“The times they are a changin,’” sang Bob Dylan back in the turbulent 60s, and while no one would accuse Notre Dame president, Rev. John Jenkins C.S.C., or Notre Dame vice president and director of athletics, Jack Swarbrick, as being politically aligned with the still fiery folksinger, when it comes to ever-changing landscapes of college athletic conferences, their sentiments are about as close as they come.
Although Notre Dame’s announcement today that it is leaving the Big East (along with Pittsburgh and Syracuse) for the ACC is a big deal, a cautionary note on what it is not. Notre Dame will remain Independent in football (as it did in the Big East) but its agreement to play at least five ACC teams in football is a better deal than the Big East has with them, and gives the ACC (whose other members must play each other in football at least eight times) the next best thing.
With the Big East Conference crumbling before our very eyes, in many ways Notre Dame’s move to join the ACC in all sports but football and hockey (the ACC does not offer hockey, so it is presumed that Notre Dame will go through with its planned move to Hockey East in that sport) gives it the best of both worlds. The ACC gives ND both a prestigious academic conference and an extremely competitive athletic one, while maintaining its cherished independence in football (albeit at a loss of at least some of its traditional rivalries) and strong Christian identity, two unique qualities of the flagship American Catholic University that are often tied together.
Although there is no reason to doubt the sincerity of Fr. Jenkins’ assessment on the situation, “The ACC is composed of some of the most highly respected universities in the country, and we at Notre Dame look forward to joining them. With a mix of institutions — many of which are also private, similar to Notre Dame in size, and committed to excellence in research and undergraduate education — the ACC is an exceptionally good fit for us academically, as well as athletically,” Swarbrick’s take more closely addresses the reality of what has become the Big East closeout sale.
“We have monitored the changing conference landscape for many months and have concluded that moving to the ACC is the best course of action for us,” said Swarbrick, adding, “We are able to maintain our historic independence in football, join in the ACC’s non-BCS bowl package, and provide a new and extremely competitive home for our other sports.”
The Irish will join the ACC as soon as it can exit the Big East. The Big East currently requires members to provide 27 months notice to exit although West Virginia, Pittsburgh and Syracuse were able to leave earlier by paying a higher exit fee. At press time, there is no news on whether Notre Dame will pay the toll for an early exit.
With the addition of Notre Dame, the ACC’s future membership includes eleven institutions ranked among the top 58 in the 2013 U.S. News & World Report survey of “America’s Best Colleges,” more than any other conference also competing at the highest level athletically. Ironically, though, it is Notre Dame’s football independence that allows it to forgo the pressure of conforming philosophically (and theologically) and still maintain Her Catholic identity.
Of course, keeping its status as the only major Catholic university playing football games across the country (not to mention Ireland) is not bad for maintaining its national fan — and recruiting — base either.
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