The University of Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish have maintained their hold on Irish-Catholic sports fans, despite the team’s distinctly non-Irish and not necessarily Catholic composition.
The only thing that’s changed over the years is the notion that Notre Dame has hundreds of thousands of “subway alumni.” These days, those honorary alumni are more likely to be riding commuter trains, if they take public transportation at all.
Nevertheless, whatever their means of transportation, Irish Catholics across the country and especially on the East Coast still memorize the words to the Notre Dame fight song. Ah, well, how can you not like a team whose quarterback is named Brady Quinn, a native of Dublin — the Ohio version?
That’s why it’s a fair bet that 99.9 percent of this newspaper’s readership spent Saturday afternoon rooting, hoping and maybe even praying for the Irish as they took on top-ranked USC in the friendly confines of South Bend, Indiana, home of Touchdown Jesus. Who knows? Maybe some of you were among the fanatics who paid $1,600 on e-Bay for a ticket to the big game.
Whether you watched in person or on television, well, you saw a heck of a game. The Irish lost in the last few seconds, but as many commentators noted, even by losing, Notre Dame proved that it belongs among the nation’s top teams.
So we know, without even having to ask, about the loyalties of most Irish-Catholic college football fans.
But what if we posed the question this way: What teams other than Notre Dame do you follow? My guess is that Boston College, the only other Catholic college with a major football program, and Penn State would finish in second and third, respectively. No doubt Army and Navy would get quite a few votes, too, for sentimental as well as patriotic reasons.
What all five of these schools have in common, other than a lack of recent national championships, is an image that is hard to come by and impossible to purchase. All of them have a reputation for graduating student-athletes, and not just future NFL players.
And for that reason, Notre Dame, BC and Penn State were written off as recently as a couple of years ago as relics of another time.
Penn State’s legendary coach, Brooklyn-born Joe Paterno, was derided as a man long past his prime, clinging to visions of football’s past. As for Notre Dame and BC, well, critics were saying that they simple couldn’t compete with the football factories of Ohio, Michigan, Texas, California and Florida.
Sure, Notre Dame had a good long run as an annual contender and oft-times champion, and sure, BC held its own against the big boys. But really, it was time for them to leave the national spotlight. College sports was a business, a big business, and those who clung to outdated notions like academic standards and codes of behavior (on the field and off) simply were, well, they were like Paterno — old and old-fashioned.
Guess again, eh?
As Notre Dame took the field against USC last Saturday, the Irish were the ninth-ranked team in the country. And both Penn State and BC weren’t far behind.
It has been a good long while, or so it seems, since all three schools were in the top 20 this late in the season. The change of fortunes has meant a fortune for the hotel owners and shopkeepers of State College, Pa., and South Bend. A hotelkeeper near Notre Dame’s campus told the New York Times: “It’s incredible how things change around here when Notre Dame is winning.”
Well, yes and no. More people might be willing to shell out untold hundreds of dollars for tickets to a Notre Dame game, and more people may be willing to brave the car-choked roads of western Pennsylvania to see Penn State this year, but in reality, both teams, along with BC, have an enviable base of fans. They follow their teams win or lose, in a way that a professional team would envy.
In that sense, the three schools are the college football equivalents of the Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs and New York Giants. Their fans stick around, win or lose. Will the same be said of Yankee fans when the team goes into decline? Certainly nobody would salute the loyalty of Dallas Cowboy fans, who stop showing up when the team is out of contention, or even fans of the Atlanta Braves, who can’t be bothered sitting through playoff games (given the team’s post-season record, this may be evidence of deep-seated sanity).
Notre Dame and, to an even greater extent, Penn State have gone through several difficult years, but unless either team collapses in the next few weeks, it seems fair to say that both programs are back on track. Their revival, along with BC’s fairly consistent performances in recent years, is important for college football throughout the country. As these schools show, you can be a winner and still have players who obey the law, take their studies seriously and, yes, graduate.
Far too many college football programs are plagued by scandal and outright criminal behavior. Far too many college football players leave campus without a degree, unprepared for life without shoulder pads and helmets. Far too many college football coaches are willing to overlook misbehavior and poor grades in pursuit of a national championship.
Penn State may not graduate every football player, and Notre Dame and BC may not be as pure and wholesome as many people would like to believe, but there is little doubt that coaches there still consider themselves to be educators first. That’s why, when Notre Dame and Penn State struggled in recent years, so many critics insisted that they simply couldn’t cut it anymore, and that BC surely would be the next big-time program to fade away.
All three, it seems clear, will be playing in bowl games this year. Not bad, for a bunch of has-beens.