With Wednesday’s announcement that Notre Dame would be moving all of its athletic programs save football and hockey to the Atlantic Coast Conference as soon as the school can negotiate an exit agreement with the Big East, there was almost immediate speculation as to what this move would mean for the Fighting Irish football fortunes.
Part of the deal to move to the ACC includes an agreement that Notre Dame will play five ACC schools in football each season and, in return, Notre Dame will become eligible for the ACC’s non-BCS bowl tie-ins.
This is not, however, a precursor to Notre Dame winding up in the ACC for football, too.
The one thing Notre Dame wanted, what it always wanted, was to align its other sports in a conference that would allow it to retain its football independence. For more than 20 years, the Big East provided that but with the seismic changes continuing to chip away at the Big East—including the impending move next year of Pittsburgh and founding member Syracuse to the ACC, Notre Dame decided it had to break away from the remnants of the Big East.
As far as hockey is concerned, the Irish will likely continue with a planned move from the Central Collegiate Hockey Association to Hockey East given that the ACC doesn’t play hockey.
The Big East has been hemorrhaging members for almost a decade now and the irony of it is that it’s all because of football, a sport that wasn’t really on the horizon when the conference was founded in 1979.
No, the Big East was originally about basketball. Several East Coast programs had been kicking around various small conferences or trying to get by as independents and it was decided that rather than continue to fight as individual entities, they would come together because of a common interest.
So come together they did, in the fall of 1979. Providence, St. John’s, Georgetown and Syracuse were the charter members of the league and invitations were extended to Seton Hall, Connecticut, Holy Cross, Rutgers and Boston College. While Holy Cross and Rutgers declined the invitations, Seton Hall, Connecticut and Boston College were on board and the conference launched.
It added an eighth member the following year when Villanova joined and went to nine schools in 1982 with the arrival of Pitt.
The halcyon days for the Big East were the mid-1980s. Georgetown emerged as a national powerhouse in basketball, with coach John Thompson and center Patrick Ewing taking the Hoyas to the Final Four three times in four seasons from 1982-85.
The conference really reached its zenith in 1985, when the Final Four consisted of Memphis State and three members of the Big East—Georgetown and St. John’s, who had both held the No. 1 ranking in the polls at various points during the season, and upstart Villanova, which had made the tournament as a No. 8 seed in the newly expanded field of 64 and rolled through the Southeast Regional with four wins. Georgetown knocked off St. John’s in one semifinal and faced Villanova in the final. Villanova’s upset victory over the defending national champion Hoyas is still considered one of the most unlikely titles in NCAA tournament history.
In the late 1980s, though, a movement began to make the Big East a major player in college football, too. Rutgers finally joined, as did Miami, Temple, Virginia Tech and West Virginia. While Miami joined the conference immediately, West Virginia and Rutgers wouldn’t make the move with the rest of their athletic programs from the Atlantic 10 until 1995. It was also in 1995 that Notre Dame joined the Big East in everything but football and hockey.
Virginia Tech played football only until 2000, when it came on board with the demise of the old Metro Conference. Temple never came on board completely and was actually booted out of the conference as a football-only member after the 2005 season.
The ACC conducted its first raid on the Big East in 2003, when Virginia Tech, Miami and Boston College announced they would be jumping to the ACC. At the same time, Conference USA provided five new members for the Big East, with Louisville, Cincinnati, South Florida, Marquette and DePaul joining.
Of those five refugees from C-USA, Marquette and DePaul didn’t play football.
But the conference has never regained its stability.
In 2010, TCU said it was coming to the Big East. In 2011, TCU said never mind, opting instead to accept an invitation to the Big XII Conference beginning in 2012.
Also in 2011, Syracuse and Pittsburgh announced they would matriculate to the ACC. In response, the Big East expanded its geographical footprint a bit … with the announcement that Boise State and San Diego State would become football-only members in 2013. Also set to join the conference in 2013 are UCF, SMU, Houston and Memphis from C-USA.
Temple was brought back as a football-only member this season to replace West Virginia and will move all of its programs from the Atlantic 10 in 2013.
Finally, Navy announced it had accepted an invitation to join the conference for football only in 2015.
With all of that instability, it’s hard to blame Notre Dame for jumping ship.
There have also been many today wonder aloud why Notre Dame didn’t make the move that makes the most geographical sense: Join the Big Ten.
The Big Ten has made overtures to Notre Dame before but the same sticking point that held up the marriage before is continuing to prevent it from happening now.
An invitation from the Big Ten is contingent upon Notre Dame joining the conference in all sports. Notre Dame continues to insist on its football independence.
And why wouldn’t it?
No other school in the country enjoys the deal with the BCS that Notre Dame has. The school gets an automatic bid to a BCS bowl if it finishes in the top eight in the standings and a $4.5 million payout for qualifying for one of the major games. If Notre Dame doesn’t qualify for a BCS bid, it still gets $1.3 million.
While that arrangement may change in 2014 with the implementation of the BCS’ new four-team playoff, Notre Dame still will maintain a unique relationship with the power brokers in college football. Every other school in the nation is represented in the BCS by a conference commissioner. Notre Dame’s athletic director is a full voting member of the board.
The desire to keep that sweetheart deal is why Notre Dame is abandoning the Big East for a similarly cozy, non-football playing relationship with the ACC instead of caving into the Big Ten’s demand that its joining be an all-or-nothing proposition.