The carrot was always there dangling in front of Big East football: so tantalizingly close, but always just out of its grasp.
Notre Dame never had any intention of joining the Big East for football, but its presence as a member in all other sports loomed large because, well, Notre Dame is Notre Dame. Unfortunately, its disjointed membership also served as a daily reminder of what the league could never really get accomplished.
Say what you will about Notre Dame and its lack of success on a national level over the past 20 years, but its football program remains more relevant than any program in the Big East. So relevant that the Big East has had a bowl partnership with Notre Dame that allowed the school to take one of its more coveted bowl spots once in a four-year rotation.
So relevant that when news broke Wednesday, pundits declared the impending death of the Big East -- even though Notre Dame has never played a football down as a member of the conference. There is no question that this loss is a big blow once again to the national perception of the Big East, which will limp along without prominent members Syracuse, Pitt, West Virginia and now Notre Dame.
It is also a big blow to its other sports as well. The Irish have been dominant since joining the Big East in 1995, winning 116 conference titles -- more than any school in the league. Both the Big East and Notre Dame benefitted from their relationship in this way.
Though there were constant frustrations about why the Big East would ever allow Notre Dame in without the football component, the Irish increased the conference's national exposure and gave it something to truly brag on.
But in the end, it was simply a marriage of convenience between the two and one that was never really sustainable without football in the mix. Though Big East football would never be an option for Notre Dame, the conference allowed the Irish to continue on as members and gave them special access to bowls. Notre Dame also had a say in Big East football expansion, a clear and troubling conflict of interest.
When the Big East was at its low point last year after losing Pitt, Syracuse and West Virginia, TCU backed out of its commitment, and there were rumblings that UConn, Rutgers and every other remaining member had sent out S.O.S. calls to other conferences, Notre Dame could have easily saved the conference if he had decided to join for football. But that was never going to happen.
Now the Irish have bailed, too.
The Big East, then, soldiers on with its reconfigured football look as television negotiations have gotten under way. In a statement, new Big East commissioner Mike Aresco said, “Notre Dame’s departure does not change our plans. We have prestigious institutions that are excited to be a part of the Big East. We remain committed to making the Big East stronger than it has ever been.”
Aresco hit all the talking points, as he should. Losing Notre Dame also means shedding that dangling football carrot. There will be no more sharing bowl spots, no more uncertainty and no one left to wonder about football pipe dreams.
But this league will feel its loss, even though Notre Dame never played football under its umbrella. Its perception is in tatters. Its relevancy has been downgraded. Perhaps this creates further instability and unhappiness among member schools that just saw yet another coveted member turn its nose and walk away.
As has been the case with the Big East since the first ACC raid in 2003, the league will find a way to pick itself up. But you have to wonder how many more gut punches the Big East can take, and whether it is truly stable enough to convince all of its doubters that it can be as great as it once was.