Here was an early November evening gone dark and cold in South Bend. The afternoon's pale sunshine, which had warmed tailgate parties on the asphalt outside Notre Dame Stadium, had long disappeared, and so too had the rediscovered spirit that preceded the game against seemingly overmatched Pittsburgh. It had turned black and dreary, and the home team had fallen far behind, its unbeaten season seemingly finished. Then came the rally, fueled by genuine desperation, but also by a referee's phantom call and an inexplicably missed field goal by Pitt. More than four hours after the opening kickoff, Notre Dame scored the winning touchdown, remaining undefeated, and for the moment, rejuvenated.
In a corner of the stadium that Rockne built and NBC expanded, Notre Dame freshmen extricated themselves from the battered wooden bleachers and began chugging down the concrete steps toward the field. Three sections to their left, in the better seats that come with seniority, upperclassmen began chanting: Stay in the Stands! Stay in the Stands! Because, as senior Allan Joseph, editor in chief of the student newspaper The Observer, would later explain, "If we're trying to restore the Notre Dame football brand, you can't be rushing the field after beating Pittsburgh." At least not this year, you can't.
On the sideline, Notre Dame defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore, a 6'4", 306-pound fifth-year senior from Weatherford, Texas, scanned the rocking stadium. He had come to Notre Dame in the fall of 2008, with no knowledge of the school's mythic—and dusty—football history. "Didn't know about Knute Rockne or Lou Holtz or Win One for the Gipper," says Lewis-Moore. "I knew it was going to be cold, and that's about it." In the final home game of his true freshman season, Lewis-Moore had sat on the bench as Notre Dame was beaten by 2--8 Syracuse, and fans, some of them students, had peppered the players with snowballs and marshmallows. Now the Irish had gone to 9--0, and one group of students was telling another that the victory wasn't worthy of excessive celebration. As he stood on the field and sang Notre Dame's alma mater, a postgame ritual in good times and bad, Lewis-Moore absorbed the difference that four years makes and chose to accept it all as part of the same experience. "That whole thing about remembering where you came from?" he says. "That's big right now."
Two more wins have followed, a punch-the-clock, 21--6 victory at Boston College on Nov. 10, and last Saturday on Senior Day at home, a 38--0 trouncing of Wake Forest that elevated Notre Dame to an 11--0 record for the first time in 23 years and seemingly secured its No. 3 Bowl Championship Series ranking for another week. Five hours later the story became stunningly richer, as No. 1 Kansas State was beaten at Baylor and No. 2 Oregon was upset by Stanford in Eugene. As those games wound down, students on the Notre Dame campus spilled out of their dorm rooms and into the dry Clarke Memorial Fountain. The no. 1 sign atop Grace Hall at the northeast corner of the campus was illuminated for the first time since November 1993. With a victory over USC this Saturday night at the Los Angeles Coliseum—site of the some of the most resonant games in Notre Dame (and USC) history—the Fighting Irish will earn a place in the BCS national championship game in Miami on Jan. 7, their first appearance in any clear title game since 1988. Throughout the fall, Notre Dame's presence among the college football elite, whether judged as overdue, surprising or repulsive (there are constituencies in all three camps) has added a familiar layer of plot to the customary seasonlong BCS driven narrative. "It seems like Notre Dame is supposed to be up there, like they always ought to have a good team," says former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden. "This is the way it should be." Now the team stands on the precipice of adding a rich chapter to Irish lore.
It is not nearly that simple, because there are few places in American sports where the seemingly self-evident act of winning or losing a game is more complicated than at Notre Dame. It is a place where success is measured not just against the rest of the Top 25 (or in some recent years, the top 125), but also against an outsized football history that rolls back through a century of the real and the cinematic. Notre Dame can't merely be good; it must call to mind past glory. It is also a place where success must signify a triumph of some higher standard—generally known as Doing It the Right Way—that would expose most other winning programs as ethically bankrupt by comparison. "There is a culture at Notre Dame that's different from other schools," says New York Giants defensive end Justin Tuck, who was with the Irish from 2001 through '04. "And unless you've been there and lived it, you can't understand it." This seizing of the moral high ground, in turn, triggers a resentment from certain other programs and their fans and condemnation of Notre Dame as arrogant, self-righteous and insufferable (even if justified).
The cycle repeats itself whenever Notre Dame reappears among the elite, as it did in the 1960s and '70s under coach Ara Parseghian, who still lives half the year in South Bend; and in the late '80s under Lou Holtz, who can now be seen conducting daffy monologues as Dr. Lou on ESPN and is memorialized in bronze at Notre Dame Stadium, a bespectacled sentinel outside a gate named in his honor, where passersby have apparently repressed the antipathy that accompanied Holtz's departure in '96 after 11 seasons and 100 victories, the latter total second only to that of Rockne himself. And now it is happening again under third-year coach Brian Kelly, invigorating a campus that tries to separate itself from a football identity yet derives much of its emotional energy from that very team. Current seniors arrived in South Bend in the fall of 2009 and were welcomed by a 35--0 beatdown of Nevada on a beautiful late summer afternoon. "I remember thinking, We might not lose for four years," says Alex Andre, a senior from Chicago.
A week later the Irish lost to Michigan in Ann Arbor on a Wolverines touchdown with 11 seconds to play. Chris Allen, a senior from East Brunswick, N.J., and sports editor of The Observer, recalls shuffling from his freshman dorm to the dining hall that evening, despondent. "I was thinking, Why did I come here again?" he says. Notre Dame went on to win five of its next six games but closed the season with four straight losses to end Charlie Weis's tenure and then went 16--10 in Kelly's first two years. "It wasn't all sunshine and rainbows around here for a while," says fifth-year senior Mike Golic Jr., who has been visiting the campus since he was in elementary school—his father and two uncles played for Notre Dame.
It is palpably different now. Students awaken to class e-mails from professors that begin with: GO IRISH! or HOW ABOUT THAT GAME! As a freshman on fall break weekend, Joseph, the Observer editor, watched Notre Dame lose to USC and then rode home (to the Columbus suburbs) with his dad, stopping at a rural Arby's with his hair and face painted in Notre Dame colors, embarrassed and beaten. "Now," says Joseph, "the football team is winning, and it feels like it inspires everybody on campus to be on top of their game."
Manti Te'o—Notre Dame's All-America inside linebacker, likely Heisman Trophy finalist (the school has had just two finalists since Tim Brown won in 1987) and the emotional center of the team—says, "You can feel that everybody around here is just happier. It's getting colder. The snow is coming. Nobody wants that. But everybody is just happy. I'm so glad we've been able to give them this experience."
Yet the transition back to prominence has been at times turbulent, and at times tragic. Notre Dame's culture of rigid campus discipline has been altered in ways that have changed not just the football program but also the entire community. Two young people have died, one directly connected to Notre Dame football and the other at odds with it, both leaving deep scars and very different levels of closure. A daily battle is waged between a distant memory of the old Notre Dame and the more modern needs of the new Notre Dame. Football knits them together.