The reshuffling of the college sports conference landscape continued with Wednesday's announcement that Notre Dame will leave the Big East to join the Atlantic Coast Conference in all sports other than football and hockey.
The timing of the departure was not made clear at today's joint press conference by the ACC and Notre Dame announcing the move. Jack Swarbrick, vice president and director of athletics at Notre Dame, said the university, which has been a member of the Big East for the past 17 years, will work with both conferences on a timetable for transfering athletic membership. The earliest Notre Dame can leave the Big East without financial penalty is 2015.
"This is an exciting day for Notre Dame women's basketball," said women's basketball head coach Muffet McGraw. "The ACC is one of the nation's strongest women's basketball conferences and we're thrilled to be able to add our program to that mix. There are so many talented players, coaches and programs in the ACC and we will be challenged each and every night.
"At the same time, we are certainly sad to be leaving behind the many friends and colleagues as well as the numerous rivalries we have developed in the Big East. Our program has grown exponentially in the past 17 years and the Big East is a major reason for that development."
One of the immediate questions prompted by the move is how it will affect the historic women's basketball rivalry between the Connecticut Huskies and the Fighting Irish. "While it is too early to speculate on what our schedule will look like in future seasons, we would eagerly entertain the opportunity to continue our longstanding rivalry with Connecticut on a non-conference basis," said Chris Masters, an athletic department spokesman.
On the women's basketball front, the ACC has sorted itself into three rough tiers, with Duke, Maryland, Miami, and North Carolina typically at or near the top; Georgia Tech, Florida State, North Carolina State, and Virginia building momentum and often giving the front of the pack a serious run for their money; and Boston College, Clemson, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest most often found at or near the bottom of the barrel. The addition of Notre Dame will have an immediate impact at the top of the pyramid, making the race for the conference championship even more competitive.
Though most previous conference departures have been motivated by football -- and its related television revenues -- with the remaining sports along for the ride, the Irish will maintain their historic independence in football, Swarbrick said, describing the change in affiliation as "essentially revenue neutral." Notre Dame has agreed to participate in the ACC's "non-BCS bowl package," scheduling five ACC opponents each season in football and playing each ACC conference member at least once every five years.
“This approach allows us to help promote ACC football while maintaining our traditional rivalries and a national schedule,” said Swarbrick. The move will not affect Notre Dame's longstanding relationship with NBC Sports, Swarbrick added.
Today's announcement was the most recent blow for the Big East, which suffered a wave of defections last year, after Pittsburg, Syracuse and West Virginia announced their departures and TCU backed out of its commitment to join the conference. Two of those institutions -- Syracuse and Pitt -- will join the ACC, effective July 1, 2013, complementing the 12 current ACC members: Boston College, Clemson, Duke, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Maryland, Miami, North Carolina, North Carolina State, Virginia, Virginia Tech and Wake Forest.
UConn, Rutgers and other Big East Conference sports powers have also been rumored to be seeking homes elsewhere.
In a statement, new Big East commissioner Mike Aresco said, “Notre Dame’s departure does not change our plans. We have prestigious institutions that are excited to be a part of the Big East. We remain committed to making the Big East stronger than it has ever been.”
Those plans include the addition of a bevy of heretofore mid-major conference institutions to replace the programs that have already defected. Houston, Memphis, Temple, Southern Methodist University and the University of Central Florida are slated to join the Big East in all sports; Navy, San Diego State and Boise State will join the conference for football only. None of those moves would appear to strength the level of competition in women's basketball.
Though never a participant in Big East football, the Notre Dame move has cost the conference a powerhouse in other sports. While a member of the Big East Conference, Notre Dame has won 116 titles, more than any other school since the University’s entry in 1995-96, including 14 in women’s swimming and diving, 11 in women’s soccer, 11 in women’s tennis, nine in rowing, nine in volleyball, eight in men’s golf, and eight in men’s outdoor track and field. In addition, the Irish have routinely been a major contender in women's basketball, where last season, they took the regular-season title over UConn.
Nationally, the Irish women’s soccer team and combined fencing teams won national championships in the 2010-11 academic year, the women’s basketball team has played for the national title the last two years, men’s basketball has earned three consecutive NCAA Tournament berths, and the men’s lacrosse team has played in the final four two of the last three years.
While the Irish football program will remain independent, Notre Dame hockey will move to Hockey East after completing the 2012-13 season in its current conference, the Central Collegiate Hockey Association.
“The ACC was founded on the cornerstones of balancing academics, athletics and integrity,” said Atlantic Coast Conference commissioner John Swofford. “Our partnership with Notre Dame only strengthens this long-standing commitment. Notre Dame enhances the league’s unique blend of public and private institutions that are international in scope. The collective alumni and fan bases cover the entire country with exceptionally strong roots up and down the Atlantic Coast. This is a terrific milestone in the evolution of the ACC and showcases tremendous solidarity and vision by our Council of Presidents.”
“We are committed to keeping the Atlantic Coast Conference a vibrant and competitive league dedicated to ensuring the appropriate balance of academics, athletics and integrity,” the ACC Council of Presidents said in a joint statement welcoming the move. “The addition of Notre Dame further strengthens the rich tradition and culture of the ACC as well as allowing for future academic collaboration and we enthusiastically welcome them into the league.”
While most of the focus of today's announcement was on intercollegiate sports, Father Jenkins looked forward to the possibility of future collaborations on the academic front as well. “The ACC is composed of some of the most highly respected universities in the country, and we at Notre Dame look forward to joining them,” he said. “With a mix of institutions –- many of which are also private, similar to Notre Dame in size, and committed to excellence in research and undergraduate education –- the ACC is an exceptionally good fit for us academically, as well as athletically.”
“It is our hope that, over time, we will be able to explore the possibility of academic collaboration as well as athletic competition with these outstanding universities.”