Does Notre Dame Football Matter Anymore?
Notre Dame fired football coach Charlie Weis on Monday. Names floated as possible successors include Florida's Urban Meyer and Oklahoma's Bob Stoops.
They say they are staying put. Which makes sense: Those guys have better jobs already, don't they?
The key question in these parts isn't only who will succeed Weis. It is also this:
Does Notre Dame football really matter anymore?
The Irish are 91-68 since coach Lou Holtz left after the 1996 season. His immediate successors - Bob Davie and Ty Willingham- won about 58% of the time, which wasn't good enough. Weis won about 56% of his games, also not good enough.
Notre Dame, 6-6 after a 6-2 start, is the 48th-best major college football team in the land, according to the Sagarin power rankings, one notch below Rutgers.
That's a long, slow slide toward mediocrity for a legendary program that boasts 11 national championships, seven Heisman Trophy winners and a brand name that evokes a treasure of gilded memories under that golden dome.
Knute Rockne's Fighting Irish of the 1920s emerged as national heroes by appealing to ethnic, working-class Catholics who saw its mighty football program as a smash-mouth surrogate in their struggle against America's mainline Protestant establishment.
"Notre Dame is part of the great mythology of college football in this country," says Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. He grew up at a time (1960s) and in a place (suburban Chicago) where Notre Dame football was revered.
Thompson recalls the first time he set foot in Notre Dame Stadium: "You felt as you feel when you see the Parthenon or the Coliseum. I was raised on the notion that Notre Dame was sacred space. And the sacredness did not come from its name - Our Lady - but from the movies and all we had heard about the church of football."
Still, for all of that, it has been a generation since Notre Dame truly challenged for a national championship. Blue-chip high school recruits aren't old enough to remember the mythology their elders were raised on. In their lifetimes, the Southeastern Conference trumps South Bend.
"The only way they would know about Notre Dame now is through portrayals of its golden years," Thompson says. "One could argue that if things proceed as they have for some time, it'll be within another generation that Notre Dame is going to be one of those pieces of historical popular culture, not something on the minds of everyone in contemporary culture.
"Which I suppose is not surprising. Fashions change. Who talks about corsets anymore, or bloomers? One can't expect that a national college sports team would have some inalienable right to remain that forever."
Even some Notre Dame grads are drifting toward ambivalence. "I've kind of lost interest," says Jim Brown, Class of '85, a retailer in Oklahoma City. "Seems there may not be any way to accomplish all of Notre Dame's off-the-field objectives and be competitive ever again."
Many other alumni, though, think all that's needed to reclaim glory days is the right coach.
"Notre Dame's place in college football is remarkably prominent despite what we've done to ourselves over the past 13 years," says John F. Gaski, Class of '71 and an associate professor of marketing at Notre Dame. "That is a tribute to the value built up by our unmatched heritage. We just can't afford to squander any more of it."
Recruits not overwhelmed
Rivals.com recruiting analyst Greg Ladky, who covers the Midwest, says Notre Dame, though still competitive, is no longer the apex for big-name recruits.
"No one forgets to mention if Notre Dame has offered them," Ladky says. "But the days of Notre Dame having its pick are gone."
The current top recruiting classes based on early commitments go to Texas and Alabama (Rivals.com), Oklahoma and Texas (Scout.com) or Florida and Texas (ESPN/Rise). One thing the services agree on: Notre Dame is not in the Top 10.
One of the odd things about the Weis tenure is that he had some very good recruiting classes. He just didn't win enough. Now the question is if Notre Dame can hang on to the recruits Weis was chasing currently, such as Andrew Hendrix, a four-star quarterback recruit from Moeller High in Cincinnati.
"He's definitely still a Notre Dame commitment," Moeller coach John Rodenberg says. "But a lot hinges on who is the next coach."
Chris Martin, a five-star defensive end from Grandview High in Aurora, Colo., was an early Notre Dame commit, "but he made a visit to Oklahoma" recently, says CBS Sports recruiting analyst Tom Lemming. "They may lose out on some of the top kids they're recruiting because of the (coaching) change."
Giovanni Bernard, a four-star running back from USA TODAY's top-ranked St. Thomas Aquinas of Fort Lauderdale, says his decision to go to ND won't change.
"I chose the school, not the coach," he says, "because of all its tradition and because of how it can help me after football and because it is one of the best academic institutions in the United States."
That's a key point for Mike Scanlon, coach of Cretin-Derham Hall of St. Paul, who says every player he sends to Notre Dame who stays there earns a degree. Notre Dame hopes to land Cretin-Derham Hall's Seantrel Henderson, a five-star offensive tackle and one of the nation's most sought-after recruits.
The Irish "certainly aren't on his list because of their athletic ability lately, so it's more the education and mystique of the institution," Scanlon says.
That mystique was a much bigger deal when Notre Dame's syndicated TV highlights, mellifluously narrated by Lindsey Nelson, were the only ones around - long before SportsCentergave us highlights from any game.
"We grew up on Notre Dame," says Greg Toal, coach of Don Bosco Prep in Ramsey, N.J. "You went to Mass on Sunday morning, you had breakfast and then you watched" those highlights.
Toal thinks remnants of that mystique remain in the ESPN age, especially for recruits from Catholic high schools such as his.
"There is a tie-in," he says. "Priests and guidance counselors kind of push the kids toward a Catholic education, push kids in a good way, toward great universities like Georgetown, Boston College and Notre Dame."
Even so, Green Bay Packers running back Ryan Grant is the last Don Bosco grad to go to Notre Dame in the early 2000s. Defensive end Justin Trattou "was going to go," Toal says, "but at the end, Urban Meyer scooped him up and he went to Florida."
The NBC advantage
Gene Corrigan laughs off the notion that perhaps Notre Dame football doesn't matter so much on the national stage anymore.
"Oh, come on," the former Notre Dame athletics director says. "When you have your own network, and you're always on TV, that's what kids love."
All Notre Dame home games air on NBC, an advantage that means less in an era when dozens of TV games are available on the networks and the ever-expanding cable universe and even online.
"You've got regional games and all these ESPN channels and all of the rest of it," Thompson says. "Notre Dame used to be the I Love Lucy of sports. It had the privilege of being part of the communal trough from which everybody fed. The way in which sporting events are distributed now, like everything else, there are so many other choices."
Even if the advantage is less, Corrigan argues, it still means something: "Every game is on national television, home on NBC, away on other networks. Who else does that? Anybody? That means if you're from California or Texas or wherever the hell you're from, your folks are going to see you play."
Corrigan was the athletics director when Notre Dame hired Holtz, who won ND's last national championship in 1988. Holtz is Catholic; it's not a job requirement. Ara Parseghian is Presbyterian. Rockne was Lutheran, though he converted to Catholicism. Still, Corrigan thinks it helps.
"That's the atmosphere there," Corrigan says. "They don't make believe they're Catholic at Notre Dame. They are. It's a place that's different. (A new coach) doesn't have to be Catholic, but you have to believe what they're doing is important."
Corrigan doesn't suggest any candidates to replace Weis. Irish fans are not as reticent. USA TODAY sent an e-mail survey to dozens of Notre Dame alumni around the country. Among the names mentioned on their wish lists: Meyer, Stoops, Cincinnati's Brian Kelly, Stanford's Jim Harbaugh, TCU's Gary Patterson and ESPN's Jon Gruden.
We also asked if Notre Dame, which joins Army and Navy as the only independents in major college football, should join a conference. ND retains favored-nation status within the Bowl Championship Series, as other schools in the running for BCS games play in one of 11 major conferences.
Some mentioned the Big Ten, which would make sense geographically and because traditional opponents Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue are members. Others mentioned the Big East, of which Notre Dame is a member for many of its other sports, including men's and women's basketball.
Brown, the alum from Oklahoma, jokes if ND joins a conference he hopes it's the Mid-American: "I think we could win a few of those games."
But most said they hoped their Irish would remain independent.
"The cynical element of college football would like to stampede us into joining a conference," says Gaski, the Notre Dame professor, "thereby discarding a big part of our uniqueness. No thanks."
We also asked about Notre Dame's place in the college football world these days. Most believe the Irish will rise again.
"Notre Dame is a great college football program that has had a run of three bad head coaches," says Michael R. Kelly of Harrisburg, Pa., a 1990 graduate of Notre Dame Law School. "Get the right coach and ND will be back."
Bruce Cross, Class of '71, says proof Notre Dame still matters comes in the coverage of Weis' firing.
The Irish, he says, "are like the Yankees and the Cowboys. You hate them or love them. They are truly as close to a national team as it gets."
Contributing: Jim Halley and Thomas O'Toole. Garcia reported from South Bend, Ind.