The picture appeared as if out of a textbook describing Notre Dame football.
An October weekend in South Bend. Warm sun. Cool breezes. The campus filled with people. Situated in the press box of Notre Dame Stadium, this reporter looked down to the quad area surrounding the stadium and noticed a gaggle of people creating a stir around the latest sports/cable, radio/television celebrity. They took pictures. They wanted autographs.
A few feet away was a couple, enjoying the day and talking. People passed by without stopping or looking. Joe Montana and his wife, Jennifer, went about their business quietly.
Times have indeed changed, but Notre Dame still wants to be...well, Notre Dame, with the Golden Dome, Touchdown Jesus and all of the mystique.
Can it be?
As the Fighting Irish prepare to bring a close to their series with Michigan this Saturday night, there is an underlying feeling of uneasiness about the way the Irish are doing their business of competing for the national championship these days that goes far beyond what coach Brian Kelly's team does on the field.
Notre Dame has always been different. The school wants to do the right thing. It also wants to tell you about it, often making it seem like other schools, dealing with similar problems, do not do it as well because they are not Notre Dame.
That's why the way they have dealt with issues on and off the field—incidents that have not cast a favorable light on the Golden Dome—have been puzzling in some instances.
In the past two years, the Notre Dame administration has had to deal with academic fraud issues, which last season cost them the services of starting quarterback Everett Golson and this season cost them five football players.
Before that, it was the embarrassment of linebacker Manti Te'o's relationship with what turned out to be a fictitious girlfriend; an accusation of sexual assault made against a Notre Dame football player (an incident the county prosecutor did not file charges for) that ended with the suicide of the accuser, a St. Mary's College student; and a 2010 accident in which a student was killed after the tower from which he was filming practice collapsed during a storm that produced winds reportedly as strong as 51 mph.
This is not to suggest that Notre Dame was to blame in all or any of these incidents. Stuff happened, just like it has at other places around the country, such as Miami, USC, Alabama and North Carolina. Notre Dame wants to do the right thing, and indeed when something bad happens the people in charge will gather, make a pronouncement that they will deal with it, and sound as if they will do a better job of fixing it than anyone else because they are...well, Notre Dame.
Such goings on...at South Bend?
By design or circumstance, Notre Dame has chosen to portray itself differently. It might happen at other places, but not at Notre Dame was the prevailing wisdom.
They were better than that.
Well, it did and it has and it will continue to happen.
But that hasn’t stopped Notre Dame from trying to make the world believe it was better.
Take, for example, the scene on campus in 1997 the weekend before the newly renovated and expanded Notre Dame Stadium was going to host its first game, against Georgia Tech. On the day before the game, a convoy of trucks arrived, each with a fully grown tree ready to be transplanted outside of the newly expanded stadium. In a few hours, the area around the stadium was transformed from a stark, treeless environment to an almost pastoral setting.
Or the conversation this reporter had sitting in former Irish coach Charlie Weis' office in the spring before his first season as the head coach. As a former ND student, Weis seemed to be the coaching equivalent of Rudy Ruettiger, who has taken on mythical proportions as a walk-on football player.
When the comparison to Rudy was made, Weis almost came out of his seat in anger, stating that he was a seasoned coach, nothing like Rudy, whom he felt was as much a media creation as anything.
Only a few months later, Weis, at the traditional pregame pep rally before his coaching debut, could be found sitting and smiling next to Rudy himself, an honored guest and one of the featured speakers.
There is a sort of arrogance that comes across on many levels at Notre Dame in many areas. Of course, on the football field, that attitude has been tempered by the national-championship drought, which dates back to 1988.
There seems to be a disconnect between what has always been the Notre Dame way of doing things and the reality of competing and succeeding at the level expected of Irish football, which remains the No. 1 school in college football history in terms of winning percentage.
That fact is still worth its numbers in ratings, as will be clear this weekend when Michigan visits South Bend.
Central casting couldn't have come up with a better set of storylines for NBC to kick off its 2014 coverage of Notre Dame football than a curtain call (for the foreseeable future) of the historic series with Michigan, the all-time leader in total victories: prime-time television. Saturday night. Sellout crowd. Traditional rival. Touchdown Jesus and the Golden Dome.
But things aren't as they always were.
The 2014 college football season is already a week old and Notre Dame football hasn't been more than a quick sound bite or a video clip. Further, neither the Irish nor Michigan is regarded as a serious threat to make it into the playoffs. Even the hallowed turf at Notre Dame Stadium is changed, covered for the first time with artificial turf.
This is Notre Dame football?
Truth be told, it's not that big of a deal anymore. Now the talk is about the SEC. Or the Pac-12. Or Michigan State and Wisconsin and Oklahoma and Texas and Florida State.
No. 16 Notre Dame vs. an unranked Michigan team is still a huge game. But it's different. Instead of being the leader of the pack, Notre Dame football is part of the pack.
Mediocrity has been more the norm than excellence in recent times. Two years ago, the Irish went 12-0 and played for the national title. A year later, they dropped back to 8-4 and gladly accepted a bid to play Rutgers in the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium. Once there was a time when an 8-4 Notre Dame team would refuse the invite to a second-tier bowl. Once there was a time Notre Dame refused to play in any bowl game for 45 years because the administration felt the games required too much of a disruption in the academic schedule.
But the world of college football has caught up and bypassed the Irish in many instances.
|Changing Times: Notre Dame Since 1988|
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For one, the exposure advantage Notre Dame seemingly created with having its own television network in NBC has dissipated with the spread of top-20 games throughout the cable and satellite landscape.
For another, the draw of playing for the Irish has lost much of its magnetism. At one time, if you were a blue-chip football player from a Catholic high school, Notre Dame was at the top of your list. Now, Notre Dame might not even be on the list. The academic restrictions are severe, and quite frankly, South Bend is not the hub of Party Central for college kids. There are more choices at equally attractive places, both academically and socially.
In comparison, Alabama ranked No. 1 all three seasons and Ohio State was in the top three in all three seasons.
The issues don't end there.
Notre Dame, although still maintaining independent status in football, is committed to playing five games each season against teams from the ACC, which has embraced the Irish in many other sports, including basketball.
But it is a prime reason why Michigan is not on the schedule in future years. Kelly, who suggested a year ago—for a short time, before he recanted—that the Michigan rivalry wasn't all that big of a deal, tried to spin the story toward the future in his weekly media press conference.
"I'm not going to go so far as to categorize not playing anyone anymore as a good idea," Kelly said. "I will say this: Given the complexities of our schedule, in not being able to play Michigan, it opens up many more exciting opportunities for us. The Texas opportunity, Georgia. We understand the great tradition and the rivalry of the Michigan game and if it could have worked out, it would have worked."
Indeed, this is new territory for Notre Dame.
The now-defunct BCS system accounted for and detailed the school's unique financial and competitive arrangement in the system's bylaws. No other school received such preferred treatment.
According to a source close to the process, the newly formed College Football Playoff selection committee has had three separate meetings and not once have any special arrangements been mentioned for Notre Dame.
Kelly maintains that while school officials are dealing with the off-the-field issues, his job is to make good things happen on the football field, no matter what that field looks like.
"You want to be part of the national conversation," Kelly told reporters before the season. "At Notre Dame, that's where we want to be. Now the structure is different. It's how do you get into the playoffs? That's the mark for us, to compete for a playoff position. [But] there are a lot more teams now, and we want to be one of those teams that are considered. There are only four of them. We have to get a serious shot at getting one of those four."
For all the adjusting, this has been a special week in South Bend, and if the Irish win it will seem like old times—for a little while at least.
But this is a different era. The perception of Notre Dame is changing. The audience in the social media world is constantly changing. What happened as recently as two years ago is quickly forgotten.
There likely will be more highlight moments. The Irish might even make it to the Football Final Four. But a string of double-digit win seasons, national championships, a seat at the head of the table as the best of the best?
It's hard to see that scenario anytime soon.
Here come the University of Texas-San Antonio Roadrunners, who made Arizona earn every bit of its 26-23 victory in the Alamo Dome on Thursday night.
Coached by former Miami coach Larry Coker, who won a national championship at Miami in 2001, UTSA has been playing football since 2011 and is eligible to play in a bowl game as an FBS member for the first time this season.
UTSA surprised some by beating Houston in its opener. After falling behind 10-0 in the first few minutes against Arizona, UTSA played the Wildcats dead even the rest of the way. The Roadrunners will face another tough test next week when they travel to Oklahoma State.
Following that matchup, don't count on UTSA losing many more games this season. Coker has a veteran, Texas-recruited—94 players on the roster are from Texas—lineup, which includes 19 senior starters.
The final countdown has begun
Officially, 128 FBS teams are eligible for college football's final four in January. We also know that is a false number. Realistically, it's the 65 teams from the five power conferences, and actually about half of those are really in the mix.
One loss (unless you are a super elite team) means that you are pretty much done.
Right now, my final four would be: Florida State, Oregon, Georgia and Oklahoma.
Each week, we'll offer a strictly subjective count of the schools that likely have been eliminated from the playoff hunt.
Here's the list after Week 1:
1. UCF; 2. Virginia; 3. Navy; 4. Western Michigan; 5. Troy; 6. Ga. Southern; 7. UMass; 8. West Virginia; 9. Miami (Ohio); 10. Rice; 11. Florida Atlantic; 12. Arkansas; 13. Kent State; 14. Louisiana Tech; 15. FIU; 16. So. Miss.; 17. Fresno State; 18. New Mexico; 19. North Texas; 20. Wake Forest; 21. Boise State; 22. Tulane; 23. Washington State; 24. Vanderbilt; 25 UConn; 26. Bowling Green; 27. Colorado; 28. Houston; 29. UNLV; 30. Hawaii; 31. SMU; 32. Appalachian State; 33. Northwestern; 34. Utah State; 35. Miami (Fla.); 36. Iowa State; 37. UTSA
Total teams: 128
Eliminated this week: 37
Total eliminated: 37
You've got to be kidding
1. Baylor's new on-campus stadium, which opened on Sunday for the Bears' game against SMU, had a price tag of $266 million.
Renovations to Texas A&M's Kyle Field had a price tag of $450 million.
Renovations to Oklahoma's Owen Field is said to be approximately $400 million.
That's $1.1 billion for three stadium projects.
2. Florida Atlantic was pounded by Nebraska 55-7 last week but was paid $1 million for taking the beating in Lincoln. This week it will travel to Tuscaloosa to face Alabama—and be paid another $1 million. Once again, money trumps fair competition. Is it worth $2 million for the Owls to be used as tackling dummies for two weeks? To be embarrassed for two weeks? At the FCS and lower depths of the college football landscape, that is still a rhetorical question.
3. When Charlie Strong was hired as Texas' new football coach last winter, Red McCombs, one of UT's biggest boosters, publicly criticized the hire on a San Antonio radio station, calling it a "kick in the face" and saying Strong would make a great position coach or coordinator.
McCombs quickly apologized. In Texas' home opener last week against North Texas, McCombs served as the Longhorns' honorary captain. It just goes to show that even a school as rich as Texas needs a booster with McCombs' deep pockets on its side, especially if times are tough, as Strong has suggested they might be for a while.
4. North Dakota State, an FCS school, has beat an FBS opponent in each of the last five seasons, including last week's 34-14 win over Iowa State. The Bison are coming off a 15-0 season, have a 25-game winning streak and won the last three FCS national titles. If you were an FBS school, why would you schedule the Bison anymore?
5. Florida coach Will Muschamp reinstated three players who had been suspended for the Gators' opener against Idaho—which lasted 10 seconds before the game was postponed because of weather. Wide receiver Demarcus Robinson and defensive linemen Jay-nard Bostwick and Darious Cummings have obviously learned their lesson and will be available for the Gators' game on Saturday against Eastern Michigan—weather permitting, of course.
Game of the week
Michigan at Notre Dame: Remember when this was the game of the week? It's still on in prime time (7:30 p.m. ET Saturday night) because Notre Dame has NBC as its primary outlet. But Michigan is unranked, Notre Dame is ranked No. 16 in the AP poll and Irish coach Brian Kelly had the audacity to say that it wasn't a rivalry game last year—for a few hours at least.
Well, it still is, and even though the rankings won't dramatically be affected by the outcome, the winner will inch closer to a seat at the adult table in the playoff discussion.
The pick: Notre Dame 28, Michigan 17
Quote of the week
Here's what former Baylor quarterback and Heisman winner Robert Griffin III said to a group of reporters before Baylor's 45-0 pounding of SMU in its opener at its new on-campus stadium.
"I feel like Baylor is the powerhouse in Texas now," said Griffin. "But I don't know if anyone wants to admit that. Baylor has owned Texas for a while and is No. 10 in the nation and has a chance to compete for the national championship."
Think about that quote. Baylor? Not Texas, not Texas A&M (although Aggies fans will debate that one).
The road taken
Georgia Tech and Tulane will meet this week for the first time in 32 years. Both teams are founding members of the Southeastern Conference. Imagine the world today in college football for both schools if they had stuck with the SEC.
Mark Blaudschun covers college football as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. He has more than three decades of experience covering sports at a variety of newspapers in New Jersey, The Dallas Morning News and The Boston Globe. Follow him on Twitter @blauds.
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