Notre Dame Fans Ask: “Now What?”

This fall the University of Notre Dame is celebrating its 125th year of college football. Across all forms of media, the highlights of this proud history are being recalled. Among the commemorations is a daily “Strong and True” moment, featuring the last-minute victories, the unlikely triumphs, and the heroes who made them happen.

Just last week, heading into Notre Dame’s trip to Norman, Oklahoma to take on the mighty Sooners, it was the 55th anniversary of a similar journey in 1957, when the Fighting Irish upset heavily-favored OU 7-0 to end Bud Wilkinson’s record 47-game winning streak.

The week before featured the 88th anniversary of the October 18, 1924 victory over Army at the Polo Grounds, at which sportswriting icon Grantland Rice gave the Notre Dame backfield its famous nickname when he penned the legendary words, “Outlined against a blue-gray October sky, the Four Horsemen rode again…”

Tradition and history have been the hallmarks of this football program that has produced 11 national championship teams and seven Heisman Trophy winners. And yet, a generation of college football fans has grown up without personal memories of Notre Dame at the top of the pyramid, as the last national title came in 1988 and Tim Brown won the most recent Heisman in 1987. Notre Dame was last rated No. 1 during the 1993 season.

Now, in this season, the Irish are threatening to end both droughts. Their 8-0 record, complete with the 30-13 dismantling of favored Oklahoma, has put them squarely among the national title contenders. And senior linebacker and captain Manti Te’o, with his dominating defensive play and inspirational leadership, has forced himself into Heisman conversation, a space usually reserved for flashy quarterbacks and running backs.

Things are back, Notre Dame fans far and wide believe, to the way they should be.

Manti Te’o: His dominating defensive play and inspirational leadership have put him into Heisman conversation.

Now what? Irish eyes are smiling at the reclaimed relevance, but fans seem a bit unsure of how much to hope for, and how to react to the sudden success.

Certainly, the Irish faithful are hoping the ride continues. Games against Pittsburgh, Boston College, Wake Forest, and archrival Southern Cal remain. A loss in any one of them will surely drop the Irish from consideration for the BCS Championship game.

“I’m scared to death of this Pitt game,” says Brian Clark, an Indiana native and “subway alum” now living in Orange County, Calif. “It’s the same kind of fear I used to have every week when every game was so important and Notre Dame was playing for something really important. It feels good to have that back.” It’s a welcome relief from the fear from losing to inferior Pitt, Navy, Connecticut, Syracuse, and Tulsa teams in recent years.

Some fans have seen too many false “returns to glory” to be sure this one is happening.  “19 years of pain and disappointment might be at the bottom of this,” explains 1976 alum Bob Sullivan of Chicago. “But this team is obviously for real and I believe Te’o is the soul of something very special that is happening.”

Yes, Irish fans would be crushed by a loss, but in many ways what they have wished for these long, championship-free years has already been achieved. Coach Brian Kelly and his staff have combined the essential elements of talent, player development, strategy, and chemistry to build a strong, deep, united, and focused team that plays traditional Notre Dame football: smart, tough, disciplined. Now, in Kelly’s third year, this strategy has started to translate into another Irish tradition: wins.

Not to be lost in the euphoria surrounding the Oklahoma victory is the news that Notre Dame again ranks No. 1 in the country for graduation rate of its student-athletes, specifically its football players. The Irish are disproving the skeptics–including former players Paul Horning and Allen Pinkett–who have said Notre Dame can’t reach the top of on-field performance while maintaining its high academic and behavioral standards.

When Kelly was handed the reins of the program in December of 2009, he proclaimed his goal was recruiting RKGs–the Right Kind of Guys. “Tough gentlemen,” he called them. Physically and mentally tough on the football field, honorable off of it.

Kelly understands what makes Notre Dame unique both as a university and as a football program. He recruits to that unique-ness, seeking players who won’t back down from the awesome demands of physical and mental development to become an elite football player while meeting the considerable challenges of academic and social life at Notre Dame.

True fans of Notre Dame may be amazed by what has happened the past couple of months, but as it all settles in, they’re sure to realize this: The foundation of Notre Dame football is back on solid ground. As it was in the time of Rockne, Leahy, Parseghian, and Holtz, the Fighting Irish are reaching for the very top of the mountain. With leaders like Te’o, they are honoring the proud line of achievement that has come before them.

“Manti is the embodiment of everything we consider a Notre Dame man,” athletic director Jack Swarbrick recently told a campus gathering. “He represents commitment, dedication, discipline, a great selflessness, tremendous faith. But the wonderful thing is, he is not unique. You can find those traits in so many of our student-athletes. They are amazing young people.”

In the 125th fall of Notre Dame football, the Irish are taking their far-flung fan base on yet another amazing ride. The season may or may not end up in Miami Jan. 7, but it has already been a resounding success.