Love, Hate, and Notre Dame Football

I’ve been a Notre Dame fan since birth. My father attended the Holy Mother’s law school during the Joe Montana days. Both my parents are from the East Coast, so they’re profoundly disinterested in the IU-Purdue feud. So am I: I grew up during the twilight of Coach Knight, and Indiana University football has been a wasteland since time immemorial, but I will forever associate Purdue sports with a stinky friend from elementary school who had three loves: Cheeze-Its, computer pinball, and the Boilers. So it was rah, rah, go Irish, from Lou Holtz and his neck brace to Notre Dame 63-Rutgers 0 (the only game I’ve attended) to the simple mediocrity of Bob Davie. Like the Baltimore Orioles, the Fighting Irish were my father’s team, and that’s why I loved them.

That said, when the meager Duke football team squares off with the Fighting Irish next month, I’ll be pulling for the Blue Devils.

I’m not cooling on the Irish because they’ve started 0-4. Well, that’s an exaggeration. Of course an awful team will dampen one’s excitement: that’s why I’ve only attended one Duke football game. My doubts about the Irish are…well, they’re spiritual.

Yes, that is the right word. Notre Dame is an essential part of Catholic Americana, right up there with Guadalupe and the Corleones’ interesting uses for religious ceremonies in the Godfather movies. Much of this fame is well-earned: unlike the Jesuits at Georgetown, the Holy Cross brothers have run their university in an orthodox fashion, and Catholics did face a lot of prejudice in the first half of this century, so the institution and the team were an encouragement to them. Yet advertisement has been just as important to Notre Dame’s success. We’re all familiar with “Rudy,” but the first Notre Dame hagiography was much earlier: 1940’s “Knute Rockne, All American” (“Tell’em to go out there and win one for the Gipper”). Rockne, an excellent coach but also a master salesman, set the mold for everything to come. It seems like everything unique – Touchdown Jesus, the Grotto, golden helmets, “Play Like a Champion Today” – is packaged and sold in one way or another. When Tyrone Willingham ripped off an 8-0 start in his first year as coach, Notre Dame made brisk business on green shirts with “RETURN TO GLORY” emblazoned on them.

The commercial and cultural aspects have always been peripheral for me: my favorite thing about Notre Dame games is actually the weather. It’s cloudy and crisp, perfect for jeans and a sweatshirt, and every snap of wind brings the smell of tailgate and the thrill of being alive. Notre Dame’s claim to exceptionalism wouldn’t be a problem, though, if it really was different from everyone else. These days, it isn’t.

There have always been blemishes under the veneer of success. The star players, from George Gipp to Joe Theismann to Brady Quinn, never have to study. Fr. Hesburgh, the school’s most revered president, deemphasized the football team when he took over because he felt it got in the way of Notre Dame’s academics. More egregiously, my father has always claimed there is a correlation between alumni donations to the university and the success of the football team. In my limited opinion, though, the last few years have seen the worst of it. The athletic department nudged Lou Holtz into retirement so it could hire Bob Davie. At the end of his tenure, AD Kevin White extended his contract and fired him in the same year. Jolly Irish Catholic George O’Leary resigned a week after he was hired because the print media deduced he’d lied on his resume.

This lead to the saddest part of the story: Tyrone Willingham. Willingham was a strong silent type with exceptional character. He recruited players who were great students as well as good players, as he did at Stanford, which he lead to the Rose Bowl (and where are the Cardinal now?). My piano teacher, whose son transferred from Charles Rogers’s Michigan State to Willingham’s Irish team, was practically smitten with him. Notre Dame sells character as much as it sells winning, and under this coach, that claim was legit.

There was only one problem: the team didn’t win enough games. In the first three years of a five-year contract, his teams went 10-3, 5-7, and 6-5, and the administration, under heavy pressure from the boosters, showed him the door before he could see his recuits become seniors. Said Kevin White, “From Sunday through Friday our football program has exceeded all expectations, in every way. But on Saturday, we struggled. We’ve been up and down and sideways a little bit.” And reading that, my soul died a little.

As with its previous job search, Notre Dame turned first to an Irish Catholic: young mensch Urban Meyer. Alas, he turned them down in favor of the University of Florida. I recall some fans being outraged he’d chosen a public school over dear mother ND, but his choice makes sense to me. A state school can win games and raise young men just as well without being pretentious about it. Bobby Bowden even takes his players to church each Sunday.

The University turned and turned and turned the pages of the phone book and eventually landed Charlie Weis, the offensive coordinator for the Patriots’ championship teams. He has a good football mind, and he did wonders with Brady Quinn, but he isn’t the same man Willingham was. Calling the play a dying boy requested was cool, but typically, he’s arrogant and coarse. When he received a ten-year extension during his first season (the administration got a little excited), he said, “Since the first day I arrived at Notre Dame as head football coach, one of my primary goals was to be able to see this job through to the time my son, Charlie, would graduate from the University of Notre Dame and to stay in this position until I retire.” At the time, his son was 12 years old. “Well, of course he’s a jerk! He’s a football coach! Mrh mrh mrh!” one could respond, but his predecessor was above that.

Now we’re entering the winter of Weis’s tenure. The third and fourth years are the most difficult for a college coach because the upperclassmen from that time were recruited during the changing of the guard, when neither the old coach nor the new could fully devote himself to finding great players. It happened to Willingham, and now it’s happening to Weis in a more spectacular fashion: unless humble Duke bests the Irish, this looks like a 3-9 year. The only other years this bad were 2-8’s in 1956 and 1960, when Hesburgh wanted the team to be bad.

Then again, I think it’s better this way. Notre Dame has lost 10 straight bowl games, and that’s no coincidence. Every time Notre Dame has a winning season, it gets into a better bowl than it deserves because the organizers know all the Catholics in the country will fly into town to watch. Every time Notre Dame goes 10-2, even if the 2 losses were blowouts to the only elite teams on the schedule (see: last year), Notre Dame will get a BCS bid and the resulting $13.1 million payout. The university could use the money more than its publicly-subsidized state school brethren, but it’s always degrading to know you’re getting something not for what you’ve done, but for who you are. And what Notre Dame claims it is – a shining city on a hill among football programs – isn’t true anymore. It’ll always be my team, don’t expect me to dress like a leprechaun for a game anytime soon.

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