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Notre Dame joining ACC in all sports but football

Updated: September 12, 2012 10:28PM

Notre Dame is giving up a little autonomy for a lot of stability.

By leaving the crumbling Big East for the growing Atlantic Coast Conference in all sports except for football and hockey, the Irish give their perennially ranked men’s and women’s basketball programs a more secure league with marquee opponents.

But the conference dominoes that have fallen over the past couple of years have always been about football, and Notre Dame’s move is no different. The Irish have been adamant about staying independent — rejecting overtures over the years from the ACC, Big Ten and Big 12 — and the new ACC deal allows them to do so, while also giving them the scheduling stability and bowl tie-ins that only a conference can provide.

Notre Dame football still will be independent, and will get to keep its lucrative NBC contract, but will play five ACC opponents each year — facing every ACC team at least once every three years — and will be included in the league’s non-BCS bowl package, giving the team more postseason possibilities in seasons in which the Irish don’t qualify for a BCS bowl.

“The ACC allows us to retain something that is so essential to our football identity,” Notre Dame president Rev. John Jenkins said. “I just don’t think there’s a better option out there than the situation we have. It wasn’t a tough decision.”

Starting in the 2014 season — when the BCS is replaced by a four-team playoff — Notre Dame will have access to all of the ACC bowl games, whatever they might be in two years. The Irish can be selected over any other ACC team as long as they are ranked higher, or are within one win of the ACC team. ACC commissioner John Swofford also said that Notre Dame could potentially be an opponent for the ACC champion in the Orange Bowl, if the Irish qualify.

ND athletic director Jack Swarbrick said that securing postseason possibilities for the Irish was a key factor in the decision to hook up with the ACC.

“It wasn’t about any changes in the Big East,” he said. “It wasn’t about media contracts. Once we had an understanding of how the BCS would work, our focus turned to the other elements of the postseason, everything below that.”

Having five ACC games each year means some of Notre Dame’s traditional rivalries might be in jeopardy. But Swarbrick said it was important for ND to play on the West Coast every year (meaning USC and Stanford are likely to stay on the schedule) and to keep its long-standing rivalry with Navy. Other traditional opponents — Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue, for example — might be tough to fit in every year.

But the benefit to having the ACC schedule five games a year is that Notre Dame only has to find seven quality opponents a year instead of 12. Having that scheduling base will make it easier for Notre Dame to keep a national, barnstorming presence, even if the ever-expanding major conferences start scheduling extra league games in the near future.

“Speaking strictly from a football standpoint, we have further solidified our future as an independent in college football, maintained our unique ability to schedule nationally and greatly improved our postseason bowl game options,” ND coach Brian Kelly in a released statement.

Notre Dame likely will have to buy out some contracts to fit five ACC teams in each year beginning in 2014, but Swarbrick said four ACC teams are already on the schedule for two of the affected years, so the transition shouldn’t be terribly onerous.

In terms of television revenues, Notre Dame will reap all the money from home games against ACC opponents, while the ACC will keep the revenue from its ESPN deal — which it plans to renegotiate now that Notre Dame is in the picture — for home games against Notre Dame. As a full member in every other sport, the Irish will get 1/15th of the league revenue for basketball games and Olympic sports.

“This wasn’t a financial decision,” Swarbrick said. “It’s financially neutral for us.”

To further ensure the stability of the ACC, the league announced its Council of Presidents voted to increase exit fees to more than $50 million.

The ACC will have 15 basketball programs when the Irish join. It currently consists of Boston College, Clemson, Duke, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Maryland, Miami, North Carolina, North Carolina State, Virginia, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest. Pittsburgh and Syracuse will join the ACC on July 1, 2013, after paying an exit fee of $5 million to leave without the 27-months notice the Big East bylaws require.

Swarbrick said Notre Dame will try to negotiate a similar early departure, to avoid having to wait until the 2015-16 season to begin ACC play. West Virginia reportedly paid $20 million to join the Big 12. Pittsburgh and Syracuse will each pay $7.5 million to leave early.

The Irish have been with the Big East in most sports since 1995, and Swarbrick said it was a “good home for us.”

“For us, this was not about going from something, it was about going to something,” he said.

ACC commissioner John Swofford said that the league won’t expand any further. Since the partnership with Notre Dame doesn’t affect the two seven-team football divisions, and since there are no divisions in basketball, he said it would be “illogical” to add a 16th team.

“We will be a 15-team league,” Swofford said.

Said Swarbrick: “Unquestionably, in a number of sports, this is the best conference in the country. And we will only make it better.”

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