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Wooing the green

Andrew Soukup | Thursday, October 2, 2003

The speculation is making Notre Dame officials laugh.

One day, the University is staying in the Big East. The next day, they’re going to the ACC. One day, Notre Dame’s football program is finally going to join a conference. The next day, it’s not.

“Every day there’s another speculative story written,” Notre Dame associate athletic director for media relations John Heisler said. “And even if a story is true, there remain a million things to work out.”

At least a few things are clear from Notre Dame’s perspective after Miami and Virginia Tech decided to leave the Big East for the ACC in June, Heisler said. The school has no desire to lose its football independence -either now or in the immediate future – and it wants to wait and see what the Big East -which has vowed to rebuild itself – will do before making a decision on its future.

Beyond that, everything else remains up in the air. But since Miami and Virginia Tech left, Notre Dame athletic director Kevin White has publicly stayed silent on the issue. So have most Notre Dame coaches.

But while Notre Dame waits, the rest of the collegiate athletic world continues to spin.

ACC rumors?

A week ago, The Charlotte Observer published a report saying ACC officials had discussed with Notre Dame the possibility of the Irish joining the conference in all sports except football. The Irish would then play a limited football schedule against ACC teams (instead of the Big East teams Notre Dame currently plays) while it considers full football membership.

But Heisler and ACC commissioner John Swofford quickly denied the rumors that said Notre Dame was on the brink of reaching an agreement.

“The thing you have to understand,” he said, “is that Kevin [White] spends a great deal of time with all of these commissioners. Who knows what they all talk about.”

The ACC is looking to add a 12th member because then it can host a lucrative conference championship game, which can generate over $10 million in revenue. Their appeal to host a championship game, even though the league will only have 11 members in 2004, was denied by the NCAA.

Saturday, the prospects of Notre Dame joining the ACC took a huge hit after the league’s nine current presidents decided that any school that joined the conference must join in all sports. But while the topic of inviting Notre Dame to join the league never arose, one of the ACC presidents said that no new member would get preferential treatment.

“What we talked about was the importance of affirming the principles on which this conference has been built, which are equity and full participation,” said North Carolina State chancellor Marye Ann Fox, who is also a member of Notre Dame’s Board of Trustees. “We affirmed that equal participation would be necessary.”

But if joining a conference means the Irish have to lose their football independence, Notre Dame will have none of it. Notre Dame has a $8.5 million television contract with NBC (which expires in 2005) and sells out virtually every home game, which Heisler said are both reasons why the Irish are unlikely to consider giving up that independence.

“That’s historically been important to the institution. That’s been important to the institutional identity,” Heisler said. “I don’t sense that there’s any sort of suggestion that we’re prepared to do an about-face.”

Staying in the Big East

Because of its eight-year affiliation with the Big East, Heisler said Notre Dame is waiting to see what the conference’s next move is. The league’s school presidents – and its commissioner, Mike Tranghese – have stayed relatively quiet since they blasted the ACC for poaching Miami and Virginia Tech from the league.

But last week, the Boston Globe reported that league presidents had settled on expanding to a massive 16-team conference by inviting Conference USA schools Louisville and Cincinnati for all sports and Marquette and DePaul for all sports except football. Assuming Notre Dame stays in the league, that would give the Big East eight football schools and eight non-football playing schools by 2005.

That’s not the only option, either. In early September, Tranghese hinted that the Big East’s football members may split from its non-football members.

Either way, Tranghese said in September that the Big East hoped to decide on its realignment plans by November.

So where does this leave Notre Dame? The Irish won’t join the conference in football, but have so far indicated a willingness to explore options in the redefined Big East.

“Our preference would have been that the status quo would have stayed the same,” Heisler said. “As you’ve seen in recent years, we’ve established a relatively comfortable level with the Big East.

“But the league has been thrown into a little bit of turmoil with losing Virginia Tech and Miami. The question is, where do you go now?”

The future

White probably won’t comment on Notre Dame’s future conference plans until the Irish make a final decision on their future. And Heisler said he hasn’t been involved in any discussions, and he doesn’t know exactly what White has said to Big East officials – or officials from any other conference, for that matter.

In the meantime, the conference realignment rolls right along. Tranghese said the Big East, if it decides to expand, will keep the process open so other conferences can plan for their futures. And the ACC isn’t necessarily done adding schools – the Atlanta Journal-Constitution said the league was re-considering inviting Boston College, which the league originally declined to invite back in June.

“This is not a simple thing that gets tied up in a tidy little knot in a few days,” Heisler said. “There is some urgency, but it is a process that everybody has to work their way through.”