse. Moreover, mirroring the ACC, the Irish annually excel in the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate scores.
“Shared values,” indeed.
Relationships also were XXXL important in forging this deal.
Wake Forest president Nathan Hatch, whom Swofford cited as a major player, worked 30 years at Notre Dame; Duke athletic director Kevin White held the same position at Notre Dame; Swofford’s predecessor as commissioner, Gene Corrigan, is a former Irish AD and counseled Swofford throughout.
Credit Swofford, too, for closing the deal with Swarbrick.
“We’re going to have to pick out china pretty soon,” Swarbrick said, deadpan as could be, about all the time he and Swofford spent together.
Swarbrick’s most misinterpreted comment will be his calling the ACC a perfect geographic fit for Notre Dame. At 375 miles, Pittsburgh will become the Irish’s closest ACC colleague, but Notre Dame has always looked East, not only for students and athletes, but also fans, a tradition that dates to 1920s football games against Army in Yankee Stadium and the so-called Subway Alumni.
Joining the ACC takes the Irish to Boston, New York, Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C., Atlanta and Miami, plus Virginia and the Carolinas. Meanwhile, the ACC heads to the Chicago market.
Partial membership for Notre Dame also precludes the need for a 16th ACC school. The conference will remain at 14 for football, with seven-team divisions, and simply add the Irish for basketball and other sports, a change that merely tweaks scheduling and league tournaments.
“There's no need to add a 16th team,” Swofford said, “and no intention to do so. From a practical standpoint, it's illogical.”
That only changes on the Root Boy Slim chance that Notre Dame finds football independence untenable and joins all-in.
Last September, Swofford called the ACC’s additions of Pittsburgh and Syracuse “monumental.” He used the same word Wednesday.
He was right then. He is more right now.
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