Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford

Notre Dame's Glory Fades Without A Conference

Fans at Notre Dame wave towels before kickoff against USC i

Still In The Picture? As an independent, Notre Dame is losing national relevance. Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
Fans at Notre Dame wave towels before kickoff against USC

Still In The Picture? As an independent, Notre Dame is losing national relevance.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

So, Notre Dame fired Charlie Weis. But, OK, at some point, Notre Dame has to realize that its coaches are not the problem.

You see, hiring Charlie Weis was a mistake — generically.

If you're a college football or basketball program, you should never hire a coach from the pros — just as if you're an NFL or NBA franchise, you should never hire a college coach. It simply doesn't work, unless it's Larry Brown, who can coach anywhere — and has.

Rather, the problem with Notre Dame is that for such a fine academic institution, it's amazing that it hasn't wised up to how much the football landscape has changed.

It's been decades since Notre Dame became America's only national college team, back in the day when professional football was not popular and few Americans went to college.

So Roman Catholics everywhere — Irish and otherwise — adopted Notre Dame as their surrogate team. They were even famously known as its "subway alumni."

But as television made the NFL more prominent, Catholic fans, like fans of all stripes, started adopting their favorite NFL teams. The subway alumni were now suburban commuters who'd gone to college, and they became primarily Eagle rooters, or 49er rooters, and so forth.

As that fabled old national team, however, Notre Dame kept scheduling games all over the country, as it also alone had its own rich network contract, on NBC.

Virtually all other major teams joined conferences, but Notre Dame remained independent. The inference was that because its football team must remain a national institution, Notre Dame football could hardly limit itself to any mere regional conference.

But what had happened is that while, yes, Notre Dame had its own network presence, so, as cable television proliferated, did other major conferences become nationally familiar.

Hey, fans in Seattle could watch the Southeastern Conference with interest. And the conferences began making big TV money, too. An obscure college like Mississippi State, for goodness' sake, makes more TV moola than does legendary Notre Dame.

The Irish might be ubiquitous, but unless they're competing for the national title — which they haven't come close to doing since 1993 — their games don't mean as much as everybody else's.

You know what Notre Dame ought to do if it feels so superior to joining a conference? It ought to be a wild card and lend itself to lots of conferences.

One year it could play in the Big Ten, and another in the Big East, and another in the Big 12, and another in the SEC. Rotate. That way the Irish could still move around the country, but its games would fit the 21st century mode.

The conferences would surely buy into that. After all, Notre Dame football is still somewhat special. Witness all the attention given to the firing of Charlie Weis. It's just that it remains noteworthy for the wrong reason.

Notre Dame football is like that old definition that a celebrity is famous just for being famous. Notre Dame football isn't famous anymore for football. It's just famous for being Notre Dame.

So long as it remains the only independent of any consequence, the current team's only real rival is the past. And it can't possibly win against that glorious past. No matter who the coach is.

Related NPR Stories

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Sweetness And LightSweetness And Light The Score On Sports With Frank Deford