Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Notre Dame's move to ACC means change for Pitt - Pittsburgh Post Gazette

The University of Pittsburgh will benefit financially with the Atlantic Coast Conference's decision to add Notre Dame as a member Wednesday, but the jury is still out on how the latest move in conference realignment will affect the Panthers' athletic program.

From Pitt's perspective, this much is known today after Notre Dame was accepted as the 15th member of the ACC in all sports except for football and ice hockey: Pitt's annual football series with Notre Dame will cease to exist in its current form, but other old rivalries could be revived because of it.

Under the terms of the agreement between Notre Dame and the ACC, Notre Dame will play five ACC teams every year in football and will play every team in the conference at least once in a three-year period.

When asked whether any long-standing rivals such as Boston College or Pitt would be given games on a more regular basis, Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick in effect passed the buck, saying Notre Dame will provide its five dates for football games, and the scheduling is in the hands of ACC commissioner John Swofford.

Swofford said any future football contracts Notre Dame has with ACC teams such as Pitt will be reevaluated. Pitt and Notre Dame have a contract for games every year through 2016.

"We have to take a look at that and see what's right before we decide what the ultimate schedule would be," Swofford said.

Instead of playing host to Notre Dame at Heinz Field every other year, the Fighting Irish likely will come to Pittsburgh once every six years when the Irish officially join the ACC, which will happen by 2015 at the latest, perhaps sooner if the Irish can negotiate a buyout from the Big East the way Pitt and Syracuse did this summer.

Pitt will play Notre Dame in football for the 68th time in November. Only Penn State and West Virginia have played more games against the Panthers over the years.

With Notre Dame rotating off the schedule more frequently, Pitt athletic director Steve Pederson said Penn State could come back onto the schedule on a more regular basis.

Pitt and Penn State have not played since 2000. The two schools have a contract to play a two-game series in 2016 and '17.

West Virginia, Pitt's most frequent rival, fell off the schedule this year after the Mountaineers moved to the Big 12 Conference. No talks between the two schools have taken place since the Mountaineers departed the Big East.

"We'd love to play Penn State every year," Pederson said. "I've had a conversation with [Penn State athletic director] Dave Joyner about that. I know coach [Bill] O'Brien has made positive statements about that. We'll see how that plays out. This could create some new opportunities for us as well. We haven't revisited West Virginia yet. At some point we'll probably have that conversation."

One negative aspect of the move for Pitt is the way Notre Dame is being treated by the ACC when it comes to football. Notre Dame wanted to remain a football independent, but the Irish will receive many of the same benefits as other teams in the league when it comes to bowl eligibility.

Notre Dame gets inclusion in the ACC's bowl lineup. The ACC champion will continue to play in the Orange Bowl, but Notre Dame will be allowed to participate in non-Bowl Championship Series games as long as it has an overall record better than, equal to, or within one win of ACC teams. Or, if Notre Dame is ranked higher in the BCS standings.

That means Notre Dame potentially can take the spot of an existing ACC team when bowl bids are awarded. It's a similar deal that Notre Dame enjoyed as a member of the Big East.

"I've always been on the opposite side of that," Pederson said. "I've always felt having Notre Dame in the bowl mix only enhances our ability to get bowls. In conversations over the years, every time we've brought Notre Dame into the bowl mix we've gotten better bowls. I think that's what you'll find in this case, too. The ACC will only grow, not only in the number of bowls but the quality of bowls. I think we're in about as good a shape as any conference can be in that way."

Would Pederson feel that way even if, say, a 7-5 Notre Dame team ousted an 8-4 Pitt team from a bowl game?

"Typical in conferences now is the one-win rule," Pederson said. "That can happen in any conference. If everyone plays well and does the right things, people will have a chance to play in great bowl games."

Since Pitt will compete as a full-time member in the ACC for the first time next fall, not much will change in terms of men's and women's basketball is concerned for the Panthers. Swofford said the league's intention is to remain at 15 schools because a 16th member would give the conference an odd number of teams for football because Notre Dame is not a member in football.

Even though a 15-team basketball league presents scheduling challenges, the ACC likely would keep an 18-game conference schedule. The conference tournament would likely be adjusted to allow the top four seeds to receive byes, but otherwise not many changes would be made.

The biggest positives for Pitt will be the financial reward and the long-term stability that came about when the ACC presidents voted Wednesday to triple the exit fee for members. The new exit fee is around $50 million, meaning schools such as Florida State and Clemson that were mulling moves are now likely to stay put.

Pitt stands to pocket $17.1 million per year under the terms of the ACC's television deal with ESPN that was finalized earlier this year. Swofford said there already have been discussions with ESPN about redoing the deal. With Notre Dame on board, the share of each school in the league figures to grow significantly.

Pederson also said Notre Dame is locked in to becoming a full member of the ACC if it ever decides to give up its independent status.

"That's a big part of this," he said.

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