Well, it is ten years after 9/11/01, but like many Notre Dame fans, though I’m trying to watch the news coverage, I can’t stop thinking about last night’s loss to Michigan.
I’m pretty hard core when it comes to following ND football. My parents met on a train going to see Notre Dame play Alabama in the Sugar Bowl in 1973. I went to at least one game a year through most of my childhood, and you know what I remember? Domination. I used to wear a T-shirt to school that said ‘Decade of Dominance’ which highlighted ten straight years of beating Southern Cal. ND was in the running for the national championship year in and year out. Two-loss seasons were failures.
But all that has changed. Now any bowl win at all is reason for relieved celebration. We got very excited this past year about Notre Dame beating USC for the first time in many years, but it wouldn’t have happened without a late dropped TD pass by the Trojans. There have been miserably bad losses to teams like Tulsa, UConn, and even Navy–a team to which ND hadn’t lost in several decades. Many of us thought ND had things turned around last year with four wins in a row against some fairly good teams. But with two painful losses to an average South Florida team and a very clearly below average Michigan team to open the season, it seems as if unhappy days are here again.
So what’s going on here?
One meme is that Notre dame can’t get the players it once did because of higher admissions standards and the lack of typical draws for college kids in South Bend, Indiana. But in addition to schools like Stanford disproving this myth, the numbers themselves don’t lie: by every standard out there Notre Dame continues to get top-10 talent out of high school. But it has not been anywhere near a top-10 team.
Last night I started to believe that the team was cursed. Yes, cursed. I’m also a Chicago Cubs fan (God help us) and if there is one thing we know about, other than heart break, it is about curses. Nine turnovers in two games to start this year? The Bush push? Fumbles that go out of bounds to stop the clock rather than stay in bounds? Safeties randomly falling down on fake field goals? There was a play last night which was maybe the best argument for a curse: ND absolutely stuffed a Michigan running back, hit him so hard that he fumbled, and the fumble randomly bounced back to the quarterback, and the quarterback walked into the endzone for a touchdown. I’ve watched a lot of football over the years, and I can’t ever remember anything like that happening.
But actually, I don’t believe in curses…and, even if I did, I’m not sure its the best explanation as there have been breaks that have gone our way (see USC dropping the pass above). So, what’s left as an explanation?
I keep on coming back to the mental part of the game. Our players just seem to play scared–especially when things start going badly. They play timid, and play not to lose. They seem to have the weight of the world on their shoulders and are willing to let things happen rather playing with an aggressive, attacking, take-no-prisoners confidence. Some have blamed the coaching for this, but Brian Kelly (the current coach) has been very successful at getting others players at other schools to play with aggressive, attacking confidence. Perhaps, as some posters on at NDNation have said, one can trace this back to the university’s cultural formation (emphasis added):
Basically ND gets good players but the atmosphere softens them. He mentioned that he spoke with a player this week who said he came to ND with a chip on his shoulder but no longer has it. He mentioned something about coaches at ND saying basically the same thing about the atmosphere at ND versus other places where they’ve coached.
I think ND has transformed itself into Disneyland for home games the past 20 years and the changes in the makeup of the student body and basic rules of conduct the past 25 years has gradually transformed ND into a much softer place. ND used to be a male dominated school well into the 80’s mixed with lots of drinking and a lot less political correctness. That’s not ND today. It doesn’t make ND a bad place, but it does make ND a place that softens the edges of many players over the 4 years they are there. The reduced practice time allowed now also reduces the ability for any coach to beat that soft crap out of his players when he gets them in his hands away from the safety of the main campus environment.
How can they not have a chip on their shoulder? How can our coaches not promote an ‘us vs. them’ mentality when the polarizing nature of ND football just screams ‘us vs. them’? It baffles me….these are our football players, not our ushers, PR specialists, fundraiser or chaplain team. We should fucking hate everyone we play. In Christ’s name, amen.
ND puts so much emphasis on the academic, spiritual, residential, etc. (and I’m treading lightly here), that we inevitably deemphasize the importance of performing on the field.
Not an excuse, but I remember that the brawling ND teams were squelched because the fighting was ’embarrassing’ the University.
The teams that I remember watching growing up were edgy. They were ready to brawl. They had a big chip on their shoulder. They were not going to be intimidated. Growing up in Wisconsin, I also happen to be a Green Bay Packer fan, and I remember the kinds of things that Mike Homlgren (who some thought of as a ‘finesse’ coach) told his team on their way to winning the superbowl:
“We can beat these guys, but it’s not about outsmarting them or having a better scheme,” he told his players. “Football is about kicking someone’s ass. Football is about physically pounding the opponent. If you want to win this game, you have to beat the crap out of these guys.”
He’s right. That’s what it is. And top-tier football players have to have to be formed in in this way, don’t they? And, as we know from our virtue ethics, it takes a whole community to form someone’s character–it isn’t just about the immediate ‘family’ (in this case the football team). The broader university must contribute to the forming the kind of person. But as the posts above (and my own experience) indicates, the University of Notre Dame seems to be forming its student-athletes as different kinds of people. People that the posters above call ‘soft’ and ‘politically correct’, but that, I think, we might call ‘ethical’ or ‘Christian.’ This seems to be incompatible with the kind of violent character necessary to play football at a high level.
So, in light of all this, let me ask the question once again…but slightly augmented. Should a Christian university have a top-tier football program?