I'm here to discuss Notre Dame football only because my colleagues at Page 2 -- specifically, David Schoenfield and Patrick Hruby -- asked me recently if I think the Fighting Irish are still "relevant." They asked me that question because the Fighting Irish open their 2005 season Saturday night against Pittsburgh, and because I wrote a book about Notre Dame's first year under former head coach Tyrone Willingham. It was called "Return to Glory."
My answer is a resounding No! Notre Dame isn't relevant. Once upon a time, it was. Once upon a time, it stood for something real and dignified. Notre Dame was a symbol of college football excellence, just as UCLA once represented the best in college basketball and the Green Bay Packers stood proud at the top of pro football. Knute Rockne, and movies about him, propelled Notre Dame into the stuff of legend.
The Irish mattered. They inspired people who hadn't even gone to school there.
It's a cool thing when you really are better than anyone else. It is not a cool thing when you just think you are.
Today, Notre Dame is just another football program that will ransom anything -- its coach, what's left of its reputation -- to get a piece of BCS lottery money.
Oh, Notre Dame remains legendary but only in its own mind.
Willingham's final team in South Bend last year was a classic underachiever. The Irish ought to have been good enough to win nine games, but instead stumbled to a 6-6 record and looked, at times, awful.
This year, they're supposed to be better. Heck, even if Gerry Faust had returned to the sideline to replace Willingham, quarterback Brady Quinn's undeniable talent is supposed to carry them. And receivers Maurice Stovall and Rhema McKnight are supposed to finally realize the enormous potential with which they entered college three summers ago.
But that's Notre Dame the football team, which is not to be confused with Notre Dame the university. If you ask me (and even if you don't), I'll tell you that a football team and a university are not one and the same.
One consists of players such as Quinn, Stovall and McKnight, who get dressed in the locker room and play games on a football field. The other is a business run by the board of trustees, new president John Jenkins and athletic director Kevin White, who get dressed in administration buildings and do administrative things.
And those people treat us like we don't know what's happening there. They act as if we don't see their cold, condescending, cloaked-in-righteousness arrogance.
I hate that Notre Dame.
Maybe I should have said that more clearly in the book a few years back. I hate that Notre Dame with a white-hot passion.
When it's convenient, that Notre Dame is a scholastic institution. But when they're hungry for championships, that Notre Dame turns up the heat on its football program.
The heat is being turned up now for one reason. Every school on its schedule hates Notre Dame, but Notre Dame only hates one school back: ultra-successful Southern Cal, which has displaced the Irish at the top of the heap.