Notre Dame: Return to Glory, Take 3

Matt MooneyCorrespondent ISeptember 5, 2006

IconThe city of NCAA Football Glory is an exclusive community.  Those without Heisman Trophies or National Championship rings need not apply.

Notre Dame used to own Glory; in the 20's and 30's it was like something out of Tombstone, with Knute "Wyatt Earp" Rockne and his Four Horsemen kicking ass and taking names at virtually every stop, barnstorming from coast to coast.  Glory has been overrun with belligerent leprechauns for stretches of almost every decade, save the 50's.
But the pubs have fallen eerily silent over the last ten years.  The last Glory has seen of Notre Dame was when the diminutive yet plucky Lou Holtz just fell short of a mayoral election bid in 1993.  Since that time there have been various rumors of a Fighting Irish return to Glory; the occasional leprechaun sighting has been reported on the outskirts of town, but no official contact has ever been made.  While the city has since been flooded by an influx of the good ol' boys from warmer climates, as well as a long reign of the wildly popular, wild-haired hipsters from Southern California, the question of what happened to those midwestern Catholic boys never completely goes away.

Some attribute the absence to directionless leaders.  Reports from the campus indicate that some amount of turmoil and turnover has occurred at the highest ranks.  Several attempts were made at actually making the long and difficult trek back to Glory.  Inside sources indicate that order has been restored in the Irish household and that the will and the way are finally in sync to complete the long odyssey.

The national naysayers (of whom there are plenty) insist, however, that this is the same flash-in-the-pan, much-ado-about-nothing, boy-who-cried-"Return to Glory" story that has been festering out of South Bend for the last decade.  A 9-2 regular season in 2000 bought Bob Davie some temporary credibility, giving the Fighting Irish fans reason (albeit not overwhelmingly) to think that he had turned the corner from his previous three seasons (21-16) and might be capable of the trip back to Glory.  As it turns out, the only thing that season bought Davie was a larger buyout when he was given a firm shove out of the driver's seat following a 5-6 2001 engine seizure.

George O'Leary was not in his office long enough to hang his phony master's degree, much less to ponder the map back to Glory.

Tyrone Willingham's ascension to head football coach at Notre Dame was heralded as a step towards the University finally putting its house in order.  He would take the keys to the faltering but still proud wagon and turn it into a classy machine fueled by national championships and record graduation rates.

His first impression was amazing.  Ty looked under the hood, changed a few valves, and before he knew it, was roaring out to an 8-0 start while listening to the hum and purr of national championship whispers.  His work was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated accompanied by the caption "What a difference a coach makes."  Visions of a Return to Glory parade danced across Irish eyes.  In fact, the student-produced T-Shirt, designed the spring before the season started, announced "Return to Glory," an apparently amazing prognostication.  The Irish, it seemed, would finally make good on the prophecy.

Unfortunately, Willingham forgot to put oil in the car.  After eight glorious rides (perhaps only 7.5 looking at the second half of ND-FSU), the machine began to sputter — badly.  Defense and special teams, though great catalysts, were not a reliable enough source of offense to keep the Irish ahead of their competition.  The season ended with two embarrassing breakdowns at USC and in the Gator Bowl against NC State.  After that season, it seemed like Willingham lost all interest in what was under the hood.  He did an excellent job on the interior — as Athletic Director Kevin White would say at Willingham's dismissal, the team performed impeccably Sunday through Friday in the classroom and in the community.  It would have made a trip to Glory all the more impressive, but ultimately the car didn't run.

Now, with Charlie Weis at the wheel, the rumor mill in Glory is again churning with news of an Irish return.  A 9-3 season has the Fighting Irish faithful believing that this time will be different than the others.  What's certain is that Weis has a much different map than either of his two (technically three) predecessors.  It is an offensive playbook of biblical proportions, and he appears to have aptly transalted its complexity to master navigator Brady Quinn.  It's through his tutelage of Quinn that Weis has plotted a new path towards Glory: if Quinn can find his own way via the Heisman, the rest of the team will follow as National Champions.

News of the attempt to return has spread far and wide.  Opinions and predictions vary widely and few are middle of the road.  Skeptics hold hard and fast to the notion that the invaded towns of Atlanta and Los Angeles will no longer be caught off guard, and that the Irish defenses are far too weak.  They maintain that this effort is no different from previous ill-fated attempts and will end in similar disaster.  The faithful look to their sophomore leader's meticulous strategy and quarterback's sterling execution to finally bring them home.