I’d always rooted against Notre Dame: too old-fashioned, too explicit in its religion (all hail Touchdown Jesus), too shackled to its history, too convinced that morality plus Midwestern grit equaled wins. And in fact, the Irish did appear to pull off all number of miracles. Which made me root against them even more.
But then, a few years ago, I messed up and visited the campus. It’s green and gorgeous. Everybody treated me like a favorite cousin. I went down to the Grotto and came away moved. I don’t hate Notre Dame anymore. (I moved that little bit of sports hate to Florida, where the rest of the pile was anyway.)
So Allen Pinkett’s riff about Notre Dame football needing more “criminals” made me sad more than anything. Pinkett is right, assuming you want Notre Dame to win big, and wrong, assuming you want Notre Dame to stay pure. I’m not sure Notre Dame -- or anybody else -- can still do both. And that’s what this is about in the end: a loss of identity.
Pinkett, a Notre Dame radio analyst, paid for his words -- he was taken off the broadcast of the opener against Navy in Dublin. He has apologized, saying he chose his words poorly, which is true. But his logic was sharp.
Notre Dame fans remember when the Irish dominated college football, and if they don’t, their daddies do. But there hasn’t been a national champion in South Bend since 1988, and for every 10-3 season since, there’s a numbing string of 5-7s and 6-6s (current coach Brian Kelly is 16-10 in two seasons). They keep rebooting coaches and installing new systems. This year, in a huge break with tradition, they’re trying out Oregon-ish uniforms. The Gipper grieves.
But there’s a faster path to winning, and Pinkett knows it. Nearly all the teams at the top of the top 25 take players who have football skills but deep flaws -- academic, emotional or otherwise. A big part of major-college football is keeping those players eligible. Some of them flame out anyway, through bad grades or smoking weed or toting a gun around. Suspending knuckleheads, and occasionally kicking them off the team, is the tax the top programs pay for success.
Notre Dame got by for decades without that kind of player. But that was back when every Catholic kid wanted to play for the Irish, and that was before college football was such a huge business that taking on marginal kids -- even a criminal or two -- became a good value bet.
Notre Dame can still be good now and again, if the right coach brings in the right prospects and they strike lightning (see Andrew Luck at Stanford). But playing one of the big bowls every year? Being in the conversation for the title? That requires a tougher call.
College football, like most things worth loving, is complicated. Notre Dame could bring in some marginal students and win more games. They could even turn some of those kids into responsible adults -- which is what a university is supposed to do anyway. But to do that means the occasional ugly headline, and it means chipping away (just a bit) at Notre Dame's sense of morality.
Me, I think it’s worth the gamble.