When Notre Dame hosted Miami at Soldier Field in primetime two Saturdays ago, the game's television producers braced themselves for a blast from the past.
The telecast flashed back to the legendary 1988 battle between Jimmy Johnson's Hurricanes and Lou Holtz's Fighting Irish. Then it flashed back to that 31-30 Notre Dame victory again. For a few minutes early in the second quarter, it appeared that Steve Walsh and Tony Rice would take more snaps on NBC than Everett Golson and Stephen Morris.
Sideline reporter Alex Flanagan held up a vintage "Catholics versus Convicts" T-shirt as if it were a treasure from an archeological dig. So many sepia-tinted still photographs filled the screen during commercial bumps that the telecast sometimes looked like a Ken Burns documentary.
You can forgive the television producers for leaning on nostalgia. Entering the season, Notre Dame-Miami looked like a snooze, a .500-caliber relic from the gangsta rap era against the denizens of a stodgy old boarding house on the forgotten village square. Sure, it was a "rivalry" game, but so is Harvard-Yale. All Notre Dame games are rivalry games, their schedule an iTunes Essentials playlist of hits by some 1950s crooner, a Time-Life Books Proudly Presents retrospective of games people used to get jazzed about before Alabama-LSU ruled the world. Sure, the Irish wore their new helmets, with the goldbeating look on the left and the hungover leprechaun on the right, the new glitter as convincing as a fresh coat of rhinestones at the Grand Ole Opry. The cool kids wear Oregon jerseys; they aren't watching. Show the Four Horseman before halftime, and let's sell some denture cream ads.
As it turned out, NBC had little to fear. This Notre Dame team is not an oldies act. It's good. In fact, it's great -- perhaps the best Irish team of the last 20 years. The 1988 retrospective was only necessary in the fourth quarter, as the Notre Dame lead swelled to 41-3 and even the most passionate Irish lover started to channel surf.
Brace yourself, because the Fighting Irish are NOW. They are relevant again. As if they ever weren't.
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Here's the only Notre Dame history that matters in 2012: The defense has not allowed a touchdown since summertime.
They won that Miami game after beating Michigan State 20-3 and Michigan 13-6. Stanford's defense recovered a fumble in the end zone for a touchdown, but its offense produced just two field goals in a 20-13 Irish victory last Saturday.
Notre Dame is dominating on defense, which is exactly what you wouldn't expect from Brian Kelly, an offense-oriented coach. "Kelly turned the team around in exactly the opposite way that fans thought he would try to turn the team around," explained Frank Vitovitch, who has covered Notre Dame at uhnd.com since the late 1990s.
They are so good on defense that quarterback Golson's concussion was only a minor source of worry this week. The team was relieved when Golson returned to practice on Wednesday, but last year's starter, Tommy Rees, has protected the ball when on the field this year, so quarterback isn't much of an issue so long as the defense keeps pitching near-shutouts
The breakout star of the defense is Manti Te'o, who entered the year with high expectations and has surpassed them. "Te'o is the most improved junior to a senior that I have ever seen, among players who were actually good as juniors," said Tim O'Malley of IrishEyes.com, part of the Scout.com network. Indeed, Te'o looked like an over-hyped "good college linebacker" in 2011 (a guy who makes a dozen tackles when opponents run in his direction 24 times), but he has intercepted three passes this year, made an impact as a pass rusher and, of course, solidified his status as the team's inspirational leader. "There has not been anyone in my 22 years that has been a better leader on and off field that represents the ideals of college football better than Manti Te'o," Kelly said at Tuesday's press conference. "And that's not even close."
But Te'o was a known commodity. The players around him are the revelation. There are Louis Nix III and Stephon Tuitt, who give the Irish a defensive tackle tandem to rival the best in the nation. There is Prince Shembo, an edge rusher who has gotten bigger and stronger every year. There are Bennett Jackson and Matthias Farley, a pair of converted offensive players starring in the secondary.
Te'o is a holdover from the end of the Charlie Weis era, recruited by Notre Dame as the team stumbled to a 6-6 record and Weis descended into the downward spiral that plagues all Bill Belichick disciples. Shembo and Nix also committed during the transition from Weis to Kelly. Most of the other defensive stars were recruited on Kelly's watch, and many of them are far better than the caliber of player Notre Dame was able to recruit and develop in the decade before Kelly.
"Stephon Tuitt is an SEC defensive tackle," O'Malley said of the 295-pound disruptor from Georgia with 6.5 sacks this season, which is all a college football fan really needs to know.
Notre Dame's ability to appeal to high-level recruits has been questioned as often as the program's appeal to fans in the last decade. Notre Dame always draws television viewers -- last Saturday's Stanford game earned a 3.9 share, the highest college football ratings of the weekend -- but the 17-year-olds a university must attract are part of the post-television information age. The vague concept of "relevance" sounds silly when applied to a college football team with its own television contract and BCS agreement, but Notre Dame has been sputtering for almost 20 years, not just a couple of news cycles.
Seen in that light, Kelly, Te'o, and the best defense the Irish have fielded in a generation aren't just providing a thrilling season. They are revitalizing an institution that ran the risk of becoming a relic of a bygone era.
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When you walk into an "old guy" bar, the old union hall at the edge of town or the dark corner taproom in Little Italy, the place with dusty Jim Beam bottles on the top shelf, Louis Prima and Boz Scaggs on the jukebox, and cigar smoke wafting from the poolroom, and you look up at the flickery low-def television in the corner, the Notre Dame game is on.
Notre Dame is the team your great aunt asks about during Thanksgiving dinner. Tell her that they won, that they just beat Michigan or USC or those awful snobs from Bucknell, and she will sigh with satisfaction. The last player she could identify by name may be Paul Hornung, but hers is a different kind of allegiance, one of religion and cultural identification, and it is as out of step with the Internet age as a "Waltons" rerun.
Notre Dame will always have the Gipper, the Four Horseman, Knute Rockne, a half-dozen Games of the 20th century, and Catholics vs. Convicts. It needs to have more. "It's possible to market tradition to young people, but it can't just be all about tradition," according to Mike Sweeney, a Notre Dame alum and managing partner at Right Source Marketing. "That's only going to get you so far. It's narrowing your audience."
Sweeney describes his job as "making inherently unsexy businesses appeal to a new generation;" along with his Notre Dame allegiance, that career makes him uniquely qualified to talk about the university's place in the 21st century sports landscape. He calls talk of Notre Dame being irrelevant to college football "misguided," but at the same time he acknowledges that problems develop if a program is too mediocre for too long. "There's a real danger for Notre Dame to allow an entire generation to miss out on a winning football program," he said. "You risk losing an entire generation of storytellers."
The Notre Dame story since Catholics vs. Convicts has been one of slow decline, followed by a series of false starts, tumultuous regime changes, and the kinds of disappointments that make "tradition" sound like a polite term for "faded glory." The team remained excellent through the early 1990s, but a loss in the 1995 Fiesta Bowl started a streak of nine straight bowl losses. The Irish then spent two decades muddled among the chase group of the top 25, their occasional rallies ending in frustration.
There was the 2002 "Return to Glory" season, for example, when the Irish started the season 8-0, thanks to some unlikely victories. "That team won some odd games in odd fashions," said Jim Lefebvre, author of "Loyal Sons: The Story of the Four Horsemen and Notre Dame Football's 1924 Champions" and editor of Forever Irish. "There were some fortunate bounces. They went 8-0, then folded like a tent." A season that began with an appearance on the Sports Illustrated cover and accolades for new head coach Ty Willingham ended with a 44-13 embarrassment at USC, a 28-6 drubbing by N.C. State at the Gator Bowl, and a palpable sense (later confirmed) that the Willingham era peaked with a series of emotional wins in October.
Then there was 2005, Weis' debut season. The new coach arrived with two Super Bowl rings and an NFL-style offense for quarterback Brady Quinn. The Irish went 9-3, finished in the top 10, and even attracted some "Game of the Century" hype in their narrow loss to USC. It would have been something to build upon if Weis hadn't spent the next three years juggling defensive coaches and squandering the prodigious skill position talent his NFL pedigree attracted. Weis' teams produced NFL talents like Quinn, receiver Golden Tate, tight ends Kyle Rudolph and John Carlson, and safety Harrison Smith, yet the team got progressively worse. "You think you would win more games with those guys all playing together for two years," O'Malley said.
The lessons of 2002 and 2005 may have been learned too well by some Notre Dame fans. "There's still a sense of the fans being a little jaded," Vitovitch said. Yet Vitovitch considers talk of the Notre Dame recruiting disadvantage (high academic standards, frozen campus, out-of-touch reputation) overblown. "When Notre Dame is winning and they have a guy in charge like a Holtz or a Kelly, they show that it is possible to recruit at the level of the elite programs."
Sweeney agrees. From a marketing standpoint, he feels that Notre Dame has done a fine job of selling itself to younger generations while maintaining its traditions. The Shamrock Series reestablishes the university's national and international footprint by bringing the team to places like Chicago, Dallas, New York, San Antonio and Washington, and the Irish also opened the season against Navy in Ireland. The goofy helmets remind fans, students and television viewers that it is not going to be 1988 or 1924 forever. And the youthful coaching staff appeals to recruits who "like to see that the coach could have taken the field five or 10 years ago," Sweeny said.
But fancy helmets and marketing campaigns are no substitute for winning. The Irish landed Te'o in the midst of a lost season; his campus visit coincided with an ugly loss to Syracuse in which fans pelted players with snowballs. Te'o committed to Notre Dame because of the academic standards and values, among other factors. "But you have to rely on recruiting that kind of kid," Sweeney said. A "tradition only" message is going to appeal to a narrow cross-section of recruits. "Put winning on top of that, and you have a 17-year-old's attention."
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The hard part of respecting tradition is knowing which traditions to respect, and how much. That is especially true in college football, which has fought a doomed battle against corruption and commercialism for almost 150 years. "Tradition" sometimes seems like the only thing standing between wavering amateur ideals and an out-and-out Babylon of greed and exploitation.
Notre Dame's adjustment to the changing times runs deeper than some leprechaun helmets. For example, the university did not have a "training table," a separate meal plan for football players, until Kelly arrived in 2010. "The players were eating YoCream Frozen Yogurt with the rest of the students in the cafeteria," O'Malley joked. Training tables have been part of college football since before the start of the 20th century (and were decried as inappropriate player "compensation" for decades), but Notre Dame remained a holdout from a bygone era that even predates bygone eras.
Irish players with bellies full of cafeteria chow facing Stanford players benefitting from modern nutritional engineering goes a long way toward explaining how an Irish-dominated rivalry descended into 37-14 Stanford blowouts in recent years. Irish linemen routinely lost weight during the season during the Weis era. It is hard to imagine players like Shembo (who needed to bulk up) and Nix (slim down) developing to their full potential without careful meal management.
Kelly and the university also bolstered the program's image among recruits by giving running backs coach Tony Alford the additional title of recruiting coordinator. The 43-year old Alford, a former star running back at Colorado State (the "guy who could take the field" Sweeney feels is crucial in recruiting) played a key role in attracting players like Nix and Tuitt from SEC country. "He's a conduit to the state of Florida," O'Malley explained. "He can relate to the inner city kid, the country kid, the kid from a prep school." Alford turned down a chance to join the Green Bay Packers' coaching staff in February, a vote of confidence that Kelly was in the process of turning the program around.
But there's more to the Kelly turnaround than better meals and a few recruits snatched from Florida or Georgia. "It's his ability to spot talent, the kind of player he would get at Grand Valley State," Vitovitch said. Jackson, a cornerback from New Jersey with four interceptions this year, is a prime example: a three-star prospect at receiver offense who has thrived since moving to defense. Stability on the defensive coaching staff -- something Weis never provided -- gives recruits a chance to grow into clearly defined roles.
Some traditions can be tweaked, but others can never change if Notre Dame hopes to remain special in the eyes of students, alumni, and fans. "People root for Notre Dame because they are trying to do something unique," Lefebvre said. Vitovitch agrees: "Fans want to see Notre Dame succeed, but do it in the way Notre Dame traditionally does it."
That means high academic standards, student athletes who still share dorm rooms with ordinary students and a commitment to the university's religious mission that can be directly at odds with a win-at-all-costs mindset.
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Kelly, Te'o, and the 2012 Fighting Irish can make the balancing act between football excellence and traditional values possible again with one magical season. They almost have to. Sweeney's "generation of storytellers" is aging. Catholics vs. Convicts was 24 years ago. Notre Dame needs more than an unsustainable blip like 2002 or 2005. It needs the next set of stories that parents tell their football-hungry children, some broadcast-worthy flashbacks that are in high definition.
Luckily, this year does not feel like 2002 or 2005 to most close observers. Kelly is winning with broad-based improvements and infrastructural changes, not lucky bounces, new-boss enthusiasm or a Super Bowl cache. "People have bought into the process in the last three years," Sweeney said. "This is the first Notre Dame team in a decade that isn't going to get upset," O'Malley added, noting that losses to Oklahoma and USC on the road are still possible. "In the past, they always blew at least one game."
Lefebvre, an expert on Notre Dame's most storied years and the father of two graduates, also believes that this team is different than recent ones that did not quite return to glory. "It may sound like a cornball cliché, but there's a spirit around this team that says it's possible," he said.
Ten or 11 wins, a significant bowl victory or a BCS berth, a roster that can sustain the loss of Te'o and still be excellent in 2013: It all goes a long way toward restoring a "relevance" that never quite died but has gone dormant for ever-lengthening stretches in the two decades since Notre Dame games were marketed as national morality plays.
For a school and a football program that will always be part of the fabric of American life, it comes down to just who is attending or watching the games, and why. "No matter how the team is playing, there are thousands of people in that stadium fulfilling a lifelong dream of attending a Notre Dame game," Lefebvre said. "They are there because it is on their bucket list."
Those bucket-list fans are responsible for Notre Dame Stadium's reputation as a quiet place to play. But Lefebvre was at the Stanford game, watching with 80,000 others as T.J. Jones reached across the goal line for the game-winning touchdown. "On Saturday," he said, "it was pretty freaking loud."