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All that’s left is playing for pride

Andrew Soukup | Friday, October 31, 2003

Two years ago on a dark November night, a first-year starting linebacker sounded off his football team to anyone would listen.

At that time, the Irish were 3-5, hot seat and head coach were synonyms, a bowl game was a distant possibility and student support for the team had disappeared faster than girls after parietals.

So Courtney Watson teed off.

“From the beginning, you’re playing for pride,” the then-junior shouted. “People try to come in and tell you you’re playing for pride, but that’s all you had to begin with, anyway.”

As Notre Dame fans know, the Irish went on to finish 2001 5-7, their second losing record in three years, and Bob Davie was sent packing to an ESPN broadcast booth. Notre Dame hired Tyrone Willingham, started his inaugural season 8-0 and temporarily contented Irish fans.

Two years later, Watson, now an established leader of a once-vaunted defensive unit, stood outside a locker room in Boston trying to explain why his team lost. Conversation inevitably turned to what the Irish, now teetering on the brink of yet another losing season, would find as motivation.

The scene was different, but the words were the same.

“You have to have some pride when you play the rest of the season,” he said.

There was that word again. Pride.

It’s a word that never seems to pop up when a team finds itself among the upper echelon of college football teams. It’s a word that always seems to pop up when fans do their best Chicago Cubs imitation and mutter, “Wait ’till next year.”

And that’s what’s happening to Notre Dame again this year, for the third time in five years. While Irish players spout off about playing for pride in Year 2 of the Tyrone Willingham Era, Irish fans are already thinking ahead to Year 3.

Players may talk about how they always play for pride, but nobody was talking about pride when the season started. Nobody said in the preseason that winning a game – one game – would constitute a significant achievement, like the Irish were saying last weekend.

Ask any football play what they are currently playing for, pride or a national championsip. Those that chose a title are probably in contention for one. Those that don’t aren’t.

It’s funny how the two often go hand-in-hand, where success on the gridiron leads to so-called pride off of it. But when success disappears, so does pride.

That leaves seniors like Watson trying to find some meaning, any meaning, in this train wreck of a season.

Notre Dame used to have so much pride it would turn down Jan. 1 bowl games. Now, a program that hasn’t won a bowl game in a decade would leap at the chance this year to play in the Super Pub and Cheese Bowl presented by CJs.

“A lot of times, all you can talk about is the negatives if you’re having a season like this. But there are a lot of positives,” Watson said two years ago.

Except that nobody wants to talk about positives. Not fans, who are streaming out of Notre Dame Stadium before the band plays the 1812 Overture. Not media, who has shown more interest in covering grass growing than covering Notre Dame’s “Return to Mediocrity.” Not coaches, who are too busy trying to explain how the L’s keep piling up.

And not players, who know that the only time you say you’re playing for pride is when you have nothing else to play for.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer. Contact Andrew Soukup at asoukup@nd.edu.