When Notre Dame stunningly resolved to play in a bowl game for the first time in more than four decades, or since that national championship team of Harry Pestilence, Don Famine, Sleepy Jim Death and Elmer War galloped out to Pasadena in 1925, Athletic Director Moose Krause mentioned the modern convenience of jet travel as one of the small reasons for the university's decision. This, in turn, as South Bend might have guessed, led a number of us stubborn Notre Dame teasers into the same gag: that the Fighting Irish may have invented college football glamour, but it seems to have taken them 45 years to discover the airplane.
It is more fun to joke about the Irish, of course, than it is to play them a game of football, the main reason being that Notre Darners take their spirit and their winning so seriously. Notre Dame has never been one of those schools you go looking up if you hope to beat somebody. In these 45 seasons that Notre Dame has avoided postseason play, all the campus has produced is 11 more teams that won national championships (in some poll or another), nine teams that went undefeated, eight that lost only one game, 16 that lost only two games, more than 100 All-America selections and six Heisman Trophy winners.
Thus, Notre Dame simply has to pardon all of its trampled victims of the years for giggling now about the fact that its academic standards at long last have reached such excellence that it can spare a few days off during the holidays to play a game for $350,000. To be fair, one should add that all this while most Notre Dame exes and members of its far-flung subway-bus-streetcar-speed-boat-and-convertible alumni have felt that the Irish should always have been going to bowl games. And rightly so.
Had it done so in the years since Knute Rockne took his Four Horsemen and Seven Mules out to the Rose Bowl to whip up on Ernie Nevers and Stanford on the first day of 1925, the institution, it is safe to say, would be infinitely wealthier and its number of victories would be even heavier than it is. A peek at the record indicates that probably 20 Notre Dame teams could have gone bowling between 1925 and this season. And a modest estimate of what this might have been worth is between $2 and $4 million, not to overlook all of those extra opportunities to sing the Victory March and recruit.
The logic behind Notre Dame's refusal to participate in postseason play all of this time is known only to those faculty men in South Bend who have been responsible. More than likely it was based on the fact that in the 1920s Rockne's one trip took almost a month, going and coming, by train. But there can hardly be any excuses for the policy existing after World War II when modern transportation, either on the ground or in the sky, made it possible for both the squad and its student fans to attend a bowl and miss no classwork.
The continuation of the policy probably results from a misguided notion that participation in a bowl game would make Notre Dame look like a football factory. Football, of course, has done a great deal for Notre Dame—far more than anything else. Nor is there much wrong with this, except that there happen to be those within the bright glare of the Golden Dome who do not like to admit it.
Actually, for whatever the reasons, Notre Dame has quite possibly rendered a kind and philanthrophic service to a great many other schools by staying out of bowl games. A number of teams in the past would not have gone to so many postscason games had the Irish been available. It almost goes without saying that there are bowl sponsors among us who would tap dance and strum the banjo to get Notre Dame with even a 5-5 record. Such is the drawing power of its wildly loyal fandom, whose box-office tendencies have prompted Beano Cook, once of rival Pittsburgh and now of the television industry, to observe, "Notre Dame is the only team in the country that never plays a road game."
Several explanations were put forth as to why Notre Dame chose this interlude in its glorious history to play a postseason game—the Cotton Bowl—against, as it happens, No. 1 Texas. One was that, since this was the centennial year of the sport, South Bend had a built-in excuse for rescinding, momentarily, its bowl policy. This was better than nothing. At least every 100 years some lucky bowl could expect to land the Irish. Another explanation was that Coach Ara Parseghian had been lobbying for bowl participation ever since he got there in 1964 and finally had rounded up enough strength on the board of regents, which had been enlarged to include a number of football-minded laymen, to swing it. Like any other coach, Ara knew the benefits of bowl play—recognition of the squad for a good regular season, a chance to make whoopee in the ratings and a splendid opportunity to recruit a specific area of the country.
But, as it turned out, the real reason that Notre Dame lifted its bowl ban was money. The road to the decision was laid as early as last June when the financial committee on scholarship aid discovered it needed help. Notre Dame already was up to its statue of Moses in fund drives totaling $52 million, and, thus, some other source of revenue would be required to aid a program for underprivileged students. The committee thought of a bowl game as one possibility, believing, naturally, that Ara's team would do no worse than 8-1-1.
Then, rather surprisingly, when this was suggested to the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, the president, a man who had never encouraged bowl talk, he said, "Let's think about it," dropping the hard line for the first time and offering encouragement to all those Notre Darners who had long sought bowl play.