First off, the geography: From now on, obviously, we’ll have to redefine the term “Atlantic Coast.”
Notre Dame joined the Atlantic Coast Conference on Wednesday, much in the same way a celebrity joins a country club -- getting all the benefits, but not having to pay much of the dues.
The Fighting Irish agreed to play football against five ACC teams a year. I started to say, “agreed to play five ACC games a year,” but that’s not quite right -- Notre Dame’s games won’t count in the conference standings. So to the rest of the league, Notre Dame is sort of a friend with benefits. Lots of benefits.
It’s an obvious win for the ACC, which as a football conference has worked hard and expanded, and is now still a good basketball conference. There will be 14 full-membership ACC teams when Syracuse and Pitt join next year. Four of them have big football rivalries: Clemson with South Carolina, Georgia Tech with Georgia, Florida State with Florida, Miami with Florida State. For the other 10 teams, Notre Dame instantly becomes the biggest game on their schedule -- even though they’ll play the Irish only once every three years or so.
I live in Charlotte, right in the middle of ACC country -- we’re the current host of the ACC championship game. The buzz about ACC football lasts right up to about 3:30 on Saturday, when the SEC game comes on. By Monday, everybody’s talking about the Panthers, or high school ball, or maybe Roy Williams and Coach K.
Notre Dame changes that. When Notre Dame comes to Raleigh or Clemson or Blacksburg, it’ll be an event. Notre Dame brings a crowd, and it brings a national TV audience, and lately it brings the promise that you’ll get to beat Notre Dame in football.
This is Notre Dame’s problem. The Irish haven’t put a consistently great team on the field since Lou Holtz walked the sideline. Fans got their ascots in a twist over Allen Pinkett’s comments a couple weeks ago, but whatever you think about players with “edge,” one thing is true: Notre Dame isn’t getting the players it used to. Joining the ACC gives Notre Dame a foothold in Florida, and around D.C., and in the underrated recruiting areas in South Carolina and Virginia.
It also affiliates Notre Dame with a conference that’s not too hard, but not too easy, either. If the Irish played the Big Ten five games a year, they might lose three or four; if they played the Big East, they’d probably go 5-0 or 4-1. In the ACC, they’ll be paired with teams of roughly their caliber. And if Notre Dame ever becomes a full member, the ACC will have the throw-weight to stay in the discussion with the SEC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12.
But I don’t think full ACC membership is in Notre Dame’s plans. (Notre Dame is joining the ACC in other sports, but this is a football discussion.) The Irish enjoy going out West to play USC and Stanford. They enjoy playing Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue in the Midwest. They like playing home-and-homes against big-time teams like Oklahoma. They like playing Navy because they can beat Navy, and because Navy has the same taste in uniforms.
Almost none of that changes in the short term. If you count Pitt, the Irish are already playing four ACC teams this year, plus their normal varied schedule. But in the long term, if conferences keep growing and more teams play more games inside their leagues, Notre Dame might end up with nobody to play. Now it has a conference it can lean on if that happens. And the ACC has a $50 million exit fee if Notre Dame’s eyes start to wander.
It’s a little sad, really. Notre Dame was the last great independent, the last silent-movie star before the pictures got small. It’s strange to see the Irish maneuver to get better players and find shelter in case of hard times. But they still have a name. They still have a big TV contract. And now, if nothing else, they have bent the Atlantic Coast to cover the shores of Lake Michigan.