Notre Dame is coming to the Atlantic Coast Conference — and they’re bringing two of the Four Horsemen with them. That’s kinda what it feels like, this open marriage between the ACC and George Gipp’s old stomping grounds. Notre Dame will compete against Maryland and its lodge brothers in virtually all sports, but in football it’ll retain its rights, as an independent, to see other people. That means five games a year in-conference, but less than full membership. Welcome to college athletics in 2012.
Full disclosure: There’s a fair amount of County Cork in my blood — and several jiggers of County Kerry. So naturally, every opinion expressed in this column should be considered irrefutable. Here’s one: This merger would have meant a lot more back in 1993, when Lou Holtz still was pacing the sideline and Notre Dame was the No. 2 football team in the land. But the program has fallen on hard times since, only once cracking the final top 10 (though it did go undefeated during George O’Leary’s brief stint in 2001).
Earlier this season, ND radio analyst Allen Pinkett, a former star running back for the Irish, suggested in an interview that the secret to success in the college game is to have “a few bad citizens” on your ballclub — and sounded encouraged that his alma mater, now 2-0 and ranked 20th by AP, “is making progress in that regard.” This outrageous outburst of honesty earned him a three-game suspension (the broadcasting equivalent of a firm rap on the knuckles with a metal ruler).
Anyway, I’ll leave it to you to decide whether there’s any dissonance between Pinkett’s observation and ACC commissioner John Swofford’s statement Wednesday that the conference is all about “balancing academics, athletics and integrity,” and that the inclusion of Notre Dame “only strengthens this long-standing commitment.” (I mean, he at least could have inserted the words “bad citizens and all” somewhere.)
But returning to 1993 so much has changed in college sports since then, not just in ND football. In fact, if you landed back in ‘93, it would seem as otherworldly as a Norman Rockwell painting, as a Disney movie starring Dean Jones. In those days, TCU — the ultimate Your Name Here program in recent years — still belonged to an ancient assemblage known as the Southwest Conference. The Pac-10, meanwhile, still had 10 members, and the Big 8 had eight. There was a sense of stability, of permanence.
Now college athletics is like a wedding chapel on the Las Vegas Strip. (Is there one named the Hitching Post? If not, there should be.) Do you, Pac-12, take the University of Utah The NCAA has entered its Free Love Phase. Faithfulness has given way to “if it feels good, join it.” And everybody — even Notre Dame, that bastion of rectitude — is caught up in it. After all, before they exchange vows with the ACC, don’t the Irish have to get their union with the Big East annulled? (They also, I’m pretty sure, have to change their relationship status on Facebook.)
The ACC already had turned into “Cheaper by the Dozen” by adding Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College the past eight years. Now, with Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and Syracuse coming aboard, the conference is almost the size of the East bracket of the NCAA basketball tournament. Will this improve the schools’ — and our — quality of life? Or has the ACC turned into a Frankenstein monster, made up of body parts from all kinds of carcasses and ultimately unlovable (except by Madeline Kahn and that blind guy in the forest)?
We’ll have to see how it plays out. But make no mistake: Even given its football struggles of late — and even though its men’s basketball team has made just one (losing) trip to the Final Four (and hasn’t advanced past the Sweet 16 since 1979) — Notre Dame remains a Coca-Cola-type brand name. If the Irish visit your stadium, their followers will come. And so will the television cameras.
From an exposure standpoint, then, ND is an ideal fit for any conference. And its performance in other sports (e.g. women’s basketball and men’s lacrosse) will lift the ACC, too. But no matter how you slice it, the conference is settling for half a loaf, or thereabouts. It’s getting the Irish, “outlined against a blue-gray October sky,” as Granny Rice put it, but only Death and Destruction have been issued uniforms. Pestilence and Famine, the other two Horsemen, are being held out — hopefully not for being bad citizens.