McGuinness: After Ohio State loss, will Irish fans start asking themselves the tough questions?
Andrew McGuinness | Monday, September 25, 2023
This one was supposed to be different.
Yeah, fans of long downtrodden sports teams say that a lot. Basically every time a chance to change their team’s perception arises. Saturday night was certainly one of those opportunities for Notre Dame football. Notre Dame was no longer missing the elite quarterback. The Irish didn’t have an inexperienced head coach this time around. Their young players contributed on several occasions.
Yet when the dust settled, the Irish found themselves in the same spot as they have in too many of these moments over the last 30 years. They were close to beating No. 6 Ohio State. Really close. One-yard, one-play close. They didn’t do it. They lost. Again.
Those who are new to campus, whether as freshmen without prior Notre Dame connections or visitors willing to pay the necessary arm and leg to see what turned out to be a college football classic, left Saturday’s game humbled. They slumped their shoulders and shrugged at friends with an awkward, half-hearted smile. They made self-deprecating jokes, looked ahead to the rest of the schedule and tried to figure out the odds of the Irish still making the College Football Playoff.
It was easy to tell them apart from the die-hards because you could actually make eye contact with them. Those who have been here before, and before and before and before, aren’t the ones who explode. They reached that step in the five stages of grief a while ago. They’ve cycled through it numerous times during the however many decades they’ve been following Irish football, whether they can remember the 1988 national championship or the 1993 Cotton Bowl or reaching No. 1 in 2012. There’s nothing you can say to them to make Saturday’s loss hurt less. Anything you say will just make it worse. It’s not you, it’s us — we promise.
I know this, of course, because I am one. One is also the age I was the first time I attended a Notre Dame football game (I do not remember it). I was at the 2012 Michigan game, the 2017 Georgia game and the 2018 Playoff game. I announced the UNLV game last year for WVFI, Notre Dame’s student radio network, on an hour of sleep after rushing to catch a Saturday morning red-eye back from fall break.
Why didn’t I just fly home Friday night? Well, you see, I’m not just a die-hard Irish fan. Allow me to share a personal anecdote for a moment, I promise it comes back to Saturday’s game.
I’m the same way for Notre Dame football as I am for the Philadelphia Phillies. I’ve got a deep childhood connection with them, too — the Phillies won the 2008 World Series on my seventh birthday. Much like those childhood trips to campus, it drew me in to an extent you have to live to fully understand.
Then, for 10 straight years, the Phillies missed the postseason. From fifth grade through my sophomore year of high school, the Phillies achieved nothing. Worse, I was too young during the team’s preceding run of success to savor what it all felt like. Every year, the season ended and I felt no joy. Between Sept. 18, 2011 and Oct. 2, 2022, every other Major League Baseball team clinched a postseason berth. I watched on with a hand covering the frown forcing its way across my face and (unsuccessfully) tried to conjure what meaningful happiness from my baseball team would feel like.
Last year, on Sept. 30, I remember walking through North Dining Hall and clearly thinking, “If they miss the postseason again, I need to have a hard conversation with myself about whether this is worth it.” The Phillies were collapsing to the league-worst Nationals, about to lose for the 11th time in 15 games and inch closer to the precipice of the most epic collapse I’d seen yet. I’m (barely) self-aware enough to realize I’m in too deep to ever back away from them, that I’d be back for Opening Day 2023 whether they won the World Series or didn’t win another game. It just might not have been quite the same if I still had no joyful memories to cling to.
Three days later, the Phillies popped champagne as I skipped to the Grotto to light a celebratory candle as 4,014 days’ worth of clouds finally lifted. The Phillies would wind up reaching the World Series, but that, although amazing, was never the point. To me, it was always just proving the heartbreak they had become known for wasn’t permanent.
Here’s the thing, though — for some teams, it is. Or at the very least, it’s long enough to feel that way. The Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox may have kissed their 108 and 86-year title droughts goodbye. Yet there were many people who lived good, long lives cheering for these teams and never saw them clear the final hurdle. The Miami Marlins haven’t played a postseason game in front of fans since I was a year old. My mom was younger than I was the last time the Toronto Maple Leafs reached the Stanley Cup Final. I complain about only having seen two championships to my Boston fan friends. But if I was a Minnesota sports fan instead of a Philadelphia one, I’d still never have seen one in my lifetime.
Which brings us back to the Irish.
It’s been 35 years since Notre Dame last won a title. It’s been 30 since it last won a major Bowl game. The Irish have only played for a championship once in the interval and the way that game ended made many fans feel worse than the years when they didn’t even come close. Every time it feels like the Irish have a chance to erase the negative stereotypes surrounding the program for good, old habits die hard.
The connection with college sports teams is often more intimate than with professional teams. I live close to the Phillies ballpark, but not the stone’s throw away Siegfried Hall is from Notre Dame Stadium. People make meaningful friends and fulfill achievements during college in such a way that is impossible for many to disassociate from the University as a whole — athletics included.
Yet there are plenty of Notre Dame students and alumni who aren’t heartbroken right now. They wish the Irish would’ve won, but only for their friends and family. They have their own sources of joy and heartbreak, but they don’t rely on a college football team they have no control over to determine that.
Putting it in words makes the whole concept seem illogical. But then you get a moment like the Clemson upsets of the last few years, the adrenaline rushes back and the gears of hypothetical success begin to turn. And then the rubber meets the road sooner than hoped and the process begins again.
The Ohio State game was supposed to be different. Maybe it actually is — just not the way anticipated. This loss, on top of everything that has happened to Notre Dame football and college football as a whole over the last few years, has a chance to be the breaking point. Many are not thrilled with the direction the sport is heading in and that’s before considering the focus on name, image and likeness (NIL) and social media doesn’t exactly play to Notre Dame’s strengths. The Irish are trying — Saturday was as raucous as Notre Dame Stadium has been in a long time. The green out largely kept Buckeye fans out, at least relative to the Georgia debacle of a few years ago.
Everyone has a breaking point. Maybe this loss is to Irish fans what that aforementioned late-September Phillies defeat last year was for me — the final disappointment before a long overdue breakthrough. Right now, it’s hard to think of that though.
The Notre Dame fanbase, for its own wellness or weakness, will remain strong on the whole. For some individuals, though, things will never be the same. The Irish lost a devastating football game on Saturday. But it pales in comparison to the goodwill of this once hopeful but now downtrodden fanbase that just keeps slipping further and further away.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.