Notre Dame should jump to the ACC … and fast

If I’m Notre Dame today I’m on the phone to Atlantic Coast Conference headquarters in Greensboro, N.C. because tomorrow may be too late.

If I’m Notre Dame today, and I see the Big East in mid-implosion, see that the ACC has essentially left a spot for me (temporarily) and see the long-term demographic trends for the Midwest, I’m spending the afternoon having a long, soul-searching look in the independence mirror.

And then I’m starting negotiations to join the ACC, not the Big Ten, my persistent local suitor and the one everyone assumes I’ll eventually marry.

Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick would prefer football independence, but that option may disappear fast.
(Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

“Obviously they are the most attractive option out there,” one ACC athletic director told Yahoo! Sports on Monday, noting he had no knowledge of any discussions between the school and the league. Speaking generally, however, he added: “every league would want Notre Dame and we’re no different.”

For Notre Dame, football independence remains the priority. “Our preference is clear,” Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said 18 months ago.

That was when the tectonic shifts of conference realignment began and Swarbrick was quick to point out the Irish would remain conference-free unless there was “a scenario that would force our hand.”

On Sunday, Syracuse and Pittsburgh left the Big East for the ACC and if that isn’t the “scenario,” then we’re close.

Ask people in South Bend and one of their chief concerns about superconferences is whether they will prevent the Irish from putting together legitimate 12-game schedules, including revenue-rich seven or eight home games. Then it’s what it might do to basketball and other sports.

[Related: Huguenin: College sports on tenuous ground]

Notre Dame is currently a member of the Big East in all sports except football, a sweetheart arrangement. It also enjoys a scheduling deal in football, where league teams often play the Irish even in November, when getting game dates is increasingly difficult. Since current Big East teams play just seven-league games, they are almost always available – South Florida and Pitt are on the docket this season.

If Big East football ceases to exist – or merges into a 12-or-16-team group with the remaining Big 12 schools – then that scheduling flexibility is gone. The noose tightens a little bit more.

Things are troubling now, but they get worse with the ACC’s next move, inevitably to 16 teams. Connecticut and Rutgers are the prime candidates, which would exacerbate the current issues and, in non-football sports, further erode the Irish exposure along the East Coast, where so much of its fan base resides.

Notre Dame is very close to the point of no return, where they are forced to join a conference.

[Related: Big East, Big 12 officials talk merger]

It’s certainly interesting that the ACC didn’t go 16 schools on Sunday. It took a breather (or allowed Notre Dame a chance to survey the inevitable) before offering UConn and Rutgers.

Notre Dame should first see if the ACC would duplicate the deal the Big East has provided since 1995 – all sports sans football. Here’s doubting that works. “I wouldn’t think so,” said the ACC AD.

At that point they’re better off being proactive and taking one of the two remaining spots in the ACC than getting left to hoping the Big Ten will take them.

The Big Ten always seemed like a natural fit. South Bend is surrounded by conference schools, the Irish enjoy long, historic rivalries with Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue and have regularly competed with other league members. The academics are strong. The alumni are familiar. It’s always made sense.

Except if you’re going to tie your football program to a conference for the next 50 years, do you want to do it in a region of the country (the Midwest) which is growing at a far slower rate than the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic?

Population trends are a major concern for all schools in the region. Michigan actually lost residents in the most recent census. In football it’s even more pronounced. More and more of the best players are coming from the South.

Notre Dame has always been a national recruiter, mainly because it’s been able to play a national schedule. That will end if it joins any conference. The Irish can keep its rivalry game with Southern California, but with the Big Ten moving to nine conference games a year, there won’t be many other open dates.

Big Ten or not, Notre Dame would remain a viable player in Midwest recruiting, especially in Chicagoland, the state of Michigan and the Cincinnati Catholic leagues. Playing in the ACC would offer additional access to talent-rich areas such as Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia and Washington D.C.

Notre Dame would also stand out in the ACC. Its potential comes in part from its vast tradition and incredible game-day environment. As grand as its history is, however, it isn’t appreciably stronger than Ohio State, Michigan, Nebraska or Penn State. And as lovely as Notre Dame Stadium can be, the aforementioned offer pretty incredible game-day scenes also, as do Wisconsin, Iowa and others.

There is little question that the Big Ten can provide more money right now, but money isn’t the major concern for Notre Dame. The school has money. With all those alums and a $6.1 billion endowment, it has as much money as it possibly needs. It’s not a lack of revenue that has held the program back. The ACC would provide enough.

[Related: Texas coach Mack Brown tries to save Big 12]

The NBC deal would have to be worked into any conference membership, but it’s unlikely the new league would frown upon having all Irish home games broadcast on a major network. Things can be figured out.

Is there ACC interest in Notre Dame? Of course. The ACC is trying to add enough strength to withstand any attempted future raids from the SEC or Big Ten. Notre Dame may or may not be enough, but no one fortifies the league like the Irish.

“No other school brings to the table what Notre Dame does,” the athletic director said. “I think we’d all feel better if they are with us.”

This is essentially about choosing the location of your new home.

The Midwest is local, familiar and perhaps safe.

The ACC, however, offers everything from the high school football factories of Florida to the academic power of Duke and Virginia in the Mid-Atlantic to the big subway-alum cities stretching from Washington to Boston. That’s especially true if Rutgers came along as the 16th member.

It’s simply a more appealing geographic and demographic option than the old Big Ten. Especially in the decades to come.

Yes, independence is preferred. It’s what makes Notre Dame unique and it’s a point of pride for the alums. No one associated with the Irish wants to see it go.

Sometimes scenarios force hands, however, and if the point of no return is coming, then Notre Dame should make the move to a better option now than simply settling for its long-expected conference spot.

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Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Sep 19, 2011