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Will Notre Dame Join a Conference? The History and Future Possibilities

Written by Connor D'Aquila | Writer | Twitter: @ConnorDaquilaIT


Conference realignment has been the talk of college football in recent days and weeks. Beginning with Colorado’s move to the Big 12, it quickly became a mass exodus from the Pac 12. As it stands, Oregon and Washington have headed to the Big Ten while Arizona, Arizona State, and Utah have been added to the Big 12. All that remains in the Pac 12 is Stanford, Cal, Oregon State, and Arizona State. As with anytime conference realignment comes up, Notre Dame has become a major topic of conversation. Between the major brand that any conference would welcome and the school’s steadfast commitment to independence, people are always curious to see if any developments alter ND’s thinking on the topic. We’ll evaluate Notre Dame’s standing below!


Photo via David Dermer, Associated Press


A Brief History of Independence

To understand Notre Dame’s stance on independence today, it is important to go back to the beginning. The program began in 1887 after Michigan’s team was on their way, by train, to Chicago and taught the game to ND students during a stop in South Bend. Over the next few decades, the Irish would slowly grow to prominence, but none of it would prove good enough to be accepted to the Big Ten Conference. There was also the fact that prominent Michigan coach Fielding Yost lobbied against due to his strong anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant prejudices. After three attempts, Notre Dame was forced to remain independent and quickly became a national brand with a unique fanbase. This is when rivalries with teams like USC and Navy were formed and the entire country was watching the Irish weekly. When the 1990s came along, however, the Big Ten began pushing for Notre Dame to join the conference. Remembering what had happened before and appreciating the national presence ND created, the school said no. They also made it clear that the decision would not be made based on finances and had more to do with identity.


Photo via Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire/Getty Images


Future With the ACC

Since 2013, Notre Dame has been a part of the ACC for all sports except football, and with that agreement came five games annually against ACC opponents. By making this agreement, Notre Dame allowed their other sports to compete at the highest level while football held on to its independent identity. In recent years, however, the ACC appears to be at risk. While the Big Ten, Big 12, and SEC have made major expansion steps, the ACC has remained stagnant. Moreover, there have been reports that top football programs Clemson and Florida State would like to leave, which would leave the football talent in the conference fairly thin. This year, UNC is the only other team in the AP Top 25. Storied programs like Miami and Virginia Tech would also remain. Even with those better programs, Notre Dame has managed to win 28-straight regular season ACC games, dating back to 2017, giving some indication of the lack of competition were they to join fully. Their one playoff loss in that time comes from 2020, when they played the COVID season as a full member for scheduling simplicity. In that year, they were undefeated throughout and only lost in the conference championship to Clemson, which was still enough to earn a CFP berth. This success did not matter to ND admin, however, as they went right back to the old agreement.





Most recently, around the same time Clemson and Florida State rumors abounded, Notre Dame was reported to push for the admission of Stanford and Cal to the ACC. Despite this action in the conference, ND maintained that it would not affect their stand on independence, and the idea did not receive the necessary support from all member schools. With Shwarbrick and the athletic department staying away from full ACC entry, would it be possible for an old foe to change their minds?


Photo via Zac Al-Khateeb/Sporting News


What About the Big Ten?

As the local conference and the one the history of Notre Dame revolves around, the Big Ten will always come up in these conversations. Now, the conference has also signed with ND’s TV partner, NBC, and their biggest rival, USC, is becoming a member. These developments certainly add to the merit of the idea, but it is not the whole story. For one, Notre Dame’s contract with the ACC lasts until 2036, and with that, full membership in the Big Ten would not be allowed. There are obviously ways around this with fines, but it would not be ideal. In the event that the ACC’s demise was accelerated and full dissolution occurred, it would be interesting to see if a similar partnership is possible. While the NBC connection and plethora of rivalries would help, the bitterness on Notre Dame’s side from the past could prove to be an obstacle.





There is also the question of whether such a powerful conference would want to accommodate Notre Dame with only partial membership. This would mean revenue distribution and technically non-conference games added to member team schedules. While I’m sure Irish fans would love to see the regional rivalries annually, this could prove to be a tough sell.


We cannot talk about the Big Ten, however, without addressing their media deal. Currently, Notre Dame is making about $26 million annually between NBC and ACC distributions. Under the Big Ten’s new deal, member teams will make in the range of $75 million per year by 2025. This is a huge margin, but one Notre Dame could close with their new deal that many believe could fall in the $60 million range. Nevertheless, full membership in the Big Ten would likely prove more profitable, but finances have never been the top priority.





Conclusion

There is a lot to unpack here with Notre Dame and conference realignment. With the relative weakening of the ACC and strengthening of the Big Ten, we definitely need to ask questions. We also need to consider the possibility of 10-game conference schedules and the impact that would have on ND’s ability to schedule independently. There are a lot of variables right now, but that history is the most important thing to remember. Notre Dame is not a national brand without independence, and there is a deep reverence for that in the community. It is that national presence that allowed them to sign the richest apparel deal in college history, and it is what will keep them competitive on TV deals. At the end of the day, we don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes, but the Irish don’t appear to be in any rush to make a switch.



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