Conference freedom isn't free for Notre Dame

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – Freedom isn’t free.

The Notre Dame football team starts paying the piper Saturday night.

When the Big East began its implosion a few years ago, Notre Dame officials realized it was time to bail from the sinking ship.

Women, children and leprechauns first.

While the other Irish sports programs needed the stable, competitive environment that a conference would provide, the football program had a unique mandate: Maintain independence, and become an active member in the league’s postseason opportunities.

Continue an East Coast presence? All the better.

The Big Ten was growing, but it wasn’t about to budge on its “all or nothing” stance. Either Notre Dame football had to fall in line as a league members or keep looking. While considering the rest of what are now the “Power Five” conferences, the Atlantic Coast Conference seemed the best possible landing spot.

“We had seen clearly that there were dwindling opportunities for us to tie into bowls (before the agreement),” said Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly. “It was clear that we were going to have to tie in somewhere to gain those bowl opportunities, so (athletic director) Jack (Swarbrick) had clearly articulated to me that he was going to meet with conferences that had an interest in bringing us in.

“Certainly, I had some input on what I believed those conferences would be that would serve us best. But at the end of the day, it became, for us, strictly from a football standpoint: How do we maintain a schedule that gives us that independence and, second, what gives us the best bowl game tie in opportunities and has a geographical, I guess, not significance, but makes sense?

“When those three things were checked off, it came down to the ACC. Jack obviously put together something then that was great for the entire athletic department, and that was the extent of my involvement.”

Notre Dame’s value to the league was immediate. Once the deal was announced, television contracts were restructured and enhanced.

A benefit for the league.

The terms of the arrangement called for Notre Dame to play five ACC football teams each season.

Another benefit for the league.

Playing those five games would allow the Irish to retain their Independent status, while being candidates in the ACC’s pool of postseason opportunities.

A huge – can’t be overstated – benefit for Notre Dame.

There is a legitimate bowl landing spot for any Notre Dame team that finishes 6-6 or better. And, hold onto your seat, none of them even remotely include a possible trip to Shreveport.

If the four-team playoff is not an option, eight other bowls – including the Orange Bowl – are.

Given Notre Dame’s national brand and its penchant for drawing fans and a television audience, bowls love the Irish. It will be interesting to see the reaction of the first ACC team with a similar record (or within one win) that has the Irish chosen ahead of it for one of the premiere slots.

Until then, everyone publicly loves having Notre Dame – in football, at least quasi -- in the league. A game against the Irish is an automatic national television appearance, like Saturday night’s game against Syracuse at MetLife Stadium.

The first year of the agreement is an unusual one. Actually, Notre Dame plays just four ACC teams this season – Syracuse, North Carolina, Florida State and Louisville – then is scheduled for six in 2015.

Swarbrick tried to move the trip to Arizona State game to 2015. His counterpart at ASU, Steve Patterson, would have none of it. He took the situation public. The furor caused Notre Dame to wait until the late spring to release its schedule. Finally, Wake Forest agreed to wait until next year to play the Irish. Shortly after it was resolved, Patterson left Arizona State to be the athletic director at Texas.

“Everybody is going to have their wants and desires,” Kelly said. “I'm certain that everybody has an opinion as to what the best ‘fit’ is. Jack has to be able to figure out valid solutions to some complex issues, and that's why he's the athletic director.

“All I can tell you is we looked at demographics from a recruiting standpoint, and the ACC was going to be fine, because we were still going to be out on the west coast. So when we were checking all the boxes, there was no objections from my end as it related to the ACC.”

What has Kelly irked is when those games, played on the road, begin.

Though hardly someone who will go to bat to help ease the pressure of newspaper deadlines, Kelly is adamant about his disdain for 8 p.m. kickoffs.

With starting times for marquee road matchups with Florida State, Arizona State and Southern Cal still undetermined – though likely destined for prime-time slots – this could be a year when the Irish play seven games away from home with late starts.

The Shamrock Series game against Purdue started the run. If any two games were likely to have been early starts, it would have been Syracuse and Navy. Both are late.

This is the Catch-22 Notre Dame faces. The national appeal draws viewers. That entices networks to continually put the Irish in the late game, no matter the opponent.

“The biggest challenges for us, quite frankly, are playing on national television, and our kids get back (to campus) at 3, 4 in the morning,” Kelly said. “I'll give you Purdue (for example). We got back at 3:30 in the morning, our kids have to be at study table at 4 in the afternoon. It's a lot!

“It gets to the point where you wonder that maybe we shouldn't play all these nationally-televised games because it really puts a lot on these kids. We ask them to do a lot. It's a very challenging academic environment.

“The ACC doesn't do that to us. Notre Dame, by the virtue of its brand recognition, puts us in that position.

“The ACC has been great in terms of scheduling because, you know, we're not out on the west coast. The travel is pretty good for us. I don't think it puts any added stress on us from that perspective.”

It’s all just part of the price of being free – and being Notre Dame.

Syracuse’s Ervin Philips runs through the Maryland line in the first quarter of an NCAA college football game in Syracuse, N.Y., Saturday, Sept. 20, 2014. (AP Photo/Nick Lisi)