June 28, 2013

EDITOR’S NOTE: The University of Notre Dame officially ends its membership with the BIG EAST Conference on Sunday, with the Fighting Irish set to begin a new chapter in their athletics history on Monday as they enter the Atlantic Coast Conference. Here’s a brief retrospective on Notre Dame’s BIG EAST era, as the Fighting Irish say thank you to all of the men and women, the schools, the student-athletes and the fans that made this 18-year run so incredibly special.

by John Heisler, Senior Associate Athletics Director (Media and Broadcast Relations)

Bill Moore remembers it well.

So did the late George Thomas.

Moore became the star of the University of Notre Dame’s first BIG EAST Championship success story in October 1995 when he earned medalist honors for the Irish men’s golf squad at the TPC/Avenel course in Potomac, Md. He shot 72 and 71 and helped Notre Dame, under veteran head coach Thomas, claim a five-shot victory over Connecticut.

A little more than a month later, the Irish women’s soccer team followed suit, as fifth-ranked Notre Dame knocked off third-ranked Connecticut 1-0 in the BIG EAST Championship title match in South Orange, N.J. Amy VanLaecke, then a junior forward, won the BIG EAST Championship Most Outstanding Player award that year.

Last month the Irish competed in their final BIG EAST Championship — with Notre Dame taking away a 10th straight title in rowing, with this last league event held in Mercer County, N.J.

All of that that began and ended the relationship between Notre Dame and the BIG EAST Conference — and it’s been a fun, interesting and successful run.

In between those three championships, the Irish won another 123 BIG EAST trophies, and that doesn’t count the handful of regular-season titles that merited hardware for Notre Dame as well. No other league member won as many conference titles during that 18-year span.

Some good years, indeed.

Back in 1995 when Notre Dame transitioned from the Midwestern Collegiate Conference, its players and coaches may not have known exactly what lie ahead.

They may not have known what to expect in Storrs, or Providence, or Syracuse.

They may not have completely understood what it meant when Georgetown or Villanova or St. John’s came to town in their respective sports.

The men’s golf team was one of the first dynasties of Notre Dame’s BIG EAST era, winning three consecutive league titles from 1995-97, including Notre Dame’s first official crown as a BIG EAST member in October 1995.

But the chain of successes suggests the Irish became quick learners. The high point came in 2005-06 when Notre Dame teams took home championship honors in 13 sports — men’s and women’s cross country, baseball, men’s golf, rowing, women’s soccer, softball, men’s and women’s swimming and diving, women’s tennis, women’s indoor track and field, men’s outdoor track and field and volleyball.

No sport featured more Notre Dame blue ribbons than women’s swimming — as the Irish won a league-record 14 straight BIG EAST crowns (1997-2010). Notre Dame won 13 women’s tennis titles and 11 in women’s soccer. The current streak in rowing stands at 10. The list included nine for volleyball — plus eight each for men’s tennis, men’s golf and men’s outdoor track and field.

Even some of the sports that featured smaller numbers of titles have been just as memorable — with the Irish 2013 women’s basketball title (the only one ever won by Notre Dame) in Hartford over Connecticut a perfect example.

Rivalries that never existed became annual dogfights. Who could have imagined that seven Notre Dame-Louisville men’s basketball games since 2006 would require one or more overtime periods to determine a winner? The 2013 version that lasted five overtimes at Purcell Pavilion will rank as one of the more remarkable events ever on the Notre Dame campus.

The cast of characters changed a bit over the years. Boston College, Miami, West Virginia and Virginia Tech left for other opportunities. The BIG EAST, in turn, added DePaul, Marquette, Louisville, South Florida and Cincinnati — with the influx of Midwest institutions rekindling some old rivalries for the Irish.

The Fighting Irish women’s rowing team, which did not even compete in its first regatta until 1998 (three years after Notre Dame joined the BIG EAST), was one of the dominant programs in conference history, winning 10 consecutive titles, including Notre Dame’s 126th and final BIG EAST championship last month on Mercer Lake in New Jersey.

It’s probably impossible to place a value on many of the benefits Notre Dame’s various programs received over the years from the BIG EAST association — from access to NCAA Championships to league player- and coach-of-the year awards to dozens of television opportunities.

Men’s basketball, for example, went from its independent status that meant struggling for opponents the final week of the season — to playing annually in March at Madison Square Garden, one of the most fabled venues in the world.

Memories, indeed.

The long series of women’s basketball meetings between the teams of Notre Dame’s Muffet McGraw and Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma became must-see events. Every sport at Notre Dame featured matchups and rivalries that meant just as much in their own right.

The BIG EAST benefitted from the all-sports excellence of a broad-based Notre Dame program that proved itself a legitimate league contender in nearly every sport in every year.

The Irish benefitted from 18 years of rubbing elbows with their athletic brethren in one of the premier athletic conferences in the nation.

Changes are afoot — with Notre Dame headed to the Atlantic Coast Conference and the former BIG EAST now split into the new BIG EAST and the American Athletic Conference.

For those 18 years, however, it’s safe to say Notre Dame and the BIG EAST comprised a pretty good run.

— ND —