MORRISSEY: Notre Dame reached the heights and proved me wrong
BY RICK MORRISSEY firstname.lastname@example.org November 21, 2012 5:22PM
Notre Dame running back Theo Riddick (6) sign the alma mater following an NCAA college football game against Wake Forest in South Bend, Ind., Saturday, Nov. 17, 2012. Notre Dame defeated Wake Forest 38-0. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
Updated: December 24, 2012 7:10AM
If I wanted to feel the sting, to absorb the full measure of my comeuppance, I could go back and find all the naysaying I had done about Notre Dame football over the years.
But that would slow down the atoning process. Suffice it to say, what I wrote was something along the lines of, “The Irish will never be what they used to be’’ or, “It’s a new world, and Notre Dame doesn’t live there’’ or the pat on the head I knew infuriated fans, “There’s nothing wrong with being like Northwestern — a great academic institution that has figured out how to put together a pretty good football program.’’
The exact words aren’t necessary because the theme was clear enough: Notre Dame was clinging to a past that was never coming back, not when lots of schools had found their way onto national TV and not when the Irish believed in graduating all of their players.
Every time I wrote a variation of that theme, I could hear the Four Horsemen protesting. And their horses weren’t too happy either.
With top-ranked Notre Dame one victory away from the national-championship game, it’s a perfect time to admit that I never, ever saw this coming. Beat USC and the Irish are in the title game? In whose ridiculous dream?
Let’s be clear: What is happening in this crazy, wonderful season does not mean that ND football is back for good or even for the next four years. It’s too early in the Brian Kelly era to make such a blanket statement. Recruiting is a fickle thing.
But I was wrong to think that Notre Dame could never make it back to the top of the mountain. That thinking was based on the idea that the Irish’s TV contract with NBC wasn’t the huge advantage it used to be. ESPN was televising hundreds of games every season. The thinking also had to do with a parade of coaches who had come through South Bend, Ind., without the luxury of the less-stringent academic standards Lou Holtz had enjoyed when the Irish last won a national championship in 1988.
There were some embarrassments (George O’Leary) and some bad fits (Charlie Weis). There were players with criminal problems, which seemed to make Notre Dame just like everybody else, the last thing Irish fans ever want to hear. There weren’t enough big victories.
But Kelly has brought a professionalism to Notre Dame football that hasn’t been there in a long time, and I mean that in the most flattering way possible. There’s a bearing to the guy — not the manic, Jon Gruden, 5-Hour Energy kind of bearing, but a confidence that tells players they’d be wise to follow his lead. He knows where he’s going.
He’s in his third year at Notre Dame, and as my Sun-Times compatriot Mark Potash points out, Kelly has turned around a program in his third year everywhere he has been. That’s a sign of someone who has it figured out.
There have been missteps and a tragedy. The death of student videographer Declan Sullivan, who perished in 2010 when the scissors lift he was in was toppled by high winds, never should have happened. Kelly, being in charge of the football operation, was ultimately responsible. That didn’t make him the head of a rogue program, the way some people wanted to paint it. It made him overly driven, and like a lot of other football coaches, blind and stupid at times.
There’s still a feeling of something unresolved in the whole mess. If you think the Sullivan story is old news, just wait until the media buildup to the BCS title game, should the Irish get there.
To an extent, the Irish are playing The Game and at least sticking a toe in the muck. That’s almost unavoidable these days. They’re also playing the game of football better than anybody else. Is there a tie-in between the two? All I know is that the most recent graduation rate of Notre Dame football players is 97 percent, tied for first in the nation with Northwestern.
I don’t know if this is the beginning of something bigger for the school or a one-year planet alignment that spells “ND.’’ But Irish fans have every reason to gloat. They’ve taken a lot of abuse over the years, some of it from doubters like me.
Now their belief has been rewarded. Their school has done something I didn’t think possible.
They were right. And I’m happy to have been wrong.