"That 2011 spring and summer … was a wild time," Swofford says. "There was a lot of talk going on. A lot of things going on in the Big 12, Pac-12 and SEC … and during that period of time we were doing some really good work internally with our membership on what ended up being Pitt and Syracuse, because there were a number of schools that were approaching us about wanting to join.

"Syracuse had been on our radar for a good while. Pitt, academically, had been to some degree. … We also talked about Notre Dame at that point, and from a strategic standpoint, I suspect that Notre Dame's interest in the ACC, which was strong anyway, was enhanced with Pitt and Syracuse coming in.

"That all wasn't happenstance. There's some method to the madness there, looking ahead, in terms of taking those two schools and then sitting and seeing what evolves (with Notre Dame) from that."

The spring and summer of 2012 were even wilder.

In May the conference announced a 15-year contract with ESPN that provides unrivaled exposure via platforms both traditional and innovative. ACC rights fees jumped nearly 30 percent, to approximately $17 million annually per school, this a windfall from the Pitt-Syracuse expansion and an override of a 12-year deal signed in 2010.

But when a Florida State trustee publicly and inaccurately pilloried the new terms, media pounced.

The ACC was doomed financially, they crowed. Florida State and Clemson would bolt for the Big 12. College football's playoff, set to begin in 2014, would exclude the ACC.

"It really was sobering," Swofford says of the national instability, "whether you felt like we were going to be directly impacted or not, and I don't think we were ever in any danger of being impacted by it all. It made you think, there are different ways to look at this."

The most different way was to consider Notre Dame as a partial member. The school treasures its football independence but wanted a more stable home than the Big East for its other sports.

ACC officials, Swofford included, had long resisted such an arrangement. They valued Notre Dame's national appeal, athletic achievements and academic standing, but wanted total commitment.

Realignments of other conferences, financial projections from ESPN and Notre Dame's agreement to play five football games per year against the ACC changed their outlook.

"Notre Dame just fits our league extraordinarily well," Swofford says. "The Eastern seaboard, and particularly the Northeast corridor, is really important to Notre Dame as an institution. Not just athletically. In terms of Catholicism, in terms of the institution itself."

As natural as the fit is, the deal hinged on Swofford and Swarbrick.

They bonded not over cigars and single-malt, but lunch and Diet Cokes. They dined with their wives and talked about their families.

Frequent gatherings of BCS commissioners and Notre Dame provided cover for their wider mission.

The country quarterback from North Carolina and big-city lawyer from New York became fast friends.

"John's a great listener," says Swarbrick, citing Swofford's innate ability to hear what is not only said but also meant.

"Sometimes people don't say exactly what they mean," Swofford says. "Sometimes we all speak in code. The better you listen the more you can read between the lines."

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The ACC has no time to bask in the Notre Dame coup.