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

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

We will hear more throughout this day on NPR News and, in fact, throughout this week on the new strategy in Afghanistan.

We will also keep you up-to-date on other stories, including this one from my home state of Indiana. Notre Dame is looking for a new football coach. Earlier this week, the university fired Charlie Weis after a run of disappointing seasons. Our commentator Frank Deford says Notre Dame needs more than a new coach.

FRANK DEFORD: So, Notre Dame fired Charlie Weis. But, okay, at some point, Notre Dame has to realize that its coaches are not the problem. 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. These subway alumni were now suburban commuters who'd gone to college, and they became primarily Eagle rooters, or Forty-Niner 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 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 moolah than this 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 their coach is.

INSKEEP: Commentator Frank Deford remains an independent voice as he joins us each Wednesday from member station WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

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