Monday, September 3, 2012

Despite Win, Fighting Irish Still Lost

By Joshua Duffy

Last week saw a particularly silly controversy (by college football standards) when former Irish great running back and current radio announcer Allen Pinkett said that what teams really needed to be successful was "a couple of criminals." He postulated those criminal types gave the team an edge that intimidated opponents and that a team "full of choirboys" wouldn't win many games.

Pretty much everybody acknowledged the stupidity of Pinkett's comments, and he was not allowed to broadcast Notre Dame's 50-10 laugher over Navy in Dublin, Ireland on Saturday. But what made these comments resonate more than they might have was the fact they came from a Notre Dame guy talking about Notre Dame. And when the Notre Dame name gets involved, people tend to go a little over the top.

For those who might not remember it, Notre Dame used to mean something. It was a higher state of intercollegiate being. They didn't just win — they did it the right way. High academic standards, national recruiting reach, only the best of the best. Rudy.

But it's been a while since those Irish glory years. The last bastion of Notre Dame greatness came under Lou Holtz in the early 1990s. The 1993 team finished 11-1 with a two-point home loss to Boston College costing them a shot at the national championship. (Great game if you can ever catch it on ESPN Classic, by the way.)

Since that 1993 season, the Irish have managed double-digits just twice, once in Tyrone Willingham's first season, the other in Charlie Weiss' second.

Not only have the wins not been there, but the top players haven't either. Prior to Michael Floyd and Harrison Smith going in the first round of the 2012 NFL draft, the previous Irish first-rounder was Brady Quinn, he of the dramatic fall in the 2007 draft. The Irish haven't had an offensive lineman drafted in the first round since center Jeff Faine in 2003, and the last player to come out of Notre Dame to make a Pro Bowl was Justin Tuck, taken in the third round by the New York Giants in 2005.

So if Notre Dame isn't exactly knocking on Alabama's door competitively, why is it that everything Irish still registers an 8 or 9 on the Tebow Scale of Unwarranted Media Coverage?

Is it the "tradition?" During the Navy game, CBS analyst Gary Danielson said people who questioned Notre Dame's relevance just didn't understand college football and the tradition involved. But are Knute Rockne and the Four Horsemen really what's going to drive recruits to South Bend?

Note to aging former players-turned-broadcasters — we don't exactly live in the tradition age any more.

Look at Oregon. Once nothing more than the place where that guy with the mustache used to run (Steve Prefontaine for the uninitiated), Oregon has largely risen to prominence thanks to its Nike-funded cool factor. Notre Dame may have tradition, but Oregon is unveiling a new uniform every third week, and the recruits want to be a part of it.

Besides, lots of places have tradition. Alabama has Bear Bryant. Michigan has Bo Schembechler. Ohio State has Woody Hayes.

But those schools don't have to just sell tradition. They have more — the promise of national competitive relevance, which is really where the money is at in the program marketing contest that is recruiting.

You used to win? That's great. I want to win now. And that's where Notre Dame falls short.

Mind you, I'm not saying Notre Dame can't compete on the level of Alabama. I'm saying they will have a much harder time doing it because they're still trying to live by a media-fueled self-image that just doesn't exist anymore. Regardless of what Danielson thinks, the world has changed in the last 20 years, and college sports have changed with them. Notre Dame may still be living off their TV money as a football independent, but the lack of place in a conference-dominated environment has put an artificially low ceiling on their potential achievement.

In the marketing game, it's not good enough to just have a good product; Your product has to be better by comparison to your main competitors. As a national program devoid of conference, Notre Dame's marketing context will always be the top of the national football food chain. One year, that could be Alabama and LSU. The next Texas or Oklahoma. Florida State, USC, Oregon — it doesn't matter who's up or who's down. Notre Dame is getting compared to the best.

Nobody can succeed in that environment. In the absence of a conference with which to form their schedule, Notre Dame is forced to overload with top teams from other conferences. This year, they have Michigan State, Michigan, Stanford, USC, and Oklahoma. Even games against BYU and Purdue could trip up Kelly's bunch.

In order to truly restore Notre Dame to a competitive level befitting their place in media, they have to take an honest look at themselves. Joining a conference won't make Notre Dame any less special. South Bend will always be hallowed ground, and Touchdown Jesus will always be one of the greatest monuments to college football.

But the Irish-against-the-world construction doesn't work anymore. The world changes, and those who fail to adapt get left behind. The Catholic church is having a hard time learning that lesson, and so is its flag-bearer in the world of American collegiate athletics. Whether they can evolve from there is a question they'll have to answer for themselves.

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