The big news Wednesday was that Notre Dame will join the ACC in every league sport except football. The news someday soon will be that Notre Dame has decided to remove the qualifier from its new affiliation. The guess here is that, come 2016, the biggest independent in the history of independents will be playing conference football in a conference that needs a football jolt.
Speaking on a teleconference, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said Wednesday: “Our intention is to remain independent.” Then this: “If something would change, and it would have to be a drastic change, we’re committed to the ACC.”
In college football, drastic change occurs every hour on the hour. Three years ago, who’d have believed a playoff grid would be in place? Three years from now, the Irish will have grasped that continuing independence is overrated. (Not incidentally, Notre Dame’s TV contract with NBC lapses in 2015.)
The advent of that playoff left the biggest name in college football — say what you will about Alabama, but the Tide has never had its own TV network — in a place no program could afford to be. It left Notre Dame without postseason assurances. Even before the playoff format was finalized, the SEC and the Big 12 had partnered to create a new Champions Bowl. Who out there was willing to commit to being the New Year’s date of the famous independent?
In yet another display of clever thinking, ACC commissioner John Swofford pursued the school that every conference would kill to get, but they approached Notre Dame at an angle. You can join our league and stay a football independent, he said, but you’ll play five regular-season games against our membership and — big key — you’ll be eligible for bowl selection as one of ours.
(There’s a caveat: Notre Dame can’t replace an ACC team in the Orange Bowl, though it could play an ACC team in the Orange Bowl. But Notre Dame could be chosen as the ACC rep in, say, the Chick-fil-A Bowl.)
In a statement released by Notre Dame, Irish football coach Brian Kelly said: “We have further solidified our future as an independent in college football, maintained our unique ability to schedule nationally and greatly improved our postseason bowl-game options.”
But if you’re going to play five games against one league every blessed season, why hold out as an independent? Why not go the full Monty? And here’s the other deft trick Swofford turned: He upped the buyout fee for anyone wishing to leave the ACC to $50 million. That’s up from $20 million, and that’s a cost no university can begin to pay.
This means Florida State and Clemson and Virginia Tech aren’t going anywhere. And the buyout, Swofford noted, “does apply to Notre Dame and goes into effect immediately.”
As of Wednesday, Notre Dame is tied to the ACC. If/when — and really, more “when” than “if” — the Irish realize that independence is to contemporary college football as the Pony Express is to communications, they have nowhere else to go.
At a media briefing in Chapel Hill, Swofford spoke of “a changing landscape in intercollegiate athletics” and then quoted Clemson president James Barker as having said, “What was best 20 years ago isn’t best today.” That applies to the ACC, which had previously balked at offering partial enrollment, and it definitely applies to Notre Dame.
Say the Irish choose, for no real reason, to remain a football loner: The ACC still benefits. Its best-in-the-business basketball profile — remember, Syracuse and Pittsburgh are on the way — is further burnished, and the league has also enhanced its reputation as the conference that cares most about academics. (Insert North Carolina joke here.) Better still, the league has played the greatest bit of catch-up ball since Frank Reich, himself an ACC product, engineered that epic Buffalo rally against the Houston Oilers.
With teams switching conferences at the drop of a $100 bill, it was once feared that the ACC would be raided and ruined. Turns out it hasn’t lost a school while poaching three from the now-dilapidated Big East. You wouldn’t have bet on John Swofford to emerge as the most dynamic force in 21st century intercollegiate athletics, but here he stands.
And for all who insist that Notre Dame is an outdated concept … no, it hasn’t won a national championship since the day Georgia hired Ray Goff as its head coach, but Notre Dame remains the biggest national name in a sport that still beats hardest to regional pulses. You won’t find many Bama or USC or Texas fans in the Bronx, but you’ll find Irish backers. (Hence the phrase “subway alumni.”)
There’s no conference that wouldn’t benefit from adding the biggest of brand names. John Swofford’s conference is the one that did. On the day he spoke of “a changing landscape,” he effected the biggest change.
By Mark Bradley