Oct. 10, 2014

By Todd Burlage

Almost everyone at the University of Notre Dame’s Hesburgh Library in July 2008 had to wonder after the introduction of new Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick what exactly the University’s latest hire was talking about.

Using phrases such as “a threshold of extraordinary change” and “there’s much about this industry you won’t recognize in 10 years,” Swarbrick cryptically outlined his sense of the “seismic shift” moving toward all of college athletics, and the responsibility that he would have to assume navigating Notre Dame through the “enormous change.”

“We must participate in leading that change,” Swarbrick explained on that day. “Notre Dame cannot have that dictated to it.”

Swarbrick didn’t share his entire forecast that memorable day. But looking back now, the crafty businessman admits that two of those changes he foresaw -conference television networks and expanded leagues with two divisions – were a couple of primary forces that would change all of college sports, and eventually force the reinvention of Notre Dame athletics in many ways.

This reinvention project always appeared on Swarbrick’s watchlist, but it finally made his priority list in the fall of 2011 during a turbulent period when BIG EAST member schools began leaving to align with other conferences.

Notre Dame had enjoyed a fine relationship and great success with 126 league championships in various sports during its 18-year run in the BIG EAST. But with the conference losing many of its top schools, Notre Dame needed a new home to keep its relevance in the landscape of college athletics. And it found the ideal landing spot in the Atlantic Coast Conference — the perfect place for Irish athletics, and so much more.

“The relationship with the ACC has been so positive and so strong. They have been such great partners,” Swarbrick says of a union that officially began with the fall sports season in 2013. “We assumed that they would be great partners, but it has been so gratifying to see that play out. The ACC has a remarkably competitive and successful Olympic sports environment and it was also such a great cultural fit, which was by far the most important factor for us.”

“I need to write Jack [Swarbrick] another thank you note,” Notre Dame women’s basketball coach Muffet McGraw says with a chuckle when asked about her new conference home. “He did such a fantastic job of navigating the whole thing and having the vision to see what was coming down the road. We couldn’t be happier with where we are right now. This is absolutely the best scenario we could have hoped for.”

With a sweep of the regular-season ACC basketball title and the league tournament championship last season, McGraw’s Irish were one of the headline acts in 2013-14 during the inaugural year of full-time ACC play for all of Notre Dame athletics outside of football, hockey and fencing (fencing begins competing in the conference in 2014-15).

McGraw’s team parlayed success in the best basketball conference in the country into an undefeated regular season and a runner-up NCAA Championship finish. The Irish men’s lacrosse team’s maiden journey as an ACC member also resulted in a conference championship in a league that featured six of the top 11 teams in the final NCAA rankings.

Women’s basketball and men’s lacrosse are just two examples of the quick adaptation the Irish student-athletes made as new ACC members. The Notre Dame men’s soccer team also claimed a share of the ACC title with Maryland on the way to a national championship season for the Irish.

To offer some perspective into how strong a conference the ACC is in men’s soccer, Irish coach Bobby Clark says that surviving league play as a co-champion was tougher than winning the national title.

“The ACC for years has without question been the Cadillac conference in men’s soccer,” says Clark, pointing out that three ACC teams (Notre Dame, Maryland, Virginia) made the national Final Four last year. “It was terrific to win the national championship, but our biggest accomplishment last year, to me, was sharing the league title with Maryland. Playing in the ACC prepared us very well for the postseason.”

Now that’s saying something about the competition level of the ACC. In all, 22 of the 26 Irish athletic teams qualified for postseason competition last year, helping Notre Dame to a title in the Capital One Cup as the best school in the country for men’s sports. Irish men’s and women’s teams achieved a third-place finish in the final Learfield Sports Directors’ Cup sponsored by National Collegiate Directors of Athletics (NACDA) all-sports competition standings, the best finish for Notre Dame in the 21 years of these rankings.

“I don’t think we accomplish either of those great finishes without the demands of the ACC; it forced us to step up our competition to be better,” Swarbrick says.

“One of the things for me is that I believe the best athletes and the best coaches always rise to the level of the challenge. We saw a lot of that this past year.”

In addition to the obvious competition upgrade the ACC provides program-by-program and game-by-game, Notre Dame men’s basketball head coach Mike Brey says playing in the best conference in the country also adds some intrigue and opportunities on the recruiting trail.

With nine states represented in schools from Boston in the north, to Miami in the South, and now to Notre Dame in the Midwest, the ACC footprint is one of the largest of any conference in the country, which expands the recruiting base for Irish coaches and lends itself to sustained success in the Capital One Cup and the NACDA standings.

“Kids look at us a little bit differently now,” Brey says. “We’ve done more recruiting in the Southeast than we ever have because we play down there more. We’re playing Duke. We’re playing North Carolina. That’s been kind of a new carrot to kind of throw out there when you’re talking to young men.”

And while improved recruiting and the competitive achievements from last year are worth celebrating, Swarbrick said athletics is only one angle to this relatively new partnership between the ACC and Notre Dame.

With a renowned member list that includes Duke, Wake Forest, Virginia and North Carolina, among others, the ACC features some of the finest academic institutions in the country.

This new relationship also puts Notre Dame alongside Duke, Wake Forest, Miami, Boston College and Syracuse on the list of distinguished private schools in the ACC that share a similar mission and profile. The ACC actually features more private schools than the four other major conferences combined, even more reason to celebrate this union for Notre Dame well beyond wins and losses on the fields and courts.

“We know the ACC is always going to be a great sports conference,” Swarbrick says. “But for Notre Dame, the hope is that the ACC will be a platform to develop broader and deeper ties among the universities in non-athletic ways, to build academic and business relationships.”

Be it through collaborative research projects, shared institutional resources, and future joint business ventures, Swarbrick says the opportunities to fully celebrate Notre Dame’s ACC membership are endless.

“The best conferences are the ones that use the platform of the athletic conference to do these things,” Swarbrick says. “So that’s our hope for the future; we hope this relationship is a platform to help build deeper and richer relationships among the schools.”

Laying The Groundwork

Of all the potential conference relocation options for his athletic programs, Swarbrick says the ACC proved to be the most intriguing for a myriad of reasons.

The dissolution of the Big East helped to speed up the re-affiliation process for Notre Dame, but like any good visionary, Swarbrick kept a forward focus and tried to preliminarily position his athletic programs when and if the speculation of conference realignment and the end of the BIG EAST as we once knew it became reality.

A longstanding and respectful relationship between Swarbrick and ACC commissioner John Swofford kept the dialogue of a potential union open and easy. And the two men spent plenty of time of together in 2012 in a variety of settings, including during meetings and negotiations to overhaul the former Bowl Championship Series in favor of a four-team football playoff.

So when change and circumstance made finding a new conference home for Notre Dame inevitable, much of the groundwork for this relatively seamless marriage had already been built because of Swarbrick’s relationship with Swofford.

“A lot of things had already been discussed so all of what we had talked about fit together,” Swofford says. “And we both felt like if we could find a sweet spot with football scheduling that would make it work, then it would be a win-win for both Notre Dame and our conference, having a great home for all of their sports while maintaining their independence in football.”

After serious but friendly banter, Swarbrick and Swofford settled on five football games a year between Notre Dame and ACC teams, an agreement that essentially cemented this union. Because of existing schedule commitments, Notre Dame plays four ACC games this season — Syracuse two weeks ago, North Carolina today, Florida State and Louisville to come — before the annual five-game commitment begins in 2015.

The upcoming five-game agreement allows Notre Dame to tie into the ACC’s many bowl-game opportunities, a tremendous benefit for an Irish program that faced dwindling and limited bowl options when it was linked with the postseason lineup of the BIG EAST.

This five-game arrangement lets Notre Dame play each of the other 14 ACC member schools every three years, all while retaining the financial and exposure benefits that come with independence.

“It became for us, strictly from a football standpoint, how do we maintain a schedule that gives us that independence?” says Irish head football coach Brian Kelly. “And, second, what gives us the best bowl game tie-in opportunities? So Jack obviously put together something that was great for the entire athletic department.”

Swofford says that one primary benefit of inviting Notre Dame into his conference was the national marketing cache the Irish naturally bring, especially during ACC television contract negotiations before last season.

“We felt that in today’s world that the time made sense for the ACC to take a new member,” Swofford says. “And we wouldn’t have taken any other member other than Notre Dame that was not a full member. But we did feel that having the football scheduling relationship was critical.”

Quick Logistics

From the outside looking in, the move to the ACC for Notre Dame appeared seamless and smooth, but Swarbrick said that wasn’t necessarily the case.

Notre Dame and the BIG EAST officially parted ways in March of 2013, leaving only a few short months for the ACC to sort of “wedge” the Irish teams into its 2013-14 sports calendar, a relatively slim scheduling window to maneuver more than 20 athletic programs through.

“Those logistics are incredibly difficult. But the great thing about this partnership was that we were both fully prepared to enter it with a good faith understanding we would figure all of that out,” Swarbrick says. “The goodwill that the ACC and the member institutions have demonstrated in that process is fully hard to describe.”

In addition to the obvious travel and basic scheduling challenges, there also was the restructuring of post-season tournaments to consider. On top of that, Notre Dame has a strict academic policy that doesn’t allow student-athletes to miss more than three classes during any athletic season because of competition, further complicating travel and scheduling.

“There was a real complexity to all of that. It wasn’t just `What would you like to have?'” Swarbrick says. “The ACC representatives have been so patient and so creative. We have just been so gratified with the partnership that the conference and all the schools engaged in to help make that work.”

And this relationship will continue to work because it already is working. The only thing that remains for Notre Dame athletics is to go from playing in the ACC to belonging in the ACC.

“We want to see that evolve quickly to where people connect the two brands immediately in their minds,” Swofford says. “When you think of Notre Dame, you think of the ACC, and when you think of the ACC, you think of Notre Dame. That takes some time but as we see great competition, and rivalries being built, I think we will see that happen very quickly.”