The realignment of college athletics has taught us a variety of lessons. Chief among them: Never play poker with ACC commissioner John Swofford. He'll lull you into a false sense of security with that folksy, aw-shucks aura, and then BAM! Next thing you know, you have no money, no watch and you're standing outside the saloon wearing a rain barrel.
Every time the ACC has appeared weak or vulnerable, Swofford has moved to make it stronger. Wednesday's play to add Notre Dame in every sport except football and hockey -- but with five football games annually against ACC members -- makes the ACC nearly impenetrable. (So does the new $50 million exit fee.) That faction at Florida State that wants to go to the Big 12? They might want to rethink that plan. Any stragglers at Clemson still wishing for another conference home? Forget it. You're in a good place now. For all the things it can do for the conference, the Notre Dame move was essentially a defensive one. The other option for the Fighting Irish was the Big 12, which might have expanded further and moved on Florida State and Clemson had the ACC not snatched Notre Dame.
Less than 10 years ago, the ACC and the Big East were essentially equals. Swofford and the ACC's leadership saw the sands shifting. They understood the need to have at least 12 members and to have a football championship game. They understood geography would no longer define conferences. Television markets would. The Big East's leaders did not realize this until far too late. The Big East's brain trust still didn't get it after Swofford pillaged that league in 2003 to take Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College. The cautious, deliberate thinkers in Providence didn't figure it out until September 2011, when Swofford grabbed Pittsburgh and Syracuse in another midnight raid. Now, by taking Notre Dame's non-football sports away from the Big East, Swofford has essentially plunged a knife into its heart.
Had the Big East been the proactive conference early in the previous decade, the ACC might be the one teetering on the edge of oblivion. The ACC didn't have the built-in monster TV markets of the Pac-12. It didn't have the century-old football powers of the Big 12. It didn't have the massive football success of the SEC to entice television networks. Like the Big East, the ACC had a mediocre football league with a great history of men's basketball success. What the ACC had that the Big East did not was Swofford -- who refused to let his league fade into irrelevance.
Swofford has done most of his work quietly. When Texas A&M and Missouri moved to the SEC, the news leaked weeks before any official announcement. In Missouri's case, even the official announcement leaked early. When the Big 12 chose to pluck West Virginia instead of Louisville from the Big East, politicians set off a firestorm that delayed the choice and embarrassed the league. When the ACC moved on Pitt, Syracuse and Notre Dame, the news leaked only hours or minutes before the league made it official.
Swofford also has benefitted from the once-unpopular stand in 2008 in favor of a four-team football playoff. Why has that helped the ACC? Because Swofford stood with SEC commissioner Mike Slive, and when the playoff passed this past summer, Swofford was at the front. He helped the ACC lock the Orange Bowl into the playoff rotation, and he and his staff secured the Orange Bowl's television rights -- essentially putting the league in charge of the game.
The ACC's new television contract came under fire because it would pay about $17 million per school per year. While that is less than the Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and probably will be less than the SEC, it is far more than a league with such meager football success over the past 10 years should expect. It is unclear whether Notre Dame's five-ninths entry into the ACC's football operation will allow the league to add a few more dollars to that deal -- it should, considering it is additional inventory -- but Notre Dame's presence only strengthens the league and its financial prospects going forward.
This is the part where a lot of you point to Notre Dame's recent record and lack of national titles since 1988. And you're correct. Notre Dame is not relevant to the national title picture. But it is relevant to television executives. Other than "Don't play poker with John Swofford," here is another major lesson from realignment: The only opinions that count are the opinions of those who write giant checks on behalf of television networks.
The deal works for Notre Dame in a variety of ways. It locks in five-twelfths of the football schedule. It gives the Irish quasi-partnerships with the Orange Bowl that could be helpful for both parties. When the bowls renegotiate their deals in a few years, a few better ones might be willing to jump on board with the ACC with the hope of getting Notre Dame. The biggest remaining question now is whether Notre Dame will extend its television deal with NBC or whether it will wait until closer to the deal's expiration in 2015. Not coincidentally, that's probably the first year Notre Dame can leave the Big East to play in the ACC in its other sports.
Does that mean Notre Dame might eventually join the ACC as a full member? Most in South Bend would prefer to preserve football independence, so don't count on it. Still, the Fighting Irish have taken a seat at the table alongside Swofford, and history suggests he can talk anyone into just about anything.