There are two kinds of people in the world,
Notre Dame lovers and Notre Dame haters.
And, quite frankly, they’re both a pain in the ass.
--Dan Devine, Notre Dame coach, 1975-1980
Notre Dame haters loved it. The Irish were toast. They lost to Tulsa, they lost to Navy. There would be no more waking up the echoes. Enough with Rockne, Leahy and Ara. Be gone, you silly leprechaun. Never again would anyone shake down the thunder. And Notre Dame had it coming. The Irish had been snobs unwilling to mingle with commoners in a conference; they even demanded their own television network. Then they crumbled into a mediocrity that deepened into the despair that can be created only by a bad coach coaching badly. (How’s it working for you in Kansas, Charlie Weis?)
The Golden Dome lost its shine. Touchdown Jesus wept. Notre Dame haters rejoiced, especially those in Tuscaloosa.
But look now.
Now the Irish are one of four undefeated teams with a chance at the national championship. They can run the ball and they can stop the run, which is how good teams have done it since 5-year-old Knute Kenneth Rockne came from Norway to Chicago. They have a middle linebacker, Manti Te’o, who could win the Heisman Trophy if they gave it to the best college football player instead of the best college football player on offense. They have a coach who is not Charlie Weis. He is Brian Kelly. Weis never won a championship as a head coach anywhere, Kelly has won them everywhere.
Let’s say the Irish finish 12-0. They would be a candidate for the BCS National Championship Game. Notre Dame lovers would be giddy. They'd want NBC to play “Rudy” every two hours. They’d forgive Gerry Faust, Bob Davie and Ty Willingham, maybe even Hugh Devore. (But not Weis.) The celebration would spread beyond South Bend, for Notre Dame’s return to prominence would be a good thing for college football. The university is one of the rare athletic powerhouses that Does It Right. It has real students in real courses graduating with real degrees.
Imagine the delicious possibilities for a national championship game. Notre Dame-Oregon? If that happened, the state of Alabama might call a special session of the legislature to prepare for its second secession from the Union. It might be Oregon-Alabama. That one, of course, would provoke howls of indignation from Notre Dame lovers across America, around the world, and in those clouds from which Felix Baumgartner jumped -- and they would be righteous howls born of reasons large and small, some of which a columnist should confess out loud. So here:
I love the helmets painted that new shimmering gold. ESPN.com’s Ivan Maisel has gazed upon the golden domes and decided that they reminded him of Christmas tree ornaments.
I love the fight song. When the Notre Dame band, hundreds strong, marches into the stadium playing that song, the dead rise and ask to matriculate.
I love what Manti Te’o did that terrible week in October when his grandmother and girlfriend died six hours apart. He spoke at a pep rally. Students chanting “Man-ti Te-o ... Man-ti Te-o” raised high their right hands spread open in signal of his uniform number, 5. He told them that four years ago he didn’t know why he, a Mormon from Hawaii, had come to the heartland and America’s most famous Catholic university. “Times like these, I know why,” he said. “I love each and every one of you . . .”
I love Ronald Reagan as George Gipp, the pool-hall reprobate who was Rockne’s favorite running back. Forty years before he became president, Reagan played Gipp in “Knute Rockne All American.” In the death-bed scene, Gipp looks up at the coach. Someday, he says to Rockne, when the team is up against it, ask the boys to “win just one for the Gipper. I don’t know where I’ll be then. But I’ll know about it. I’ll be happy.”
I love the idea of Notre Dame as the standard of excellence. If the Irish were to win the national championship this season -- their 12th, but their first since 1988 -- it would restore order to the college football universe. Somebody has to be so good for so long that everybody else is all eaten up with jealousy. Baseball has the Yankees, the NBA has the Celtics and college football has had Notre Dame for almost 100 years, but not much lately.
The trick in praising Notre Dame is to do it without suggesting, as some Irish zealots do, that God has an interest in the outcome of the university’s games. Even Rockne said, “I’ve found that prayers work best when you have big players.” So I’ll leave God out of this, except to repeat a story told by Notre Dame’s 1953 Heisman Trophy winner, Johnny Lattner. He had fumbled five times in a game. Afterward, coach Frank Leahy handed Lattner a football.
“Go to the chapel,” Leahy said, “and repent for those five mortal sins you committed on Saturday.”
This season, somehow, Notre Dame has won five home games it might have lost. It beat Michigan by a touchdown. Its last-minute field goal defeated Purdue. Brigham Young lost when its quarterback threw wildly to an open receiver in the end zone. Stanford seemed to have tied the game in overtime when its best runner scored on fourth down at the goal line, only to be ruled short. In another overtime last week, the Irish survived when Pitt’s kicker missed a short field goal -- though Notre Dame had two players in the game with the same jersey number, 2, a violation that should have given Pitt another try. How officials missed the matching numbers, no one knows.
I know only that God had nothing to do with it. He was too busy painting the helmets for next week.