Notre Dame agrees to join ACC's ranks

acarter@newsobserver.comSeptember 12, 2012 

— Gene Corrigan left his job as athletics director at Notre Dame in 1987 to become the commissioner of the Atlantic Coast Conference. Even then, as far-fetched as it seemed, Corrigan always hoped Notre Dame would become a member of the ACC.

Now it’s only a matter of time. The ACC announced Wednesday that Notre Dame will join the conference as a full member in all league-sponsored sports except football, in which it will remain independent but compete against five ACC schools per season.

“This is truly a historic moment for the Atlantic Coast Conference,” league Commissioner John Swofford, who succeeded Corrigan in 1997, said when he stood behind a lectern and welcomed Notre Dame as the ACC’s 15th member.

The 12-member ACC Council of Presidents gathered in Chapel Hill and unanimously approved the addition, and some members watched a news conference that carried a celebratory tone.

Swofford and Corrigan shared discussions about this moment, and about what it might take to make it come true. What it took, more than anything, was mutual compromise.

The ACC had long been opposed to partial membership. Notre Dame, meanwhile, has long been fiercely protective of its complete independence in football – so much so that when it joined the Big East Conference in 1995, it kept its football program entirely separate from the league.

The agreement reflects willingness by Notre Dame and the ACC to change long-held positions. When Notre Dame officially joins the ACC, it will be the closest the school has come to surrendering its football independence.

“There’s a big break in tradition here in a lot of ways on both sides,” Corrigan, now retired and living near Charlottesville, Va., said in a phone interview. “But to me – I’m being selfish now – I love both groups. I love the ACC. I love Notre Dame. And so I couldn’t be happier than I am right now thinking of Notre Dame being in the ACC.”

When Notre Dame officially becomes a conference member has yet to be decided. The Big East requires 27 months of notice before a member is allowed to leave, which would mean a 2015-16 start date, but Notre Dame athletics director Jack Swarbrick said he will explore “whether there’s an opportunity to accelerate that.”

Pittsburgh and Syracuse, which will become the 13th and 14th ACC members, accelerated their exits and will begin competing in the ACC next season.

Swarbrick later said he hoped Notre Dame could begin its partial ACC football schedule in 2014. He wore on the lapel of his suit jacket a green pin with the Notre Dame logo and, beneath that, an ACC pin. He spoke of how well Notre Dame fit into the ACC, and why this move made sense now.

“What this was always about was, would there be a fit out there that was compatible with the institutional values and our goals for the university and athletically,” Swarbrick said.

“And in so many ways, the ACC identifies that – the quality of the schools, their approach to athletics.”

ACC best option for Irish

Long considered a top commodity in college athletics because of its national brand and football tradition, Notre Dame likely could have chosen its conference destination. Speculation for years had focused on Notre Dame and the Big Ten Conference.

But joining the ACC “wasn’t a tough decision,” said Rev. John Jenkins, the Notre Dame president.

“I don’t think there’s a better situation than the situation we have …,” Jenkins said. “The ACC has allowed us to retain a tradition that’s so central to our identity in football while we’re joining a conference that athletically as well as academically fits Notre Dame perfectly.”

Even playing a partial ACC schedule in football, Notre Dame will raise the league’s profile. It will improve the conference’s financial outlook as well, but it remains unclear by how much.

The ACC announced this year a new 15-year television rights deal with ESPN that was to pay member schools an average of $17.1 million per year. Swofford said 80 percent of the league’s TV revenue is driven by football, and men’s basketball is responsible for the rest.

The ACC’s TV contract is subject to renegotiation, Swofford said, with the addition of Notre Dame, which will receive an equal share of basketball television revenue. The ACC and Notre Dame will enter a unique agreement that allows both to keep their own football TV revenue.

The five football games between Notre Dame and ACC schools will rotate year-by-year – three at ACC sites and two at Notre Dame one season, and then three at Notre Dame and two at ACC sites the next. Games broadcast at ACC sites will fall under the conference’s TV contract, and Notre Dame will own the rights for its home games.

Notre Dame’s football broadcast partnership with NBC will expire in 2015, but Swarbrick said the university has “had very productive discussions” with the network about future broadcasting rights.

“I think it’s a very positive benefit for the conference to be exposed on another network when they visit Notre Dame,” Swarbrick said. “It will be great for us when we visit ACC teams to be featured as part of their package.”

How the deal was done

More than anything, the addition of Notre Dame is expected to solidify the ACC, whose member institutions approved raising the league’s exit fee to at least $50 million.

Swofford said Wednesday represented the end point of discussions between the ACC and Notre Dame that began long ago.

Swarbrick said the discussions gained momentum after Pitt and Syracuse announced they were leaving the Big East for the ACC. Had there been a turning point along the way, a moment when Swofford felt confident that Notre Dame would join the ACC?

“I’m not sure I can tell you when that moment was,” Swofford said.

“But I think the issue really was about full membership for us. They’re keeping their football independence. And when we got to a point where we felt like they could keep their football independence, we could have five football games on an annual basis, year-in and year-out that would rotate through our entire membership, then you’re talking about something that is a win-win.”

Notre Dame had long been seen as an elusive prize for any conference, even only as a partial member.

That Notre Dame was willing to join the ACC and play more than half of a conference schedule worth of football games is, Corrigan said, “a huge thing.”

Finalizing the deal wasn’t easy, though. Swarbrick spoke of hurdles, and he and Swofford shared discussions at BCS meetings and other events. There was negotiation, compromise and, finally, a deal. The ACC hastily put together a news conference, which began about two hours after the announcement Wednesday morning.

It had been a tumultuous five months for the ACC, with negative speculation surrounding the conference. At one point, Florida State and Clemson were rumored to be leaving for the Big 12 Conference, and a story published in Forbes magazine in May predicted the ACC’s demise.

Now, Swofford said, “I don’t know why there would be any rumors.”

He sounded happy to say it – and with good reason, given the ACC had finalized a deal it had long hoped would become reality.

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