As the plate tectonics of conference realignment played out over the past couple of years, Notre Dame's fierce determination to keep its football program independent faced a recurring threat.
Athletic director Jack Swarbrick huddled over and over with his staff and tried to play out how the Irish would fill out their 12-game schedule in the years and decades to come, a Notre Dame source said.
That, more than any other factor, led to Wednesday's announcement that Notre Dame would join the ACC in all sports except football, according to the source. The agreement stipulates Notre Dame plays five football games per year against ACC opponents, but not compete for the league title and play eight games, as a full member would. That provides the Irish with the firm scheduling base it coveted while maintaining the freedom to maintain a national schedule.
As for the ACC, the compromise allows its football programs access to a major brand that sells tickets and delivers TV ratings. It will also allow ACC commissioner John Swofford to seek additional compensation from the league's current long-term deal with ESPN, according to an ACC source. That deal has been criticized in league circles for not delivering enough revenue.
Previously the Irish were Big East members in all sports except football, allowing it a footprint in the Northeast, where many of its alums live. The weakening, and nationalizing, of the Big East made it easier to leave, as did former league members Pittsburgh and Syracuse heading to the ACC next season.
It wasn't as important as football scheduling, though. In fact, nothing was.
While the Irish cherish that its football team has never joined a conference, the ability to play a bold, flexible and national schedule, while keeping a deal with its own television partner (NBC), was more important than maintaining full independence. It wouldn't mean as much if the opponents grow weaker.
[Related: Winners and losers after Notre Dame's move]
Notre Dame is one of just three schools (USC and UCLA) to have never played a team from the former Division I-AA. It strongly prefers to avoid playing teams from so-called non-BCS leagues, although scheduling challenges have already caused the addition of the University of Massachusetts, a member of the Mid-American Conference, to the 2015 slate.
As other conferences grew in size – the SEC expanded to 14 teams, the Pac-12 and Big 10 went to 12 – so too did the threat that the Irish couldn't just pick and choose opponents, especially in October and November, as they always have. The other conferences might go to nine league games (as the Pac 12 already does), eliminating one slot for a tough non-conference opponent. Earlier this year, the Big Ten and Pac-12 set up a scheduling agreement that concerned Notre Dame – although it later fell apart when the Pac-12 pulled out.
Notre Dame currently must schedule all of its 12 games per year. This drops to seven games with the ACC scheduling the other five. ACC teams will likely be featured during the more challenging dates later in the season. It's a far easier task.
"People don't realize how difficult it is," the source said. "The outlook was very challenging. If the Big Ten does move to a nine-game league schedule down the line, and it could be 10 years from now, can we still count on getting Purdue, Michigan State and Michigan all in a row? And late October and November kept growing tougher."
Meanwhile, the ACC offers top-flight competition in the non-football sports and allows the Irish increased access and presence to the Southeast, a growing part of the country. And with the ACC's expansion up the East Coast, Notre Dame will be in some traditional areas, such as Boston, the state of New York, and the Maryland-Washington market.
Notre Dame was not enamored with playing lesser-known brands such as Houston, SMU, Central Florida and others in the new revamped and expanded Big East basketball league.
The move also doesn't greatly change how the Irish currently do business in football.
In 2016, for example, Notre Dame is scheduled to play ACC members Boston College, Syracuse, Miami and Pittsburgh. By adding just one more ACC game, it can maintain the rest of its national schedule that includes games with Texas, USC, Stanford, Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue and Navy at a neutral site.
The Big Ten long courted Notre Dame as a full member but that option did not appeal to the Irish, according to the school. Notre Dame saw the Midwest league as limiting the school's ability to be a national program and was concerned the school would become just another tradition-rich program with a big stadium fighting over the same recruiting grounds with Michigan, Ohio State and Nebraska.
The Big 12 was another possibility, but the ACC presents the best of all worlds and a willingness to make concessions to add the Irish. ACC commissioner John Swofford was under criticism earlier this year for a TV contract that left some athletic directors worried about falling deeply behind the SEC in revenue. There was also chatter among the Florida State board of trustees that the Seminoles should look to join the Big 12.
This should alleviate that concern. While there were some ACC objections about not forcing Notre Dame to be a full member, the benefits were too great to pass up.
"This one needed to happen," said an ACC source.
The date for Notre Dame's exit from the Big East still needs to be negotiated. Big East bylaws stipulate Notre Dame owes a $5 million exit fee and 27 months notice. As part of this deal, the ACC upped its exit fee to $50 million
Notre Dame's chief challenge is now gone. It has a base of five good games each year in markets it values. The Irish can maintain historic, national rivalries and still have the freedom to add a couple games around the country.
"This was, by far the best option," the source said.
Notre Dame is expected to continue to control its media rights for all home football games. Its current deal with NBC ends in 2015, and the guarantee of quality opponents will play a major factor in negotiations.
One this day, it's a celebration in South Bend. While full "independence" is technically gone, the benefit of what it produces has been assured.
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