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Football Commentary: There’s one group to thank for the Irish revival

Mike Gilloon | Friday, November 17, 2006

It took them a little while to get going, not that that was surprising. A few freshman struggles are expected. A legendary program’s ineptness isn’t.

Notre Dame football didn’t know how to win when Brady Quinn of Dublin, Ohio, and Tom Zbikowski of Arlington Heights, Ill., and John Carlson of Litchfield, Minn. and Jeff Samardzija of Valparaiso, Ind. and Victor Abiamiri and Ambrose Wooden of Baltimore, Md., entered school four years ago.

It was broken. One eight-game stretch aside, Notre Dame – the most prestigious football program in America – had been a national side note for 10 years.

Four years later, Quinn, Zbikowski and the rest of the Notre Dame football team is different.

It’s a winner.

The reason? It’s not Charlie Weis’ offense or faster players or longer grass. It’s one word.


This senior class is the toughest in school history. Not one group has endured more hard times. Not one group has turned those bad experiences into wins, wins and more wins.

It’s handled the pressure that goes along with being the most talented members of a team, even as freshmen, when Ryan Harris was starting at offensive tackle and Quinn was slotted at quarterback. It’s handled a firing that many didn’t agree with. It’s adjusted to a new coach and a new system.

And now, it’s paying off.

Notre Dame has a shot at a national title. Thank Kansas State. Thank Georgia. But most of all, thank these seniors.

They’re the reason that Irish fans can talk national title this late in the season for the first time in over 13 years.

That’s a long time for the greatest program in college football history to go without serious signs of life.

It’s these seniors that brought it back.

It’s Quinn, enduring sack after sack against Purdue as a freshman, only to toss touchdown after touchdown in West Lafayette two years later.

It’s Rhema McKnight, keeping mind and body fresh through injury and returning to the starting lineup a better player.

It’s Samardzija, growing his hair and his legend with each passing game.

It’s Zbikowski, reinventing the punt return from flashy to punishing.

There’s others too.

John Sullivan hated losing too much to let it happen on his watch. Wooden has taken more criticism than anyone; but all he does is pick his head up, smile and play. Chinedum Ndukwe doesn’t get the publicity of his pro boxing secondary mate, but he hits just as hard.

These seniors have gone from Insight Bowl losers to one of the most publicized, recognized and successful groups of college football players in America. Of course, no matter how talented and tough everyone else is, nothing would have come together without Quinn.

Dublin Coffman’s favorite alum, the senior quarterback couldn’t have known what was in store for him. His freshman year, Quinn was interviewed on ESPN’s “The Season: Notre Dame Football” after highly touted recruits and brothers Chris and Greg Olsen had just quit the Irish squad.

“Why would anyone want to leave here?” he wondered.

After Saturday, Quinn won’t be back. He’ll be off in some big city, winning NFL games and calling Weis on the weekends looking for pointers. Maybe they’ll talk about the class that started it all – that took a dormant program back to its rightful place.

Quinn and his fellow seniors stuck it out – past Willingham’s firing, Kent Baer’s one game as head coach and the Urban Meyer search.

They endured beatings at the hands of Pittsburgh, Boston College and BYU; records of 5-7 and 6-6; blowouts at home to USC and Florida State.

They were the future of a program with not much of a future.

They didn’t listen when everyone said Notre Dame football was done, was just like everyone else.

They leave here Saturday, with legacy intact. But they aren’t finished.

A young Ryan Harris said he wanted a few national championships by the time he graduated. An older Harris and his classmates just might get one.

They’ve come too far to stop now.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Mike Gilloon at [email protected]