"People asked me, 'Why in the world would you leave to go to a huge school like Notre Dame?' " Corrigan, 85, recalled Wednesday from his home in Charlottesville, Va. "Huge? I remember telling them Notre Dame's really a small school. A school like Virginia that would fit well in the ACC. … Finally, it happened."
Indeed, Notre Dame ended a period of institutional awkwardness Wednesday when it announced it will join the Atlantic Coast Conference in all sports except its sacred football and hockey.
Tobacco Road added a South Bend exit because the league offered Notre Dame access to everything the crumbling Big East no longer did: Flexible scheduling, an appealing demographic and elite company on the field and in the classroom. In sacrificing nothing for something important to future stability for student-athletes, Notre Dame reaffirmed its relevance in the college sports marketplace to anybody questioning it.
Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick called the power play, "a home run." Around the ACC, athletic officials understandably spent the day admiring it.
"Why it makes sense for the ACC is we're trying to solidify the football portion of our league and Notre Dame adds great value from a media standpoint and competitive standpoint," North Carolina athletic director Bubba Cunningham said on the phone. "It's a great fit."
Cunningham, a Notre Dame graduate who worked in the university's athletic department from 1988-2002, remembered the last time his alma mater created such a national ripple by joining a conference. But when Notre Dame announced plans to join the Big East in 1994, it felt historic. This was more pragmatic.
When college football's new playoff plan unveiled in June didn't make a conference title a condition for Final Four teams, it reduced Notre Dame's need to consider league affiliation. As one athletic director put it, "that allowed Notre Dame to desperately hang onto its football independence." By mid-July, the process to maintain it resumed fervently.
Notre Dame and the ACC formed a partnership quickly because it made sense for both sides to act now. Besides the security scheduling five ACC opponents without compromising traditional series provides Notre Dame, the school lacked an adequate plan for second-tier bowls under the new system. Aligning with the ACC immediately alleviated that concern, a fact member schools might feel differently about the first time a 7-5 Notre Dame team takes their spot in a bowl game. But when you are the conference with the fifth-weakest football brand out of five power conferences, such is life. Credit ACC Commissioner John Swofford for accepting reality.
Now the ACC also can use Notre Dame to enhance its stature with the Orange Bowl and to derive more money out of the league's underwhelming TV contract. Now Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly can recruit in traditional SEC country armed with improved ammunition of more future games in the region. Now Notre Dame can negotiate its next NBC contract with the promise of new southeast markets.
Who loses? The Big 12 flirted with Notre Dame, but one university source said that always was "more smoke than fire." Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue might miss playing the Irish. As for the Big Ten overall, though tempting, it would be lazy to overstate what the league lost in not landing a fish it stopped trying to catch.
The ACC made concessions to take Notre Dame without football the Big Ten never dared to consider. If you respect how Notre Dame has valued staying independent — as I do — you similarly have to admire the Big Ten for protecting an identity Notre Dame's partial-membership would have altered. The Big Ten believes in keeping its members equal partners as staunchly as Notre Dame believes in its football independence.
Football drove Notre Dame's move to the ACC, but basketball will benefit immediately if facility upgrades, such as a new practice gym, become the priority they must for programs competing with Duke and North Carolina. Nothing against new Big East members Memphis, Houston, SMU and Central Florida, but they weren't going to challenge Notre Dame's soccer, lacrosse or tennis programs, for example, the way ACC foes will.
"Notre Dame's Olympic sports are geared to win national championships, and that's the way it is at ACC schools," said Corrigan, the former ACC commissioner from 1987-97 who consulted Swofford through this merger.
To Corrigan, it culminated a process he began almost 20 years ago trying to lure Notre Dame to the ACC.
"They weren't ready yet," Corrigan said. "But at the time I thought it made a lot of sense."
Makes even more sense now.