When the announcement came down that Notre Dame would be leaving the Big East to join the Atlantic Coast Conference in all sports except football, I was very excited to hear it. I am a huge Irish football fan and a born ACC fan, so it was a marriage between two of my biggest sports passions.
As my brother and I began to discuss the ramifications of the move, he said something that I had never considered, that the ACC had Notre Dame football just where they wanted them. At first I didn’t get where he was going, because I knew that ND was still holding onto its status as a football independent. When he explained to me that ND was obligated to play five ACC teams per season and that the teams would be rotated, the light went on.
Despite all of their maneuverings to remain independent, the Irish had basically become a de facto ACC football member!
As we continued talking about the situation, it occurred to me that John Swofford had really placed ND on the road to full ACC membership because he sees how the landscape of college football has changed and will likely continue to evolve.
As conferences continue to grow and more so-called super conferences are formed, the scheduling opportunities for independent programs like BYU and Notre Dame will begin to dwindle. I can foresee a time when a 16-school ACC or the Big Ten takes a cue from the Pac-12 and mandates that their conference members all play during the season.
If that happens, where does that leave ND?
Hypothetically, this would put the Golden Domers in a real bind if those larger conferences went that route, because it could cause some high profile schools to rethink their scheduling. If Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue were suddenly faced with the prospect of playing every Big Ten school every season, especially with the new tournament format coming into play, would they still want to schedule ND? If the Irish continue to progress under Brian Kelly the thought of a trip to South Bend for a Wolverines squad hoping to have a shot at a title might not be so appealing.
Now some might say that is a far-fetched notion, especially when you look at the history between Notre Dame and those Big Ten schools. But how much did history and tradition count for when Texas A&M jumped to the SEC, when West Virginia fled to the Big 12 and when Nebraska jumped to the Big Ten?
Money talks in college football and BS runs the marathon…and the money is in competing for a shot at the national title. So if a team has to run a gauntlet against its entire conference to get that shot, where does that leave room for a matchup with Notre Dame?
Others make the argument that the Fighting Irish will be able to maintain as an independent because of the money they make from their television deal with NBC. While there is some truth in that, the reality is that the NBC is becoming all about the money, as the lure of having their “personal” network wears off with recruits.
Back when NBC and ND first joined forces, the Irish were a national power and the television deal was not just a way to make money, but to aid in recruiting. While other networks were airing college football and had deals in place with certain conferences, there was only one coaching staff that could go into a kid’s living room and tell him that over half his games every season would be broadcast on national television: Notre Dame.
That was a huge selling point for young football players, because everyone wants to be showcased and Notre Dame could guarantee that: all Irish home games would be televised, as well as big road contests like Michigan, USC and even Navy.
Will major independents such as Notre Dame and BYU be able to maintain their status as conferences continue to grow and realign?
That isn’t the case anymore, what with conferences creating their own networks (Big Ten) or individual schools partnering with cable companies to create school-specific networks (University of Texas). Suddenly Notre Dame isn’t the only kid on the block that can boast of extensive television exposure anymore.
So what Swofford and the ACC have done is they've backed Notre Dame into a corner, even though the Irish may not see it just yet. The ACC looks to be banking on the rise of even more super-conference configurations and of those conferences to adopt the Pac-12 scheduling model.
If that happens, Notre Dame is looking at two choices: either join the ACC as a full member or pay the $50 million exit fee to leave the conference. Having already become familiar with the conference members because of their mandatory five-game rotating schedule, it would make more sense for the Irish to simply join the ACC for all sports than to continue trying to survive as an independent in football and finding a home for its other sports…again.
I could be wrong, but judging from Swofford’s past machinations I wouldn’t put that type of thinking past him. He has proven to be a shrewd operator in the past and this is just the type of move he would make: one that can add one of the biggest names in college football to the ACC…without them even seeing it coming!