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Friday, September 2, 2005
Notre Dame's tarnished legacy

By Alan Grant
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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.

When the Domers looked up from their earning sheets recently, they realized that the Trojans have erected an altar to college football right there in South Central's Heritage Hall. In the last few years, USC has won two national championships and two Heisman Trophies.

So here's the running tally:

Notre Dame: 11 titles and seven Heismans.

USC: five championships and six Heismans.

And more hardware is looming out West, with Reggie Bush, the best football player in the country (on any level), setting up shop in the Trojans' backfield, which is expected to lead the way to a third straight national title. They're a threat to the legend. Oh, the straits are dire at the golden dome.

Problem is, Notre Dame had a coach in Willingham who wouldn't ransom his reputation by recruiting just anybody to play for him. And that's the rub. One of the reasons the Domers finally hired Willingham in the first place -- he was their fifth choice -- is because they figured a black coach would have an easier time recruiting black players.

But there was still the matter of selling high school players on old training facilities left over from the Parseghian years. There was still the matter of the difficulty in selling a history that's meaningless to many 18-year-olds. And there was still the most pressing matter: Notre Dame's location in South Bend, Ind.

Willingham got a few kids, most notably running back Darius Walker, the team's best offensive player. But the program just wasn't growing fast enough.

So they fired the coach.

But let me be clear on this: I don't feel bad for what Notre Dame did to Willingham. The school could never "do" anything to that man. He's employed again and living in Seattle; and from what I can tell, he's still very much Tyrone Willingham.

But when Notre Dame fired the first black coach in its history -- and after just three seasons, which is the shortest tenure of any of its head football coaches -- Notre Dame "did" something to itself: It exposed itself. And comically and predictably, it keeps on exposing itself.

Witness the latest installment of Irish hoopla. Everyone in South Bend is all a-twitter over Charlie Weis and the way he's embracing the Irish "tradition." Lies! Tradition has very little to do with whatever success Weis, who came from the NFL, will have. A professional coach will attract professional players, and that's why Notre Dame wanted Weis.

That Weis graduated from the school? Just so much gravy.

Yet, they try to distract us with that word: tradition.

The other day, former Notre Dame and current New Orleans Saints linebacker Courtney Watson told me, "Even though he didn't yell and scream all the time, our last coach was all about tradition."

But the Domers wanted more than that. They wanted Willingham to jump up and down and yell and scream to let people know he was, you know, enthusiastic.

I watched a game last season in which Willingham, in fact, did stomp up and down the sideline and throw up his hands, ranting and raving about something or other. And I thought, "What is this? That's not him. Who does he expect to fool with that act?"

Then it hit me. He'd been told to dance.

And this is why I loathe Notre Dame.

It wasn't enough that Willingham completely invested himself in the job, visited the dorms and spoke passionately about the program to the J. Crew-wearing yuppie larvae who supposedly support the team -- many of whom would later call for his head. It wasn't enough that he helped to increase minority enrollment, or that he coaxed one of the school's most famous alumni, Joe Montana, back onto campus.

It wasn't enough that, during that sterling 2002 season, he made folks who had never given a damn about Notre Dame actually give a damn about Notre Dame. The Domers still wanted Willingham to dance. They had a humble, always-professional man who was dedicated to their university. Yet they insisted: Hey, could you do a little soft shoe, just to make us feel even more powerful?

This tells me something. It tells me they were just begging to be exposed for what they really are.

But let's not kid ourselves, friends. The good folks at Notre Dame aren't the least bit ashamed of their greed, their hypocrisy, and their false god of a football program.

That's the thing about people caught up in their own relevance. They have their noses too far up where they shouldn't be to smell any shame in their game. My best guess about the future at Notre Dame? It will become like any other big-time university football factory now, complete with every problem and every sort of "incident" associated with that sort of emphasis.

But at Notre Dame, the faithful will turn away from all of that.

Oh, and Notre Dame will win again. Eventually, the Irish will get National Title No. 12.

Will it matter? Of course it will.

But not to me.

Alan Grant is a regular contributor to and ESPN The Magazine. He is a former NFL defensive back who played college football at Stanford.