Two football seasons ago I got to see a Chicago football favorite, Tom Thayer speak. Currently, Thayer is a local radio analyst covering the Chicago Bears, and was a member of the ’85 Bears who won Super Bowl XX under Mike Ditka.
Thayer spent that season blocking for quarterback Jim McMahon and the great Walter Payton.
He was actually a last minute speaker, since the Bears’ president couldn’t make it all the sudden. Even better, with the start of football season near then, the cozy crowd at the Union League Club had football-related questions. I was just lucky to get in.
Most were Bears questions. “How good is Jay Cutler?” ... “Who was better Walter Payton or Gale Sayers?”
As it turned out, that luncheon speech then became an impromptu seminar on Notre Dame Football, after a few people asked basically, “What’s with Notre Dame Football these days?”
During that afternoon speech Thayer expressed what we usually hear about Notre Dame these days: optimism and confidence in the quality of players, but uncertainty about the season’s outcome.
Though Notre Dame has not come anywhere near a national championship in years, fans of the Irish still regard ND as big time football school and a name to be reckoned with. Sure, Notre Dame Football may not have scores of NFL Hall of Famers -- just a few like Joe Montana—but it shares a status similar to Duke Basketball in one important way.
Notre Dame came up from its bootstraps at the dawn of football, when its pioneer coach Knute Rockne assembled the program brick by brick, constructing a force that won six national championships and lost only 12 games in 12 years.
Moreover, the Rockne’s tradition was maintained for generations. Irish Football saw winning continue under other legendary coaches like Ara Parseghian and Frank Leahy, with ND Football later shepherded toward the 21st Century by Lou Holtz.
Meanwhile, the Fighting Irish became not just a football institution but a cultural institution for the American descendants of Ireland and Roman Catholics all over the Midwest.
It’s got a familiar ring to it, culture and sports. For generations starting in the 1950’s, Italian-Americans threw their unwavering support to the New York Yankees, largely because of their hero, the first ever Italian sports marvel, Joe DiMaggio. Likewise, the annual Army-Navy Game in Philadelphia became an establishment not because of good football, but because of the hordes of families whose lives were tied to these military institutions.
Sports/culture associations aren’t just an American thing; they are also common in Europe. Teams’ local rivalries are tied to divisions between Protestants and Catholics, seaside people and land lubbers, and even one iron worker’s union against the other. Yet Notre Dame's socio-cultural tie with its fans is unique in America.
As Thayer pointed out, he was a catholic school boy whose dream was to play football at the highest level. As a student at Joliet Catholic High, if you were going to play football, your aspiration if you were good enough, was to play Fighting Irish football.
Furthermore, this connection wasn’t one that happened because of blood or because the Pope in Rome said so. Over decades, another Notre Dame Football tradition was nurturing the relationship with catholic schools and their parishioners. Meanwhile, the Irish got the spoils: a near seamless recruiting system that could scout the young football talent early.
A ball signed by Lou Holtz, encouraging Notre Dame camaraderie, and enrollment.
Certainly for other schools, money and alumni support can be an equalizing factor, particularly for private schools like Stanford and USC. With sophistication and amenities, the overall offering of such football universities becomes quite attractive.
Meanwhile, big rival schools like Ohio State, Texas, and Alabama cast influence through regional favoritism or alumni activism, but often this was little match for Notre Dame’s social-cultural machine.
Money does help, and it must. After all, it’s not like Methodism is what brings the recruits to USC. But, Notre Dame has had a special pull others schools never have had.
Thayer didn’t say categorically what many Chicago Irish know: that Notre Dame Football hasn’t vigorously maintained its relationships and connections. Scouts don’t knock hard on the local parish doors as often, and Irish football has under-performed in recent years.
The arrival of Brian Kelly has shown some bright spots, finally, after some on and off good years under Charlie Weis. But with its 0-2 start going against Michigan State this weekend, ND doesn’t appear to have its rhythm down.
Within a few weeks we’ll see if the dome shines bright again in 2011, or if it will take some time to brush off the tarnish and get the nicks and dings out again.
Andy Frye writes about sports and life here and on The Bleacher Report and ESPN.com