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Earning the mystique

Observer Editorial | Friday, October 14, 2005

The unparalleled NBC contract. The fervent subway alumni. The insatiable ESPN talking heads. There’s no question Notre Dame football is used to being in the national spotlight. But does the program still deserve it?

As thousands of fans pour into South Bend, tickets hawk for $2,000 and Lee Corso sets up shop under the gaze of Touchdown Jesus this weekend, that’s a valid question to consider. The flood of attention is no surprise with the No. 1 Trojans in town – but in recent years, the Notre Dame-USC rivalry has been a decidedly one-sided affair.

Three consecutive 31-point embarrassments left the Irish hanging their heads, and this year’s Southern California team, just as talented as its predecessors, poses a formidable challenge. Yet analyst after analyst is picking the Irish Saturday, drawing on a collection of intangibles that’s most frequently packaged as the “Notre Dame mystique.”

While each tweaks the definition of that mystique to his or her liking, it generally comes down to the unknown-Catholic-school, traveling-Rockne-draws-recognition, Navy-bails-us-out, Hesburgh-expands-from-just-a-football-school narrative. Cue the black and white photo montage and “Here Come the Irish.”

One problem: Mystique doesn’t win football games.

And without a national championship since 1988, Notre Dame is moving further and further away from the concrete accomplishments that gave its mystique weight. Given that gap, it’s entirely understandable that the first numbers many now highlight to describe the University are no longer seven Heisman trophies and 11 national titles, but a top 20 U.S. News and World Report ranking and a 1379 average SAT score. Notre Dame hasn’t been solely a football factory for 30 years, and the nation knows it.

And yet.

And yet campus is swarming with tourists, ticket scalpers and television cameras. And yet the recruits are signing up and stopping by at a frightening pace. And yet a win Saturday would result in more euphoria and exultation than any academic distinction could ever inspire.

Put it this way: cheap motel rooms weren’t going for $499 a night on University President Father John Jenkins’ recent inauguration weekend.

That’s no knock on Jenkins. It’s no knock on academics, Catholicism, residential tradition or any of Notre Dame’s other areas of distinction. It’s just an acknowledgment that – for now at least – no matter what the team’s record, Notre Dame football still uniquely galvanizes a national audience.

Whether that audience has infinite patience for another national title is anyone’s guess. But to prove the program deserves the hype surrounding this weekend, Notre Dame football has to be more than a tradition that runs deep in the University’s veins. While the present can never match the past, it can certainly do some catching up – and coach Charlie Weis’ attempts to build a proud, winning team and cohesive, intimidating fan base are a definite start.

Creating a present deserving of the glory heaped on the past will not be easy – but that challenge is far preferable to discovering what would happen to Notre Dame if the football mystique ran out.