Once implausible, full ACC membership for Notre Dame seems possible

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Notre Dame and the ACC talked in 2003, and their discussions ended amicably and predictably — the school passed on all-sports membership in the name of its storied football independence.

Eight years later, in the wake of radical conference realignment, the parties are conversing again. Will this episode end differently?

The Irish taking their national football brand to the ACC, or any conference, has long seemed implausible. Not now.

Sources affiliated with the ACC and Notre Dame believe this can happen, want it to happen.

"I love the ACC, and I love Notre Dame," Gene Corrigan said. "I think it would be wonderful."

Corrigan understands the principals like no other.

He served as Notre Dame's athletic director from 1981-87, hiring the last football coach to bring a national championship to the Golden Dome, Lou Holtz. Corrigan left Notre Dame to become commissioner of the ACC, orchestrating Florida State's addition to the conference in 1991.

Corrigan and others outlined how the ACC and Notre Dame fit, and, most important, why the timing may be right.

For sports other than football, the Irish compete in the Big East, and the affiliation has helped forge significant upgrades in Notre Dame's overall program. Alas, the Big East is unraveling.

Syracuse and Pittsburgh are leaving for the ACC, West Virginia or Louisville for the Big 12. Once-future member Texas Christian bailed for the Big 12 before playing a Big East game.

So while valuing its storied football, Notre Dame worries about its basketball programs and Olympic sports. The Irish also wonder what form football postseason will take when the current Bowl Championship Series contracts expire after the 2013 season.

Will Notre Dame, which has finished among the Associated Press' final top 10 only once in the last 18 seasons, still have automatic access to the marquee bowls? Might the championship road be smoother in a conference?

"They're certainly going to think about (full conference membership) more than they ever have before," Corrigan said from his home near the University of Virginia, "because things have changed so much. … You pick up the paper every day and you have no idea what you might read (about conferences)."

Notre Dame's most natural geographic fit is the Big Ten, but the school has long gazed East. That connection dates to the 1920s, when legions of "subway alumni" flocked to Irish football games at New York's Yankee Stadium.

Pittsburgh would be the only ACC school within 500 miles of Notre Dame. But the geography was similar in 2003, when the conference added Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech — only Maryland's campus was within 500 miles of Chestnut Hill, Mass.

Moreover, common cultural, academic and athletic threads trump Mapquest in this equation.

Like Duke, Miami, Boston College and Wake Forest, Notre Dame is a private school with fewer than 10,000 undergraduates. The Irish also would give the ACC a fourth member ranked among U.S. News and World Report's top 25 — Duke is No. 10, Notre Dame No. 19 and Wake Forest and Virginia tied at No. 25 — allowing the ACC to continue trumpeting that all of its members are among the top 101.

The ACC also values Olympic sports such as lacrosse, tennis and soccer. A national-high five conference schools — Duke, North Carolina, Virginia, Florida State and Maryland — finished among the top 20 in the Directors' Cup all-sports standings in 2010-11. The Irish were 18th and have never been below 31st.

"From a competitive standpoint, it couldn't be better," Corrigan, a Duke graduate and former Virginia athletic director, said of the ACC-Notre Dame match.

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