Why Notre Dame Football Matters

In the swirling vortex that is the football coaching change at the University of Notre Dame, the occasional commentator raises the question: Is ND football still relevant?

The Fighting Irish have seen their better days, the thinking goes, and they’re not coming back.  The college football world has shifted south and west, and the game has passed South Bend by, the experts allege. Today’s football players are interested in only the three C’s:  climate (as in warm and sunny), checks (like those written by NFL teams) and coeds.

So what place is there for this decidedly old-school brand?  Old-school, that is, as defined by:  a serious commitment to academics for its student-athletes; expectations that football players carry themselves properly as “Notre Dame men” on and off campus; and a dedication that it’s still possible, in this environment, for these athletes to work together and achieve a high level of athletic success.

Former Irish coach Lou Holtz has a famous saying about understanding the Notre Dame mystique:  “If you’ve been there, no explanation is necessary.  If you haven’t, none is adequate.”

Notre Dame remains unique on the college football landscape.  The only major independent (save Army and Navy). A one-of-a-kind arrangement with the BCS. Its own television contract with NBC. A truly national scope of alumni, fans, and student-athletes. Unmatched history and tradition.

All that matters. But what matters most is excellence. Notre Dame stands for doing things the right way, and in this age of college football factories exhausting players’ eligibility with 50 percent graduation rates, questionable degrees, and long rap sheets, the ND way has never been needed more as a beacon for the rest of the sport.

College football needs Notre Dame, if nothing else, as its role model. The further college football slips away from its roots and highest ideals, the more it desperately needs what Notre Dame offers.

It’s impossible to understand what Notre Dame stands for today without studying its history.

It all began, in a sense, 167 years ago this week.  On December 5, 1842, Father Edward Sorin stood along a snow-covered lake in northern Indiana and marveled at the possibilities.  He wrote his superior, Father Basil Moreau, back in France:

“Will you permit me, dear Father, to share with you a preoccupation which gives me no rest?  Briefly, it is this:  Notre Dame du Lac was given to us by the bishop only on condition that we establish here a college….this college cannot fail to succeed…Before long, it will develop on a large scale….It will be one of the most powerful means for good in this country….Time will tell if I am wrong.”

In the spring of 1879, Sorin’s dream lay in smoldering ruins.  More than three decades of effort was wiped out in three hours.  Father Sorin took it personally:

“The fire was my fault.  I came here as a young man and founded a university which I named after the Mother of God. Now she had to burn it to the ground to show me that I dreamed too small a dream. Tomorrow we will begin again and build it bigger, and when it is built, we will put a gold dome on top with a golden statue of the Mother of God so that everyone who comes this way will know to whom we owe whatever great future this place has.”

In 1908, when the Shea brothers composed the Victory March, the words “what though the odds” took on special meaning to a place that overcame so much to exist and flourish.

Excellence requires “fighting against all odds.”  It was a fight to get the university built, then rebuilt.  It was a fight to stay afloat as a place for the poor and immigrant to come for a Catholic education. And, yes, it was a fight for visionary football coaches Jesse Harper and Knute Rockne to take an upstart football team from nowhere and achieve national acclaim.

Sons of immigrants, the first in their families to attend college, formed teams of unbreakable spirit and shocked the nation with win after win.  Bound by camaraderie with the student body unlike anywhere else, Notre Dame defined college football at its best.

This little school, with an enrollment of less than 500 when Rockne arrived as a freshman in 1910, forged a reputation for taking on the “big boys” of the sport, becoming the first football team to play games literally coast to coast.  Sons of immigrants, the first in their families to attend college, formed teams of unbreakable spirit and shocked the nation with win after win.  Bound by camaraderie with the student body unlike anywhere else, Notre Dame defined college football at its best.

Those who understand Notre Dame know that the pursuit of excellence transcends the generations. Those able to choose Notre Dame, it is said, make a “lifetime decision,” as the ND degree, and membership in the family that is ND, are forever with them.  Notre Dame does not attempt to be all things to all people, but in every field of study it offers, it strives for excellence, preparing young men and women to contribute to the world in many, varied ways, held together by a commitment to ethics and faith.

And just as Father Sorin defied the odds more than once, and Harper and Rockne did with their upstarts squads, so too is today’s Notre Dame attempting the difficult road:

–Attracting quality football players who can handle a challenging academic environment
–Graduating essentially 100% of its student-athletes in four years
–Graduating them with meaningful degrees, not eligibility-extenders
–Preparing student-athletes for a lifetime of achievement

Notre Dame’s role as an example of what’s possible in intercollegiate athletics is unique. Its reach exceeds that of other academically-sound schools such as Duke, Northwestern and, yes, Stanford. As someone recently said, have a 7-5 record at those places and you’ll get a parade…at Notre Dame, it could get you fired.

You see, true Notre Dame people know their history. Know how Father Sorin saw in a  burned-out building an opportunity, would not succumb to the temptation to give up. They know Notre Dame is much, much more than football…it is a great gathering place of those seeking wisdom, it’s the face of American Catholicism, and as some have said, “where the church does its thinking.”

Walk this lush campus, view the sun glistening off the Golden Dome, step inside the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, and stop in prayer at the Grotto. You are overwhelmed with history and tradition.

History and tradition and responsibility.  The responsibility to pick up the torch from those who have sacrificed and struggled for 167 years to make this place unique.

It’s a responsibility felt keenly by a “Notre Dame man” such as Jack Swarbrick. He has clearly articulated what ND stands for, and what it seeks in its football program.

No compromise when it comes to academics — smarts and football success can be complementary, not mutually exclusive.  That Notre Dame football players have been and will continue to be good citizens. That football, like education, isn’t an end in itself, but a means to success in life. That age-old concepts like sportsmanship, loyalty and camaraderie aren’t dead.

Now he just needs to find a coaching staff that matches those goals.

Teachers. Motivators. Leaders. Those gifted with the ability to cultivate talent and passion and character and heart. To challenge student-athletes to be leaders on the field of play, not automatons.  To state clearly, for all to see and hear – we expect more here.

We will support you, athletically and academically. Your fellow students, led by the best band in the land, are the most loyal and unified you’ll find anywhere. You have a base of fans that extends from coast to coast, from generation to generation. Catholic school kids. People who would give a limb to attend a game at this classic Stadium. Alumni old enough to remember watching Leahy’s teams, and hearing stories from those who saw Rockne’s.

And the legacy of a short, white-bearded priest who, so many winters ago, looked into the future and saw…. “One of the most powerful means for good in this country.”


Jim Lefebvre is founder and editor of Forever Irish and author of the award-winning book, Loyal Sons: The Story of The Four Horsemen and Notre Dame Football’s 1924 Champions.