Why It Took 20 Years for Notre Dame to Reinvent Itself as a Football Power

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Why It Took 20 Years for Notre Dame to Reinvent Itself as a Football Power
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

David Gordon's 41-yard field goal attempt felt like it took an eternity as the ball spun end over end through the chilling air on that November evening.

And when the ball fell gently between the white uprights at Notre Dame Stadium, the crowd of 59,075 was utterly stunned while a palpable silence coursed through the stands.

Boston College had defeated the No. 1-ranked Fighting Irish, dashing their national championship aspirations in the process. Gordon didn't realize it then, but he now can appreciate and comprehend the historical context of his successful 41-yard boot.

That moment marked the end of a golden era at Notre Dame. The Irish wouldn't sit atop the college football world for another 20 years that felt just like Gordon's field goal attempt: an eternity. 

 

The Conclusion of the Holtz Era

Following the Irish's heartbreaking 41-39 loss to Boston College—Notre Dame's final regular season game of the 1993 season—they faced a one-and-a-half month layoff until a date with then 6th-ranked Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl, which they won, 24-21, to finish 11-1. 

It was the last time the Irish would finish with fewer than three losses until present day. 

Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

Head coach Lou Holtz remained at Notre Dame until 1996, compiling a record of 23-11-1 during his final three seasons on the job. 

His final three Notre Dame squads were considered by college football pundits to be good, but not great, which was uncharted territory for a program that had won a national championship as recently as 1988. 

Holtz didn't care to explain the reasons behind his decision to retire from coaching at the end of the 1996 season, but he ended his silence on the matter during a conference call with reporters last week.

You get on top, it feels pretty good and you say, 'Let's not change anything.' Well, you don't change anything, you don't have anything you're trying to aspire to. You have no reason to celebrate and you have no reason to get excited. When I left Notre Dame, I thought I was tired of coaching. I was not tired of coaching. I was tired of maintaining.

That effort to "maintain" that Holtz referenced may be a testament to the unique grind on the head football coach at Notre Dame. Maybe it was all too much for Holtz to bear any longer. But the explanation behind "maintaining" will always be speculation. 

Every man has his own reasons.

Yet Holtz can find comfort in knowing that, to this day, he is the last head coach to win a national championship at college football's most storied program. 

Without Holtz, the path that Notre Dame would traverse following his departure was a dark, treacherous one.

 

Treacherous Waters

During Notre Dame's fall from grace in the post-Holtz era, college football pundits favored one common reason for why the Irish were no longer members of college football's elite. 

"Notre Dame can't recruit the best athletes," they would say. "Notre Dame's academic standards are too stringent," they would proclaim.  

The more that sports media members perpetuated that myth, the more Notre Dame fans began to buy in. As a young boy attending a game in the early 2000s, I recall overhearing a conversation between two grown men in which one had decided that Notre Dame was on its way to becoming an "Ivy League football team."

Not knowing any better, I began to believe thoughts such as that man's.

Years later as a 20-year-old man, I'm here to tell you that those thoughts were nothing but shallow drivel.

Notre Dame's downfall of the late 1990s and all of the 2000s can be directly attributed to coaching.

The three head coaches that Notre Dame hired between the Lou Holtz and Brian Kelly eras are to blame. Bob Davie, Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis combined for an overall record of 91-67 that spanned from 1997 to 2009.

Davie was fired after the final game of the 2001 season, and was hired by ESPN as a college football color commentator. He was hired by New Mexico to replace Mike Locksley prior the current season. His Lobos finished the season 4-9. 

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Willingham was fired after the 2004 season and was immediately hired by the University of Washington. In four seasons at Washington, he compiled an overall record of 11-37, including an 0-12 record in 2008, which would prove to be his final with the Huskies.

Weis was fired after the 2009 season, and served as an offensive coordinator with the NFL's Kansas City Chiefs and the University of Florida before being hired as head coach at Kansas University prior to the current season. Weis's Jayhawks finished 1-11 in 2012. 

Davie, Willingham and Weis were not born to be head coaches. That much is clear.

What is worth noting is that Willingham was the only one of the three that had any head coaching experience at the collegiate level prior to coaching at Notre Dame.

That's the mistake that Notre Dame had made not once, but twice.

Athletic director Jack Swarbrick understood that, and would not repeat former athletic director Kevin White's mistakes.

 

The Return

I'm extremely hesitant to use words such as "savior" or "hero" to describe coaches at any level of any sport.

Notre Dame fans made Charlie Weis out to be Notre Dame's knight in shining armor after two consecutive BCS bowl berths in 2006 and 2007—both losses (34-20 to Ohio State in the 2006 Fiesta Bowl and 41-14 to LSU in the 2007 Sugar Bowl).

I'm prepared to use one of those terms with Brian Kelly, though.

I was a skeptic of Kelly's upon his hiring. I wanted Urban Meyer, Bob Stoops or Jon Gruden.

I remained a skeptic of Kelly's through last season's 8-5 turnover-plagued debacle.

But in the back of my mind, my subconscious was telling me that Kelly was a proven winner as a head coach at the collegiate level. He had transformed Central Michigan from a cellar-dweller in the Mid-American Conference to a conference champion in three seasons.

Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Kelly whipped Cincinnati into shape in just three seasons, with the Bearcats earning BCS bowl berths in 2008 and 2009.

And what he has done at Notre Dame in three seasons is storybook material. Kelly's third-season magic combined with the aura and mystique surrounding Notre Dame head coaches in their third seasons proved to be the formula for a dream season in South Bend.

It required a proven winner.

It required patience and faith from the fan base. 

But it has all paid off in the form of Notre Dame returning to college football's throne—the Irish are ranked No. 1 for the first time since kickoff of their matchup with Boston College nearly 20 years ago.

And with every passing minute, David Gordon's 41-yard field goal that began the darkest era in Notre Dame football history keeps fading in the distance.

Welcome back, Notre Dame.       

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