What Though The Odds: “Fixing” Notre Dame Football


Fixing Notre Dame football may require a nod to its roots, when underdog teams overachieved

Amid the national discussion over whether General Motors or CitiBank are “too big to fail,” could it also be said that Notre Dame football is too historic, too important to the fabric of college football to ever fall by the wayside?

Aside from the not insignificant question of who coaches the team, what is needed to affect a return of Notre Dame to college football’s upper echelon?

Notre Dame’s unique status in college football – major independent, national schedule, exclusive TV contract – did not happen by accident. It’s the result of a vision, aided by circumstances and achievements as far back as Knute Rockne’s days. Some could argue it goes all the way back to the founding of Notre Dame in 1842, when Father Edward Sorin saw the site of a great university, a force for widespread good, where most would have seen some woods and lakes on the northern Indiana frontier.

In a football sense, Notre Dame developed from the earliest days a ‘persona’ as an undersized, spirited squad taking on all comers – a team of players united by a fierce passion and loyalty to one another. It was a team supported by and representative of its student body like no other school.

It was that way then Notre Dame, just a small, somewhat unknown Midwestern men’s Catholic college, went into Ann Arbor and upset mighty Michigan, 11-3, in 1909. And it was that way four years later when Rockne and Gus Dorais went to West Point  and stunned Army. Even through the early years of Rockne’s coaching regime starting in 1918, each victory over a national power was celebrated as an upset by the outmanned school from nowhere, whose spirited team was becoming known as the Fightin’ Irish.

The sense of the underdog – what though the odds? – overachieving due to an unbreakable spirit….defined the Notre Dame football experience.

What are today’s Irish attempting that is as unique?

Simply put – to consistently reach the highest levels of football success (BCS bowls) while maintaining a program with academic and ethical integrity.

Whether you’re talking nation-leading graduation rates, real degrees, no “majoring in eligibility,” limited red-shirting, no junior college transfers, no mysterious fancy homes or cars….Notre Dame defines itself as doing it “the right way.”

That’s why millions of fans across the country, the so-called Subway Alumni, love the Irish. They could root for any of dozens of college teams, but they support the one that has a tradition of excellence with integrity.

The combined requirements of football and academics at Notre Dame is singularly challenging. It requires an extraordinary type of student-athlete.  Not just a few ‘nerds’ to boost the team GPA, but basically a whole team of unusual over-achievers.

Who at ND would want it any other way?

It can be argued all day whether ND needs a different head coach, and who that coach should be. But in the end, it does require a coach who “gets Notre Dame” – who understand its unique position in the college football landscape, and is not discouraged by the challenges. Someone who uses Notre Dame’s uniqueness to the team’s advantage.

Some say that all kids care about today is making it to the NFL. And it’s probably true that any high school player talented enough to be recruited by Notre Dame sees himself in the NFL one day. But at Notre Dame, the thinking has to be broader than that.

Yes, striving for excellence means bringing in talented players. But in doing so, factors like spirit, pride and teamwork cannot be overlooked.

As hockey coaching legend Herb Brooks famously said, “I don’t want the best players. I want the right players.”

Unknowingly, Brooks was echoing another legendary coach – Knute Rockne, who is said to have made this statement on his players working together: “I don’t want the eleven best, I want the best eleven.”

Is Notre Dame getting the right players?

Be truthful now, Irish fans. What was your reaction when you read that an incoming star was announcing his choice of Notre Dame at the College Football Hall of Fame, his family ferried there in Hummer stretch limos, and talking about national championship rings?
For many, the answer would be, that doesn’t sound like a Notre Dame man to me.
Whether you’re talking about the Four Horsemen or Joe Montana, the tradition at Notre Dame has been this: to humbly appreciate the opportunity to compete in football at one of the nation’s finest universities, a place that nurtures soul and spirit, and produces people of character. Yes, every athlete should come in brimming with confidence, but also aware that no man is bigger than his teammates, no one deserves special treatment. Nobody should come to ND “anointed” as anything but a candidate for the football team.

In 1921, freshman Elmer Layden was so homesick he nearly left campus for good on numerous occasions. Don Miller was discouraged when he got scraps of a football outfit on the freshman team. Harry Stuhldreher was a 140-pounder trying to compete against relative behemoths. Jim Crowley missed part of freshman year due to a suspension.

Yet they all overcame challenges, grew as men and football players, and formed one of the greatest backfield in football history – the legendary Four Horsemen.

There are some today who say it’s simply not reasonable to expect Notre Dame to compete at a high level, both academically and athletically.

To say it’s not possible is to sell an institution, and an ideal, short. Rockne himself would definitely not approve. Nor would he agree with the unfortunate statements of Paul Hornung a couple of years ago that academic standards needed to be relaxed.

Notre Dame requires its players to be students, to stay out of trouble, and to graduate – and it should never apologize or shirk that profile.

A pledge to abide by the spirit of Rockne’s ethic should be written into every Notre Dame football scholarship.

A high school football player coming to ND must know the time-stretching, exhaustion-inducing schedule he faces. He must be reminded that great challenges set the stage for great achievements.

He must understand that nothing is guaranteed. Not first-string status, not playing time, not a pro career.

He must understand that in addition to developing a keen sense of day-to-day personal responsibility, he is also committed to lifting up his teammates, forming an unbreakable bond, a silent but unmistakable pledge to encourage, support and demand accountability from one another….to truly “play like a champion today.”

A coaching staff that can tap into the best aspects of ND’s history and tradition, who can model that day-to-day encouragement and accountability, is the one which will have a change to succeed.

And the benefits of being part of such a team go well beyond the football field. The sacrifice and teamwork needed on the football field today can yield a lifetime of pride and accomplishment. That has to be part of the equation.

Coaches at Notre Dame would do well to remind players that nothing came easy for the school as an upstart unit in 1909, 1913 or even 1924…. And it’s not coming easy today. But it CAN happen.