Why I am cheering for "Old Notre Dame"

College sports is totally out of hand.

The very idea that college kids engaged in an extra-curricular activity generate millions of dollars for their school by using their bodies to achieve athletic excellence in team sports is crazy.

Don't get me wrong, I love college football. I watch March Madness with the same interest as everyone else. I just think it's insane that adult administrators and boards of trustees  put gigantic amounts of pressure on their 18-22 year old students to perform well so that their endowments can get richer while those students reap no monetary reward.

Sure, some athletes get a free college education and that is a wonderful gift. However, when many of the top athletic schools lag in undergraduate academics, and they push their athletes to take junk, easy courses, what real value is the free degree?

Over the past 25 years, college football has moved from a game based on tradition and college towns to one based on corporate sponsorship, recruiting scandals, big network television deals, NFL development and dumbed-down academics.

It was not always this way. The early years of organized college football saw Ivy League schools, military academics, coveted private institutions and the top academic state schools in the country win football national championships. These schools won with football teams made up of scholar-athletes, most of whom graduated with excellent grades and went on to be very successful in life beyond the gridiron.

Things began to change after World War II and by the 1960s, college football had become a mainstream national interest. With the wide use of television, college football began to gain more fans as did many other sports that had previously been of only regional interest.

By the 1990s and 2000s, it was widely accepted that institutions that refused to compromise their academic standards in exchange for recruiting the largest, most talented high school football players could not compete at a high level in the current bowl system.

The Bowl Championship Series (BCS) solidified this perception when it singled out only 6 conferences that could automatically send teams to play in major bowl games and for a national championship. It allowed for outsiders and independents to squeeze in (as a few have), but made it clear that only certain "big money" conferences would be invited to the biggest bowls because they housed schools that were willing to water down elements of their undergraduate academics and could draw upon large alumni bases to sell tickets.

The 90s, 2000s and the BCS era seemed to put an end to the idea of a scholar-athlete. No longer could a respected academic institution compete for high profile bowl games or national championships. No longer could they recruit top football talent from across the country. No longer would they be relevant.

However, something unexpected has started to happen lately. Academically successful schools once assumed to be graveyards of past football glory started to have winning seasons.

Navy has only had one losing season in the last 10 years. Just two years ago, Army won it's first bowl game in 25 years. Northwestern has gone to 5 straight bowl games and finally won one this season. Stanford has made a bowl in 4 of the last 5 seasons and has now won two major bowl games in 3 years. While not suffering from the same drought as other schools, Michigan football returned to national prominence last season with a Sugar Bowl win.

Then there is Notre Dame. A football program with a die-hard national fan-base, affectionately known as "domers", after the schools famous Golden Dome atop it's main administration building. Without even asking, a "domer" will ask you if you watch college football. If you say yes, they will immediately remind you of their 11 national championships, their seven Heisman Trophy winners and all their alumni who play or played in the NFL. Other than fans of the Packers, Steelers, Cowboys, Patriots, Cubs, Cardinals, Yankees, Canadiens and Lakers; there are no fan bases quite as large or in your face about their team than ND.

The school's football program has a staggering 97% graduation rate, top in the NCAA. Their cumulative student-athlete GPA are perennially near or above 3.0.

This is not supposed to happen. Northwestern, Notre Dame, Standford, Navy, etc. These schools are not supposed to be able to recruit decent talent anymore. They didn't play by the rules of the past 25 years by watering down their academics. They hired coaches who weren't supposed to be interested in taking on such "career killings" jobs. What the hell?

Let's not pretend that these schools have never let a bad-boy slide (Tommy Reis, Michael Floyd anyone?). And let's not pretend that the Southeastern Conference is full of joke schools. Some SEC schools have relatively high graduation marks for their athletes, too.

But Notre Dame football has done something this season that was unthinkable just a few years ago. An independent, private university, with high academic standards, operating outside of a major conference recruited a winning head coach, talented players and won every game on their schedule over a 12 game stretch and was unanimously selected to play for a national championship.

They are underdogs to Alabama, as they should be. There will be millions of sports fans rooting against Notre Dame. Some oppose Notre Dame because they think Irish fans are arrogant and snooty. Some think the Irish are over-rated. Some say non-conference schools shouldn't get to play by their own rules and compete for titles. And there are some who are bigots who just don't like Catholics.

Unless, you have a reason to be diametrically opposed to the Irish tonight, I encourage you to root for them.

That includes you, Stanford and Michigan fans.

An Irish win, combined with Stanford's Rose Bowl victory and Northwestern's first bowl win since the 1949, would mark a new era in college sports. It would mean that conferences are no longer king makers and academically excellent schools can still compete for championships in sports.

A Notre Dame win would prove to high school athletes all over the country that they can stop choosing between academics and athletics because once more there would be places where you can achieve excellence in both.

A Notre Dame loss does not extinguish these hopes, particularly if they play a close game,

If you don't know who to root for but want a reason to cheer for someone, cheer cheer for Old Notre Dame, if you still think colleges and universities in America should primarily focus on academics.

Perhaps today's BCS title game can begin a new era in college sports, one that returns the classroom to our attention.

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