Notre Dame Stadium is often called a “cathedral” of college football.
This is true, if you’re talking about the noise level.
If there is anything the past two weeks have revealed, it’s that Notre Dame does not have a serious football program. And no, Marcus Freeman is not to blame. Fault lines such as a lethargic stadium environment and a diminishing schedule date back way past the beginning of the Marcus Freeman era, but were largely masked by Brian Kelly’s genius. These faults quickly caused earthquakes once Freeman became coach and Notre Dame decided the football program was better off acting as reality TV stars instead of football players.
Notre Dame does not need to pretend they’re in “The Hangover” or help Peyton Manning produce his “Ghostbusters” spin-off segment to provide the entertainment fans desire. Marcus Freeman has already set himself up for an Emmy-winning drama this season by losing. Notre Dame stadium is Vatican West. The head coach position of Notre Dame is a pressure cooker unlike anything else in college football. You’re expected to win with “less”. The drama writes itself.
Some may be disappointed that the window of Notre Dame as an annual College Football Playoff contender closed. However, the excitement of bracing for a pummeling from Alabama or Clemson has quickly been replaced by the excitement of wondering if the Irish will beat Cal or whether or not Drew Pyne will throw it directly to an opposing linebacker. College football is entertainment, and Notre Dame football just got a whole lot more entertaining.
Again, the embarrassment Notre Dame experienced last week is not primarily Freeman’s fault. Sure, he could have coached better, but there’s no avoiding the learning curve a first-time head coach at Notre Dame experiences. Let’s just hope he learns more than previous first-timers here.
The unserious program that propped Freeman up on a mile-high cloud just so he could fall right through it is what’s at fault here. A serious program doesn’t play a hype video for a coach that’s 0-2 during the first quarter. A serious program doesn’t hold a “Victory March” pep rally while the team heads to the stadium to lose to a Sun Belt team. A serious program doesn’t let a massive herd of Marshall fans take up an entire lower bowl section and be louder than the home fans. A serious playoff contender doesn’t schedule an FCS opponent when it doesn’t have to play in a conference championship.
If Notre Dame were a serious program, it would make an effort to make the stadium environment intimidating. Put the bands back on the sideline during the game. Bring back the natural grass field. And, for the love of God, stop playing “Let Me Clear my Throat” before the fourth quarter. It’s unoriginal and nobody jumps. Still.
And just as Notre Dame stadium is losing its identity, the team also faces an identity crisis. On Saturday, the team will wear green jerseys with names on the back. The Irish have taken pride in the team-first symbolism of uniforms without names since the Lou Holtz days. Now here we are with names on the backs of the jerseys for a game against Cal that feels like a toss-up. We can only assume Cal was chosen for the green jersey game because the program decided the Golden Bears lacked the talent for a “Bush Push”-esque disaster. Well, maybe that was a miscalculation. Notre Dame has a swagger that it so far has not come close to living up to.
This Irish team talks a big game and then looks lost on the field. Sure, it’s great that assistant coaches take responsibility during press conferences. Linebacker and captain Bo Bauer’s proclaimed willingness to die for his team is inspiring. It’s great that the video of the team celebrating Freeman’s promotion to head coach exists. But the hype is over. Stop talking and buckle down.
It’s time to get serious.
Ohio State did not care about Notre Dame’s feel-good offseason. Heck (and with all due respect to the thriving Sun Belt), Marshall didn’t either.
Since Marcus Freeman became head coach, Notre Dame has spent a ton of time worrying about every detail that doesn’t have to do with their actual play. Golden throne photoshoot backdrops don’t teach you how to tackle. Green jerseys don’t make your offensive line open up the run game. Opening up more players and staff to the media doesn’t cause your defense to force turnovers. Jersey reveals don’t strengthen ball security. Pregame Mass doesn’t seem to improve quarterback play.
Notre Dame needs to go back to the basics. They need to stop worrying about how they can get a seat at the big boy table with Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State and instead make sure they don’t fall out of their chair at the kids’ table.
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The views expressed in this Inside Column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.