Column: Notre Dame’s Rise, and Fall

Football struggles, but academic reputation grows stronger
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

The Michigan Wolverines might have the most wins in college football history, and the highest winning percentage, but the Wolverines have never captured the nation’s imagination like the Fightin’ Irish of Notre Dame.

Notre Dame’s success is partly the Wolverines’ fault. Knute Rockne wanted to get his Fightin’ Irish into the Big Ten in the worst way – but Michigan’s Fielding Yost wanted to keep them out even…worser.

Yost probably expected Rockne to take his team and go home – but Rockne had other ideas. He took his team to Chicago and Boston, which had large Catholic populations, and built a following. He also scheduled games in Yankee Stadium – in front of the national media – and in Los Angeles, in front of Hollywood hot-shots.

And that’s why Notre Dame didn’t shrink without the Big Ten, but grew into the only college team with a national following. The sports writers told tales of The Four Horseman, while the movie makers immortalized the Irish with films from “Knute Rockne: All American” – starring young Ronald Reagan as the Gipper – to “Rudy.”

It took Father Ted Hesburgh, Notre Dame’s president from 1952 to 1987, to figure out how to leverage Notre Dame’s success in football to success in academia. What started out as a Podunk private school that would accept live cattle for tuition – I am not making that up – is now among the most respected universities in the world.

But, while Notre Dame’s academic reputation has been steadily rising, the reputation of its football team – which made it all possible – has been steadily falling. The Irish earned at least one national title every decade from the ’20s to the ’80s – 11 total – but haven’t won another since 1988. Worse, Notre Dame has fired three head coaches in the last eight years – including Charlie Weis, just last week.

Part of the problem is Notre Dame’s tradition – which makes them think they can hire just about anyone and he’ll succeed, because it’s Notre Dame. How else can you explain the hiring of Gerry Faust in 1981 from Cincinnati – Moeller High School in Cincinnati, that is? Faust had not coached a single college game, and it showed. He flamed out in five years.

Faust’s successor, Lou Holtz, left the Notre Dame Fightin’ Irish for the South Carolina Gamecocks, under a cloud of suspicion.

After firing two more coaches, Notre Dame had to go searching again in 2005. But, to their surprise, the coach they really wanted, Urban Meyer – who was named after Pope Urban, fer cryin’ out loud – didn’t really want to work for a school that fired its last coach after just three seasons.

Michigan fans, take note.

So, they hired Charlie Weis, a Notre Dame alum whose reputation was built more on hope and hype than any actual accomplishments – a man who had never played or coached a down of college football. His greatest victory at Notre Dame, the joke goes, was a loss to top-ranked Southern Cal by just three points. The Irish were so impressed by this close call, they signed Weis that month, in the middle of his first season, to a 10-year extension worth tens of millions, to make sure he couldn’t go anywhere else. Well, be careful what you wish for.

But there is good news for Notre Dame: U.S. News and World Report just ranked Notre Dame the 18th best university in the country – a higher ranking than the football team has enjoyed in years.

Coach Rockne must be spinning – but Father Ted must be thrilled.

About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the New York Times, and ESPN Magazine, among others. His most recent book is “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller. Bacon teaches at Miami of Ohio, Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, and the University of Michigan, where the students awarded him the Golden Apple Award for 2009. This commentary originally aired on Michigan Radio.