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Tradition creates undue pressure

Eric Prister | Monday, October 4, 2010

CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. — “If we spent time listening to what people say about us, we’d have to crawl under a table. We can’t handle the big picture stuff. We’re just interested totally on what we can do every day to get better, and that’s really the honest answer.”

After Notre Dame’s 31-13 victory over Boston College, Brian Kelly responded as such to comments by ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit, who before the game had compared the Irish defense to that of a high school team. And while the defense was likely not aware of what Herbstreit said, Kelly’s response to the comments reflects something much bigger.

Throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, the mystique of Notre Dame’s football program grew at an even pace with its success. The Irish won national championships, and in the process solidified a tradition unlike any other.

But after being left out of the national championship in 1993, Lou Holtz’s departure after the 1996 season and three coaches who led the Irish to various degrees of mediocrity, Notre Dame, on paper, is no longer the football powerhouse it once was. But the mystique remains.

Somewhere along the line, Notre Dame football transformed from being competition and entertainment, and became a way of life. It somehow took on a pseudo-religious feel, with holy days twelve Saturdays each year.

And so, the pressure builds. Each year that Notre Dame fails to win its first national championship since 1988, the mythical status of Notre Dame teams of yore becomes greater, while the progress of the actual team playing the games week after week may or may not change.

This seems to be a unique, or at least rare, situation for a college athlete to be in. Certainly, players at programs like Alabama, Michigan and Texas face pressure week in and week out, but that pressure is simply to win, not to uphold the grand status of a program which is so yearning to be brought back to relevance.

The heightened pressure of the Notre Dame football program is not an excuse for underachieving coaches and teams, but it should at least shed some light on what the average Irish player feels as he takes the field each week, and the kind of attitude keeping Notre Dame from its long-awaited ‘Return to Glory.’

The pressure of the program is by no means a completely conscious thing. Notre Dame players are not worried, in the middle of the play, about defending the standards of Notre Dame football, or about how this one play will affect their chances at a national championship. But the pressure is there.

It is very difficult for players to consistently perform at a high level when they are unable to simply relax and play. Not only the game, but the season and the very tradition of the program is at stake each and every play, and that wears on players and teams.

But Brian Kelly’s comment, responding to Kirk Herbstreit, is exactly the attitude that can buck the trend.

‘Taking it one game at a time’ is the sports cliché to end all sports clichés, but it contains a nugget of wisdom, especially for an Irish program with so many intangibles. Kelly is right; if Notre Dame players thought about all the things that are being said about them — by students, alumni, fans and analysts — they would need to crawl under a table to get away from the immense pressure, something that many teams over the past 15 years have done.

Why is it that Notre Dame teams perennially underachieve? Why does it always seem like the Irish have trouble focusing right when they should be concentrating the most? Could it possibly be because they are unable to focus on the situation at hand without adding in the rest of the tradition that is at stake?

During a post-game interview, Dayne Crist said that Notre Dame is “just trying to be masters of our own destiny, take it one game at a time and do everything we can to get wins.”

Maybe Kelly’s attitude is rubbing off on his players. If that’s the case, then this Irish coach has a chance to return Notre Dame to the glory that so many want — a glory which he should try hard to make his players ignore.

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

Contact Eric Prister at [email protected]