ND began '05 unranked, but it's far from insignificant
Posted: Wednesday September 7, 2005 1:51PM; Updated: Friday September 9, 2005 1:42PM
Notre Dame cracked the AP poll at No. 20 this week following its win over Pittsburgh.
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"The time has come when Notre Dame should take her old rank in the football world ..." -- 1905 editorial from the Notre Dame Scholastic, in the wake of the football team's 5-4 record that season
It has been suggested recently (and, as the above quote proves, not so recently) in the media that Notre Dame is no longer a relevant entity in college football. That time and -- if you pay heed to the college football preseason guides -- at least 43 other Division I-A programs have passed the Irish by. The advent of the Charlie Weis era in South Bend had incited many a harrumph near and far, and all of the harrumphs conveyed the same message: there should be no harrumphing about Notre Dame football.
I found the timing of this funny. Here was Notre Dame, a school that had finished at .500 or below in the past two seasons. A school that was entering the season unranked. And yet last on the morning of Sept. 1, the set of ESPN2's Cold Pizza came to us live from Pittsburgh, where the Irish were set to play their season opener the next evening against No. 23 Pitt. And if you picked up USA Today that same morning, the cover story in the sports section, written by Malcolm Moran (who does a spot-on Lou Holtz impression, by the way), carried the headline "With Weis, New Hope Springs for Irish Faithful."
The next day? ESPN thought enough of a game between No. 23 and an unranked team to have its College GameDay crew there for its season premiere (an aside: the first time ESPN's GameDay ever left the confines of Bristol was in November 1993, when they bivouacked in ... South Bend, Ind.). Saturday night ESPN's sister network, ABC, televised Notre Dame-Pittsburgh in prime time. And you know ABC: they're all about quality programming, as opposed to ratings. Look how long they stuck with My So-Called Life.
Then there's Keith Jackson, who these days ventures beyond Southern California's sublime confines about as often as Larry David. Jackson traveled across three time zones to broadcast the game. And, the Panthers' home, Heinz Field, was not only sold out (66,451) but concourse standing-room only tickets were also made available to a few hundred spectators. All of them Tyler Palko fans, one would suspect.
Is Notre Dame worthy of a top-25 ranking? We'll find out on Saturday. Are the Irish relevant? Certainly the folks at USA Today and Disney think so.
The better question is, Why do college football fans still care about Notre Dame? Why do we hate -- and love -- the Irish so passionately?
I happen to have graduated from Notre Dame (and if I were the typical arrogant Notre Dame football fan, here is where I would add, "as do, according to the school's media guide, 98.74 percent of its football players"; but I'm not, so I won't). And thus, if you belong to the "I HATE Notre Dame" faction -- talk about "standing-room only crowds" -- there is very little that I might write here to alter your opinion. But when writers exhaust entire columns on the irrelevance of a program that is not actively seeking media attention -- the new coach, Weis, turned down alll interview requests, including entreaties from both NBC and ABC in the weeks leading up to the season opener -- they sort of defeat the purpose of their convictions. Don't you think?
The Irish have been fighting irrelevance for 90 years. Of course, back then they were known not as the Fighting Irish but as Rockne's Ramblers. They were given this nickname because in an age of "Pardon-me-boy-is-that-the-Chattanooga-Choo-Choo?" high-speed travel, they played a national schedule, journeying from West Point, to Austin, to Pasadena. They were forced to travel because the powerhouses in their neighborhood (namely, Michigan) refused to play them. After the Wolverines, who had beaten the Irish eight consecutive times between 1887-1908, lost to Notre Dame in 1909, there was such bad blood that the schools did not play again until 1942. Imagine, Michigan and Notre Dame loathing one another.
However, because the Irish were compelled to leave the Midwest (Indiana and Purdue at one point also refused to play them) and because they were willing to play established powers on the road, and most importantly, because they won, Rockne's Ramblers quickly became national darlings. Imagine what would have happened had Boise State beaten Georgia last Saturday and continued to achieve similar results over a decade or so. That was Notre Dame from 1913, when it shocked national power Army with the forward pass, until Knute Rockne's death in 1931.
The mistake most casual haters (as opposed to the more passionate ones, whom you will find appearing regularly on Around the Horn or The Sports Reporters) of Notre Dame make is in assuming that the school has a pristine past and a "tarnished" (you can't read an anti-ND article without that adjective popping up) present. In fact, the opposite comes closer to the truth.
George Gipp? For two of his four full school years, the Gipper received no grades whatsoever. According to Notre Dame history professor Robert Burns (as quoted in Shake Down the Thunder, Murray Sperber's extremely thorough book on the school's gridiron past), "Gipp rarely went to class, not at all his last year. He was in a different major every year to take the easy courses."
Gipp also lived off campus in a luxurious hotel and earned almost all of his money by gambling on billiards and cards. George Gipp was the original Florida State Seminole. That was from 1916-20. In 1920 Gipp flunked out of Notre Dame. Later the school allowed him to re-enroll. Sound familiar? In 2002 Julius Jones, like Gipp the best player on the squad, flunked out of Notre Dame. Later the school allowed him to re-enroll.
So, the Irish have always been dirty? No dirtier than anyone else. One writer suggested that Southern Cal's recent success has been viewed as "a threat to the legend." That the Irish, seeing what was happening out at Heritage Hall, panicked and fired their coach, Tyrone Willingham.
Did that writer know that in 1925 a certain school from Los Angeles, concerned with its own stature on college football's stage, attempted to hire away Knute Rockne from Notre Dame? Rockne declined but he did suggest a coach for USC to hire. The Trojans took Rockne's advice and hired Howard Jones, who led them to four national championships.
Also, I wonder whether, if all the off-field incidents that have plagued Southern Cal in the past five months had happened in South Bend instead, would we not have read more about them? Or at least an article (or two dozen) about how the Irish had taken out a second mortgage on their integrity in exchange for a national title? The lesson there: The American sports fan loathes a hypocrite more than he does a sinner.
The question is, Are Domers hypocrites?
Here are the facts. Notre Dame has more Heismans (seven) and, since the Associated Press poll began in 1936, more national championships (eight) to its name than any other school. It is number two all-time in wins and winning percentage behind Michigan. The Irish are second only to Nebraska in total number of football academic All-Americans (42). (Go, Huskers!)
And, yes, Notre Dame is no different than anyone else when it comes to how it approaches competing for a national championship. The Irish will often use all three downs in an attempt to get a first down before punting. Sometimes they tackle in a less than gentlemanly way. They accepted NBC's offer to televise all of their home games (wouldn't your school?) and they just built one of those ultra-modern athletics complexes that, to paraphrase Lou Reed, make all the high school blue-chippers go, "doo do doo do doo do do doo doo do doo do doo do do doo."
On the other hand, Notre Dame has no athletic dormitiories. If your son is a freshman there, there's an excellent chance that his dorm room is next to Brady Quinn's or Darius Walker's or Maurice Stovall's. But not your daughter. The school has only single-sex dorms.
Notre Dame's football team does not accept junior college transfers.
And last year only two schools graduated a higher percentage of its male athletes than the Irish did: Duke and Stanford. Both of those universities are routinely lauded for their ability to combine high academic standards with (at least in basketball and certain non-revenue sports) with equally high athletic ones. The Irish, on the other hand, are routinely decried as hypocrites.
As one Notre Dame official recently said to me, "What's so wrong with wanting to be great?"
Is Notre Dame a top-25 team? We'll find out on Saturday in Ann Arbor. Are the Irish still relevant? As long as people hate them, they are.