As former Fighting Irish coach Ara Parseghian once said, “Whether you like it or not, you're a national figure after five games at Notre Dame.”
Current head coach Brian Kelly now has 13 games under his belt at South Bend. His 8-5 record last year showed indications of a team trending upward. Nationwide scrutiny and the intense pressure to WIN BIG are ratcheting up as the 2011 season approaches.
It’s been nearly two decades since Notre Dame produced a monster season. The USA Today’s Mike Lopresti summed it up well this week when he wrote, “Notre Dame wants its glory back. The Irish hope they are getting closer, and it is only a matter of time before the echoes wake up from a coma. They hope for the days when they can again beat anybody. Even Navy.”
My earliest memories of Notre Dame football stem back to Nov. 25, 1978, when I was eight years old. The setting was my grandparents’ home in Longview, WA.
My dad and grandpa gathered with me in the TV room to watch No. 3 USC confront No. 8 Notre Dame in the Los Angeles Coliseum. Excitement and anticipation filled the room, even though the game didn’t feature our favorite team, the Washington Huskies.
I remember sipping My-T-Fine cola from Fred Meyer and gnawing on a turkey leg as the teams ran onto the field. Even at that young age I hated USC, so seeing them rushing past on the TV screen triggered a visceral response in me. But seeing Notre Dame also did something to my psyche. There was an aura about them; a swagger. I loved their uniforms and helmets.
A breach was about to occur in the Johnson family lineage.
My grandpa was a doctor and originally hailed from Chicago where he graduated from Northwestern. He HATED Notre Dame. My dad had lived in Washington State since an early age and had always been a diehard Washington Husky. It’s important to note that the Huskies were (and remain) winless in all their games against the Fighting Irish. My dad loathed Notre Dame the way Joe Dimaggio hated the Kennedys.
Both my grandpa and dad bore stern personalities, especially in those days. When I say “stern,” I don’t mean it was like being raised by the elders from Footloose. But they were serious and by-the-book kind of people. They weren’t ones to joke around when someone went veering off the reservation, as I was about to do.
The game started. I don’t remember what exactly happened, but Notre Dame did something good.
And I jumped up and started cheering. In my mind’s eye, I can still see the perplexed faces of my father and grandfather simultaneously turning toward me.
“You’re cheering for Notre Dame?” grandpa asked.
“Yeah…they seem great!” I said.
My dad pursed his lips. “Are you sure you want to do that, son?”
“Uhh, why not?”
“Son, Notre Dame has always been very arrogant,” dad said. “We always root hard against them. You can feel free to root for whomever you like. But if you cheer for them in this house, you’ll be doing so on your own.”
Both my dad and grandpa went on to tell me about the lore of Notre Dame football. The Four Horsemen, Knute Rockne, The Gipper, all the Heisman Trophy winners and national championships. I was quietly in awe.
That 1978 game at the Los Angeles Coliseum became one for the ages. Notre Dame QB Joe Montana connected with Pete Holohan to put the Irish ahead 25-24 with 46 second left. But then USC drove down the field and placekicker Frank Jordan booted a 37-yard field goal to give the Trojans the win.
That day seared itself into my memory. It was mythical. Larger-than-life.
Nowadays, of course, Notre Dame is a shell of its former self. They still maintain a passionate following nationwide, but no longer do teams fear them or hold their presence in awe.
With so much bad news and scandal in the news today throughout college football, it sometimes seems there isn’t much to feel good about. USC, Ohio State and Miami have all fallen prey to varying degrees of scandal. These stories fall in step with the constant news of plunging stock markets and rioting in major cities. People aren't feeling good about America.
Ideally, college football is about excitement, camaraderie and feeling good. It’s about a team’s story playing out every Saturday in stadiums across the country. It’s about villains and heroes being created to live on in the media and within our imaginations.
As the NCAA repairs its damaged image, the return of Notre Dame to elite status would benefit college football grandly. To awaken those often talked-about echoes and stir this aspect of American mythology would be good for everybody.
It would even be good for people who hate Notre Dame. For people like my dad and late grandfather.
As the oft-reviled baseball star Reggie Jackson once said, “They don’t boo nobodies."
Derek Johnson is the author of three books including his latest, Bow Down to Willingham: How White Guilt Enabled a Secretly Malicious Coach to Destroy the Once-Mighty Washington Huskies. You can read a free excerpt at derekjohnsonbooks.com.