Tears Replace Cheers at Old Notre Dame

Three straight losses, featuring no offensive touchdowns, are a dismal way for any college football team to start a season. At Notre Dame, the 0-3 start is almost unthinkable. How are the Golden Domers coping in South Bend?

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Starting the season 0-3 is disappointing for any college football program. But the University of Notre Dame does not have just any college football program, it is the second-winningest in history. So to Fighting Irish fans, boosters and alumni, this season's winless start is a major crisis.

NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER: At a university as Catholic as Notre Dame, it's probably blasphemy to say that football is God, but still, football isn't far behind here. In fact, I'm standing beneath what's known as "Touchdown Jesus." It's an 11-story high mural on the side of the library building, depicting various scholars and saints, with Jesus in the center, with his arms raised up in the air like a referee signaling a touchdown. And it just happens to overlook the north end zone of Notre Dame's football stadium.

Mr. VINCE EVANS(ph) (First Year Graduate Student, University of Notre Dame): It seems to me, it's more like a second religion rather than an extension of the first religion.

SCHAPER: First year graduate student Vince Evans from Brooklyn, New York says the people of Notre Dame have a special relationship with their football team, and losing doesn't set well.

Mr. EVANS: People are kind of crestfallen. I think people thought that, you know, we were going to do better than we have so far. It's definitely a surprise.

SCHAPER: Junior Joe Quinn of San Diego says people don't seem to have that joy of what fall is supposed to be around the South Bend, Indiana campus. Instead, he says the mood is…

Mr. JOE QUINN (Student, University of Notre Dame): Depressed.

SCHAPER: Notre Dame hasn't just lost every game. They've lost every game by a lot. And the Fighting Irish offense hasn't even scored a touchdown, ranking dead last among Division 1 college teams.

Mr. LESTER MUNSON (Writer, ESPN): There are two categories in college football. One is Notre Dame, number two is all the rest of the programs.

SCHAPER: Lester Munson lives in Chicago and writes for ESPN. He says an 0-3 start is a disaster for Notre Dame football.

Mr. MUNSON: It causes everybody to look at everything, and there's no immediate answer. There is no remedy in sight.

SCHAPER: Munson is among those putting part of the blame on head coach Charlie Weis, who is in his third year at Notre Dame. Weis is a Fighting Irish alum and was hired from the NFL's New England Patriots, where he was coordinator of a Super Bowl-winning offense. But some defend Weis, saying he needs more time and blame his predecessor, while still others point out last year's team graduated 15 starters. Regardless of the point of view, almost all fans cringe.

Mr. CHRIS ZORICH (Former Member, Notre Dame Fighting Irish): Oh, my God.

SCHAPER: Chris Zorich played on Notre Dame's last national championship team in 1988. And after graduating in 1991, played seven years for the Chicago Bears before returning to the school to earn his law degree. He counters his Notre Dame-hating friends who are giving him grief this year with the school's player graduation rate above 95 percent. And while some fans are calling for the school to lower its admission standards to attract better players, Zorich says, forget about it.

Mr. ZORICH: Watching Saturday football is phenomenal. But the underlying thing that we're supposed to be doing here is molding men, but more importantly, graduating these young men. And I don't want to sound arrogant, but that's what we do at Notre Dame.

SCHAPER: Zorich insists the school can get back to being one of the elite football programs in the country while maintaining its high academic standards. For his part, coach Charlie Weis says his players know that there are more people against them that there are pulling for them this weekend.

Mr. CHARLIE WEIS (Head Coach, Notre Dame Fighting Irish): When you pull them here together, you say, this is it fellows. No one believes in you but you. You're it. I go, there isn't one person out there that thinks you're any good. Okay, so this is where - all your supporters, they're probably sitting right in this classroom right here. You know, because you're not going to find a lot of people outside until you start doing something about it.

SCHAPER: And they'll try to do something about it this Saturday, when they host undefeated Michigan State. If the Fighting Irish lose, it will be the first time in Notre Dame history the football has started out, 0-4.

David Schaper, NPR News.

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