This is a piece about basketball, football, and conference membership, and it’s one of those pieces that drives a lot of people to distraction, seeing as it’s mostly devoid of statistics and objectivity. The ones of people who read this either be staunch proponents of our football independence or at-peace with our football independence. That said, I cannot help but consider our position relative to the ACC whenever tournament time rolls around.
To say that conference membership has been good for Notre Dame’s basketball teams is an understatement. When the Irish joined the Big East for the 1995-1996 season, the mainstream media noted that membership would positively impact recruiting and breathe life into a musty identity. Then head coach John MacLeod verified that Notre Dame’s non-conference status cost the team coveted student-athletes. Muffet McGraw’s teams turned into one of the nation’s dominant teams. They haven’t lost more than four games in a season since 2010-2011.
It’s taken some time for Mike Brey’s guys to get to the ladies’ level, even though I’m not seriously suggesting that they’re there yet. Muffet McGraw won her national championship in 2001, which was Mike Brey’s first foray into the NCAA Tournament and his second season under The Dome. The last three years, though, have been strong performances, with back-to-back Elite 8 appearances, a conference championship, and a conference final display Saturday night that had Coach K trumpet ND as a Final Four team.
I question whether we as fans would excuse repeated NCAA tournament disappointment for repeat conference championships. Would Mike Brey’s star be as bright as it is now if he “crashed out” in the Sweet Sixteen or Round of 32 but he beat Duke or North Carolina in the conference final every couple of years? I think not, but that’s just me. Would the case for a Brian Kelly statue grow stronger if we beat Florida State or Louisville every couple of years but then lost to Alabama or Michigan in the playoffs?
Conference membership wouldn’t help the team in recruiting, either. Student-athletes interested in Notre Dame are interested in their football- and non-football careers. They’re interested in the NFL as much as they are in an MBA. As recruiting has become truly national and international in scope, though, conference rivalries and their local traditions lose their luster.
The ACC Tournament has generated an enormous amount of excitement for the men’s team but I don’t see it translating elsewhere. Muffet McGraw has won her conference championship every year since 2013. She is still a second-fiddle to Geno Auriemma and UConn, winners of the last three national championships and looking for their fourth in-a-row. Brian Kelly had the Irish in the championship game in 2012 and narrowly missed the playoffs in 2015. He’s very much in the hot seat for 2017.
Notre Dame’s women may suffer from their own success and Mike Brey’s recent run may be garnering more attention than it would if expectations were higher. Whatever the case may be for Notre Dame’s basketball teams, conference membership would not help Notre Dame football, or its head coach.