In a time that is painstakingly slow in the Notre Dame and college football world, I was happy to see Twitter ablaze last week when Tim Brando suggested that Notre Dame was in talks to become a full-fledged member of the ACC. This led to Athletic Director, Jack Swarbrick, issuing a denial that no such talks had occurred.
In a topic that has been discussed and debated forever, I think it is time to considering moving in that direction. The first time I recall this subject being seriously broached was back in 1999 when the Irish, after some discussion, spurned the Big 10. At the time, I was a subscriber to the print edition (what is that?) of Blue and Gold Illustrated and I still remember their headline: “Catholic, Private, and Independent” as both a statement as well as justification for not joining the Big 10.
Back then, I thought it was a unique and correct stance. Today, I do not.
In 1999, Notre Dame was just a few years removed from competing for National Championships every year. As the landscape of college football has changed, I believe that era in Notre Dame Football History is over, probably forever. Before people blow up my Twitter mentions, that does not mean the Irish can’t compete for National Championships (see 2012 and 2015 as recent evidence), but yearly is a bit of a stretch.
And before anyone says it, money, in my opinion, is a non-factor when it comes to thoughts of joining the ACC. Granted, in the last few seasons, Forbes had ACC member schools earning roughly $22 million. I’m no math expert, but by my calculations, the Irish earned roughly $24 million in 2014: $15 million from NBC, $2.75 million for the Music City Bowl berth, and $6.2 million for their partial ACC share. Considering that the Irish made a the Fiesta Bowl, a New Year’s Six payout, in 2015, that figure soars even higher. So at this point, money is not really a good motivation for conference membership as excellence on the field already boosts the bottom line.
For me the real question is do you alter or remove tradition to modernize? I believe athletes have changed and kids in general have changed. Would an 18-year-old today trade playing USC in exchange for the ability to play for a Conference Championship? These days, that’s a more interesting question than the moot point it was 30 years ago. Back then, the sell of “Hey kid, if you go to Michigan you can compete every year for the Rose Bowl, but at Notre Dame we compete for National Titles almost every year” held a lot more weight than it does in today’s football reality.
To me, the greatest benefit to joining the ACC is to acquire the ability to play for a conference championship every year, even in a year where you are, say, plodding through a 9-2 season, but a season finale against Virginia Tech gives you a shot to advance to the ACC Championship. A pair of late seasons wins and now you’re looking at an Orange Bowl berth rather than moving from the Russell Athletic Bowl to the Belk Bowl as it would stand today.
I recall a dejected Ron Powlus in 1996 after a loss to Ohio State remark, “The National Championship’s done. The season’s over.” The Irish were 3-1 at that point! I wonder if he would have felt that way had the Irish been playing in a conference with a league title still to be decided. At the height of USC’s power, Pete Carroll always maintained the goal for every USC season was to win the Pac-10 and play in the Rose Bowl.
More recently, look no further than Penn State, one of the more recent examples of independents making the conference jump, this past season who, after a 2-2 start, surged to a Big 10 Championship and Rose Bowl berth following nine straight wins. Now you have analysts across the country praising the return of Penn State football and they now find themselves ranked #6 in the 2017 Athlon Pre-Season poll, giving their title hopes a great boost for the upcoming 2017 season.
The question I ask myself is whether or not that same notoriety have come had they finished 10-3 as an independent with no conference title and a bowl loss.
I know even thinking about this the traditionalists will cringe, including those that write on this site! Scheduling fears are among these reasons, but, remember, in the ACC, you still leave yourself four non-conference games. You can still play Navy and USC and then fill out the schedule with a couple of MAC schools, which Notre Dame is starting to do anyway. Plus, considering that the Irish would be in a league regularly playing with the likes of Florida State, Virginia Tech, Miami, Louisville, and Clemson on a more regular basis than their current three year rotation would make the ACC potentially the best conference in college football. The impact of winning a league like that on a regular basis would have a huge impact on recruiting as well as the Irish’s playoff and national title hopes.
I’m a huge fan of tradition, but the ability to play for a conference championship every year, as well as truely recognizing and adapting to the new realities of the college football landscape, makes joining the ACC as a permanent member a very relevant discussion worth having.