Ten years from now, maybe 20, we're going to look back at Notre Dame and we're going to laugh. We'll laugh at Notre Dame or at ourselves or at college football, or at the quirks of fate. Most of all we'll laugh at the idea, as preposterous as it will sound in 10 or 20 years, that Notre Dame was once the dominant program in college football.
There is precedent for this sort of thing. I give you Exhibit A: Army.
For those of you who don't know, sit down, because this will come as a shock. Back in the day, Army was the dominant program in college football. Army won three national championships, most recently in 1944 and '45. Army players won three Heisman Trophies, most recently Pete Dawkins in 1958. Once upon a time, Army football was everything.
Once upon a time, Army was Notre Dame.
Soon enough, Notre Dame will become Army.
It's not Notre Dame's fault, so if there are any Notre Dame fans out there feeling angry -- assuming there are still Notre Dame fans out there at all -- don't be mad at me. Notre Dame hasn't screwed up. Notre Dame hasn't changed. The world has changed around it, much as the world changed around Army 50 years ago.
In hindsight, Army's demise makes all kinds of sense. Over time, surely affected by the horror stories out of World War II, teenagers fell out of love with joining the U.S. Army. Kids worried less about our country's military might and more about themselves -- not that there's anything wrong with that -- and that hurt Army football. Playing for Army meant serving in the army, and by the 1960s, that connection had killed Army football. Kids might still have wanted to play for Army, but they were no longer dying to do it.
It makes sense. And in a decade or two, when Notre Dame is done, it will make sense as well. The foundation that helped create the Notre Dame monster has eroded, and Notre Dame is too enormous, too monstrous, to nimbly scramble its way back to the top. It simply can't happen. And it won't.
Just like with Army football, the evolution of America is killing Notre Dame. The most influential person in the world is no longer the Pope. The Catholic Church is no longer dictating how our country acts, so what chance does it have to influence where our best young football talent plays? It has no chance. The number of Catholic kids is dwindling, and their draw to Notre Dame is dying. You don't have to like it, but don't pretend it's not a fact.
The media is less likely to give Notre Dame any favors, either. Notre Dame has won seven Heisman Trophies, including five in an incredible 14-year stretch capped by Paul Hornung's rip-off in 1956. The message being sent to players back then was incredible: If you want to be the best, or even if you're not the best but want to be called the best, go to Notre Dame. In 1964 a decent Notre Dame quarterback named John Huarte won the school's sixth Heisman in 22 years. Huarte's top receiver, Jack Snow, finished fifth. Such was the spell of Notre Dame.
|Sorry, Charlie, but your team is headed the way of Army football. (Getty Images)|
And he'll be the last.
Because the world has changed around Notre Dame.
It's no coincidence that Notre Dame football was at its best before the integration of college football. According to Gallup polling research, there are 33 million Catholics in the United States -- but only 7 percent are black. What does that tell you? It tells you that back in the day when college football was mostly white, and the Catholic church was in power, that the best (available) recruits would naturally take a hard look at Notre Dame.
John Huarte won Notre Dame's sixth Heisman Trophy in 1964, remember. All six winners were white. Within a few years, college football was completely integrated. There was no going back. And for Notre Dame, there is no going forward.
Tradition only lasts so long, and for Notre Dame it's fabulous tradition carried into the 1970s and seeped somewhat into the '80s thanks to Lou Holtz's creative interpretation of the NCAA rulebook. But Lou Holtz begat Bob Davie begat Ty Willingham begat Charlie Weis, and Notre Dame's tradition is in the rear-view mirror -- an object that's not nearly as close as it appears. Today's typical high school junior, born in 1992, has seen Notre Dame go 84-48-1 in his lifetime. That's not bad, but a recruit can go to Ole Miss and do that.
Imagine being that recruit. Imagine being an elite catch from the high school class of 2010, and taking five recruiting visits as October turns into November of 2009. You hit Southern California. Florida. Alabama. Texas. Notre Dame.
The weather is great in four of those cities. In Notre Dame it's cold and snowing, plus it's hard to get to, unless you enjoyed that mind-numbing, three-hour drive up a local highway from the Indianapolis airport to the Notre Dame campus. Today's recruit wants his high-speed Internet and his music on demand. He wants his cell phone. He wants simplicity, and nothing about Notre Dame is simple. Not getting there. Not getting into the school. Not the weather. And definitely not winning. Not anymore.
Sorry about that, Notre Dame. But you'll always have the 1960s.