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Bringing Notre Dame back to the future
SOUTH BEND, Ind.
People waited. They lined up along the path, around the bushes. By the library, in front of Touchdown Jesus. “Here they come! Here they come!’’ And the Notre Dame football team slowly emerged from thin air, starting its traditional march to the stadium, though in a little different route than usual.
That’s OK. Fans knew where they would be. The new path had been big news.
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Players marched in rows, in blue sport coats, khaki pants, green ties.
Along the path, as the players walked in front of Touchdown Jesus, the crowd got louder and thicker and it built into a frenzy. Boys sat on dads’ shoulders.
The march went into the stadium through Knute Rockne Gate. As you watched the whole thing, you wanted to suit up and play for the ghosts of Notre Dame.
And then? Well, then the Fighting Irish went inside and .got their butts kicked by South Florida, the youngest program in major college football, with no tradition and no history.
“They have played football for 120 years; we are celebrating our 104th victory today as a program,’’ said South Florida coach Skip Holtz, former Notre Dame player and son of former ND coach Lou Holtz. “So when you talk about how young we are, I don’t think you can measure what a win like this for us means. . . . Only 13 years ago, we didn’t own a pair of cleats or a helmet or a football at South Florida.’’
That’s a new twist on the same miracle wins at Notre Dame the past few years from Tulsa, Connecticut, Navy, Air Force and Navy again. But this was the most incongruous of all. During the game, the gods were so angry that they started hurtling down lightning bolts as a black cloud hovered over Notre Dame Stadium.
The place was evacuated. Twice. It didn’t help.
No one has more honored college football tradition than Notre Dame.
You’ll hear talk of it again Saturday in the Irish’s Big Game at Michigan, and talk about whether Coach Brian Kelly can bring back past greatness. Yet that’s the problem. Notre Dame doesn’t need to relive the past. It needs a future.
But those legends aren’t just about winning. They’re about right and wrong. They’re an ideal, like the Field of Dreams is for baseball, standing for all that’s good in a time gone by. Notre Dame is a football museum.
In some ways, their stories don’t seem like legends anymore, but myths.
Notre Dame hasn’t won a national championship in 23 years.
Twenty. Three. Years.
Are these beloved traditions even relevant anymore? Have modern times changed things so that Notre Dame can’t be NOTRE DAME anymore?
Is Notre Dame history?
Roger Valdiserri is the one who did it. As PR guy for Notre Dame football, he just called a freshman quarterback into his office and said “Your name is Theismann from now on. Rhymes with Heisman.’’
Before that, Valdiserri said, it had been pronounced Teesman. So what did Theismann say?
“He said OK.’’
“He was a freshman.’’
Valdiserri doesn’t exactly count as one of Notre Dame’s football legends. But he has been a part of probably half of the traditions as they took place. No, he wasn’t there for Rockne or George Gipp or the Four Horsemen, but he was a freshman at Notre Dame in 1950, writing recruiting letters for coach Frank Leahy, a task he retained for years thereafter.
“I wrote one to Mike Ditka,’’ he said.
He worked with Notre Dame coach after Notre Dame coach, and he has opinions on all of them. And now, he’s still at the games, though not working anymore. He was there Saturday in the press box for the South Florida game. Everyone kept coming up to him and shaking his hand, hugging him, talking to him. He was the most popular person there, and probably is no matter where he goes.
“When I worked for Frank Leahy, we were in the basement and he was on the next floor,’’ he said. “When he’d come down, we wouldn’t know whether to genuflect or kiss his ring. You knew he was in the room when he came in.’’
So, how many of these Notre Dame legends are true, and how many are just embellishments.
“Some are true and some aren’t.’’
Name one that isn’t.
“Ask me one and I’ll tell you.’’
“He was always hanging around the offices,’’ Valdiserri said. “(Coach Dan) Devine liked him, but for some reason just didn’t want to play him. The movie was mostly right. The only part they took license with was when the players came into Devine’s office and put their jerseys on his desk to get him to let Rudy dress.
“Devine told me, `If they would have done that, they’d have never gotten their jerseys back.’ ’’
Valdiserri knows that some stories are just smoke, but he believes in Notre Dame. He believes that it is about being a student first, and then an athlete. He believes it’s about doing the right things. And he believes it can all still work.
They have just hired a few wrong coaches, he said. And just as he said that, Gerry Faust walked up from behind and gave him a big hug. I swear I didn’t just make that up.
After Leahy, Terry Brennan became coach. Smart guy, Valdiserri said, but nowhere near Leahy’s presence. Was hardly any older than the seniors.
Then came Joe Kuharich. Valdiserri crinkled up his nose: “Charlie Weis was Kuharich reincarnate.’’
“Arrogant. He was all about himself," Valdiserri said. "Weis didn’t leave here with any friends. He was the opposite of Ara (Parseghian). Ara gave himself to Notre Dame; he didn’t want the attention.’’
Valdiserri and two friends still have a weekly meal with Parseghian.
The group calls itself ROMEO, for Retired Old Men Eating Out.
What about current coach Brian Kelly? Valdiserri thinks he’s the right guy, but that he has to prove it this year.
“It didn’t work,’’ he said.
“Theismann. He finished second in the Heisman voting. You know what the funny thing is about that? Today, his family calls themselves Theismann (like Heisman).’’
Kelly changed the path of the pregame walk. It basically allowed the team’s pregame meeting to happen in the best time at the best place.
And that was news. Kelly is the head coach, in his second year, but when he tinkers with tradition, he tinkers with foundations.
“Any time you take over — and I’ve used this analogy before — a blue-chip company, blue-chip stock that hadn’t been paying dividends in the manner that a lot of people think it should, there are some things internally that need to be addressed,’’ he said. “I think that we have.
“You don’t want to change who you are, but there are changes you can make in how you do those things. That’s what we focused on, the things we do on a day-to-day basis. We feel we have streamlined those and made significant progress.’’
This might be the impossible challenge for Kelly. He has to give modern-day Notre Dame its own identity. Notre Dame can’t keep living on things so far in the past, but those things are dear to Notre Dame fans.
It has been Notre Dame tradition to try not to separate athletes from the general student body. This is one of the few places where the term student-athlete shouldn’t automatically make you giggle.
But Kelly has separated out the football players for a training table, meaning players don’t eat with the regular students. That way, diet and nutrition can be monitored better.
A bigger step came with star receiver Michael Floyd, who has been arrested for alleged driving under the influence. Kelly suspended him indefinitely from the team. But Notre Dame discipline has been under the control of the Office of Residence Life, which broke its own tradition by not suspending Floyd for the 2011 season. It seemed to take cues from the football program. Floyd is now playing.
Kelly considers these changes to be tweaks. More important, he has said, is the approach to recruiting. He calls it a change in message that recruits are “coming to Notre Dame to play for our Lady. You’re not coming here to hang your hat because you're going to the league (NFL). If you want to do that, there are other schools for you. We may not get some of those guys that have that attitude.
"They could be eight-star, nine-star players, whatever is the highest star. If they fit that mentality, we won't recruit those guys. We're starting by recruiting guys that want to be at Notre Dame, get their degree, play for Notre Dame.’’
Two things about that: 1. It might not work in the mindset of today’s young players and their interpretation of amateurism; and 2. It was a direct shot at Kelly’s predecessor.
Weis was the prime example of Notre Dame’s panic to hold on to its past, grab onto something that really doesn’t exist anymore.
He replaced Tyrone Willingham, who didn’t bother to recruit much. Weis had been the offensive coordinator for the Super Bowl-winning New England Patriots, and was a Notre Dame alum.
But Weis had never been a head coach before and suddenly had one of the most demanding college jobs in the country.
He was The Intern. And midway into his first season, when the Irish appeared to be organized on the field again, he strong-armed his way into a new 10-year contract.
It wasn’t hard. The big-dollar backers behind Notre Dame feared that the legends were leaving, and that Weis might go to the NFL for a head coaching job. Weis did nothing to stop that belief, and seemed to be the one putting out the rumors.
Weis was a change in attitude, something that he figured would appeal to modern-day high school kids. He was the path to the NFL. He knew how to get players there.
That’s how he landed quarterback Jimmy Clausen, who saw Notre Dame as — how did Kelly put it? — a place to hang your hat because you're going to the league.
Clausen held an infamous press conference to announce that he would come to Notre Dame. He took a stretch Hummer with a police escort to the College Football Hall of Fame in South Bend, where a bunch of misguided Notre Dame faithful cheered on the spiky-haired rock star.
That was the official break from tradition.
But keep this in mind: Weis’ path-to-the-NFL recruiting approach was landing the nation’s top recruits. Yet he couldn’t win with them.
“My perspective is this,’’ said Gerry DiNardo. “When Charlie Weis went on that national TV show — I don’t know if it was '60 Minutes' or whatever — he wore his Super Bowl rings. And whoever was interviewing him made a big deal about those rings.
“It was a significant step back for Notre Dame. Any ring that is more important than a graduation ring at Notre Dame . . . if you’re not more proud of a Notre Dame graduation ring than a Super Bowl ring and coaching in college, I got a problem with that.’’
DiNardo has a look at this from all sides. He played for Parseghian’s 1973 national championship team, and was an All-America guard in 1974.
He was part of the legends. He also has been up close with the modern times, as head coach at Vanderbilt, Indiana and LSU. He now is an analyst for the Big Ten Network.
“You don’t have to have the most draft picks,’’ he said. “You’ve got to have some. But if you’re selling the NFL in homes, my guess is you’re at the wrong job. The ultimate experience is walking across the graduation stage with a national championship ring.’’
I’ve talked with college coaches who say that the three things today’s high school kids are most interested in when choosing a college are: NFL prospects, women, TV exposure.
“Go to Notre Dame, get a degree and play for a national championship team,’’ DiNardo said. “That’s the pitch.’’
Is Notre Dame tradition part of the pitch? DiNardo said that it doesn’t mean much to recruits. It’s something players learn about while they are at Notre Dame.
DiNardo said that Notre Dame can be NOTRE DAME again, as long as it has reasonable access to the BCS title game.
Maybe so, but the Irish used to have all the advantages. Their games are on national TV, but with so many sports networks and packages now, most top teams play on TV all the time.
DiNardo talked about his own recruiting.
“I wasn’t a highly recruited guy,’’ he said. “But on every one of my recruiting visits, I’d be in the hotel and go down to the lobby (on Sunday morning). In the lobby, even when I was at other schools, they were always playing 'Notre Dame Replay' on TV. It was Lindsey Nelson and Paul Hornung doing a replay coast-to-coast of the game.
“Notre Dame did have that edge in those days, but lost that.’’
He laughed at the change in the pregame walk this year.
“We used to spend the night at the seminary,’’ he said. “We watched a movie at the seminary; they didn’t even take us out to a movie. Then we went to bed in the seminary.
“We’d go to Mass, then walk to the dining hall for a pregame meal. They really sprung for a lot there, huh? Then Ara said, `OK, see you at the game.’ And we went to the dorm until it was time to go. Then I walked to the stadium. The pregame walk? It was a non-issue.’’
It sure was an issue Saturday. It was about pride and tradition. Junior linebacker Manti Te’o, who was a major, big-time recruit, was wearing a lei made of candy.
When he chose to play for Notre Dame, did you consider the school’s traditions?
“No,’’ he said.
Did you know about any of them?
Well, if the pregame was about Notre Dame past, who knows what the game was about.
Notre Dame kept getting close to scoring, and then fumbling or throwing interceptions in the end zone. Theo Riddick, a talented player, is not a punt returner. He would either drop the ball or catch it and fall on his face.
“I told him to get his butt back out there,’’ Kelly said. “If we’re going to have the kind of playmakers we need at that position, we don’t have a waiver wire. We can’t trade for anybody.’’
Not exactly a ringing endorsement. Not exactly Rocket Ismail.
Dayne Crist won the starting quarterback job going into the season. He lost it by halftime of the game, which was the season-opener. The starter now is Tommy Rees, who led the team on a winning streak in the second half of last season, Kelly’s first.
As a kid, Rees probably dreamed of being the next Theismann or Joe Montana, or at least Rudy.
No. He also said he didn’t know about the team’s past: “It wasn’t a huge thing for me.’’
And it starts to occur to you that today’s college players have never been alive for a Notre Dame national title. They probably think of Lou Holtz only as a wacky old TV analyst.
“I didn’t know much about Notre Dame (history),’’ said senior defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore. “Maybe a little.’’
Only South Florida quarterback B.J. Daniels seemed to know a few things, seemed to know what a big thing it would be to beat Notre Dame.
“My jaw dropped when I came into the stadium,’’ he said. “I saw 'Rudy' as a kid.’’
It has been 23 years since Notre Dame won a title, 24 since it won a Heisman Trophy.
The Irish are a tribute to football past. They are not God’s gift to college football today. Kelly can’t break an ancient model while trying to find relevance in a modern sports world.
On his walk at Notre Dame, he has to invent a new history while keeping one foot planted firmly in the past.
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