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Observer Exclusive: Phelps applauds ACC move

Andrew Owens | Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Several years before he landed his dream job as the Irish men’s basketball coach, Richard “Digger” Phelps called then-football coach Ara Parseghian and told him he intended to use basketball to promote the University’s brand the way Parseghian did with football.

A few years later, Notre Dame hired Phelps to coach beginning with the 1971-1972 season. He won nearly 400 games and graduated every four-year athlete during a span of 20 seasons while taking his teams across the country to challenge the nation’s best. Now, over 20 years after his retirement and with the ink drying on the newly signed deal with the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), Phelps sees the move as the newest method to maximize the University’s brand.

“Two years ago, I started pushing us for the ACC,” said Phelps, who now works as a college basketball analyst for ESPN. “I just felt that it was time for us to get out of the Big East and get into the Atlantic Coast Conference when [conference realignment] was starting to happen.”

Phelps said the migration to the ACC made perfect sense for the University, and not only for its athletic programs.

“Nothing against the Big Ten or the Big 12, but the power structure for us as a university with alumni clubs is Chicago and Milwaukee to New Orleans and east all the way to Maine to Florida. That’s who we are,” he said. “We’ve still got Southern California and the Bay Area, Dallas and the rest of Texas, but the majority of our clubs and power bases, especially for development and fundraising is east of the Mississippi [River].

“That to me gives us that instant credibility, not just for recruiting athletics, but to keep our power base going with all these cities to play in.”

With college football moving to a four-team playoff system in 2014, Phelps said Notre Dame’s primary objective was to remain a powerful voice in the sport moving forward and retaining its ability to play for national championships.

“I didn’t like the way we, as an independent, could survive and get in the BCS National Championship Game,” he said. “I thought all the BCS conferences were going to forget Notre Dame. So from that standpoint, how do we get credibility and respect back?”

Phelps said the ACC provides an optimal landing spot for Irish athletics and should not alter Notre Dame’s football scheduling tendencies too drastically.

“So now we play five ACC schools in football,” he said. “That means you still have [the possibility] of scheduling Michigan, Purdue, Michigan State, Southern Cal, Navy and two other schools, like Stanford. So what’s changed for football? Nothing. It gives us credibility being a member, and even though it’s not football, and gives us more clout with the new BCS formula.”

Basketball’s benefits

With an ACC schedule that will send the Irish along the entire East Coast, Phelps said he expects the recruiting dividends to be enormous.

“Look back at my recruiting in the ’70s: Washington D.C., Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Jersey, Long Island, New York,” he said. “Now all of the sudden you’re Notre Dame and you’ve got Boston College, Pitt, Syracuse, Maryland, Virginia going in those same areas, whoops. We’re not going to get those kids.
But now that we’re in that hunt for those kids back east, it saves us.

“If we didn’t go with Pitt and Syracuse and now you have this two or three time zone Big East, who wants to go play there when you can play in the ACC or the Atlantic 10?”

Phelps said the men’s basketball program should aim for a top-five finish in the ACC annually.

“We’re going to recruit a different type of player, like the Dukes and the Carolinas, like NC State … I told [Irish coach Mike] Brey yesterday, ‘When I look and see what’s out there, I want to see teams with juniors and seniors and teams with great guards,'” said Phelps, who added that the ACC’s style is finesse compared to the physical play of the Big East. “We’ve got both. With that experience of juniors and seniors and an experienced backcourt, bring it on. I think this year is going to be a statement year for us.”

Following the defections of Pittsburgh, Syracuse and West Virginia from the Big East and the moves of Miami, Boston College and Virginia Tech from the conference to the ACC in 2004, Phelps said the move guarantees Notre Dame’s place among men’s basketball’s elite for years to come.

“It’s going to be the best conference in the country by default,” he said. “No offense to the Big Ten or SEC or Big 12, but are you kidding me? You get [the conference tournament] in Madison Square Garden, it will be better than the [Elite Eight] or the Final Four because of those teams.

“I think we’ll be in [the ACC] next year. Whatever we have to do, we have to be in next year. The ACC wants us next year with Pitt and Syracuse.”

Big East stability

Phelps said he thinks Connecticut is the most obvious victim of Notre Dame’s decision to join the ACC.

“[The ACC is] not going to go [with divisions of] eight and seven for football. They’d have to bring in two more schools that
are football schools, and that’s not going to happen,” he said.

“Now you’ve got 15 [conference members], you’re not going to have 17 teams. From that standpoint, I think Connecticut is done as far as their shot of getting into the ACC for football.”

Despite the attrition the Big East has suffered during the past couple years, Phelps said he expects the conference to survive and should rival the quality of the improved Atlantic 10, who recently added Butler and VCU.

“Don’t forget the original Big East was eight schools,” Phelps said. “We’ll still play Villanova, St. John’s, Marquette and DePaul, even if it’s once a year. Why? Traditional schools, traditional rivals, and we want to be in [Philadelphia] because no ACC school plays there.”

Overall, Phelps said he thinks the Irish hit the jackpot with the ACC agreement.

“It’s going to be the greatest thing we’ve done,” Phelps said. “I give [Director of Athletics] Jack Swarbrick all the credit. He delivered. It’s a big move for us in all ways. Let’s get in it next year, and let the games begin.”

Contact Andrew Owens at aowens2@nd.edu