McGuinness: Notre Dame makes history this weekend, which will always be its main goal
Andrew McGuinness | Friday, September 1, 2023
Notre Dame football games have been more than just football games for decades. The Irish have millions of fans across all 50 states and, as everyone was reminded of last weekend, the world. They have won the fourth-most championships of any team in the sport (and rank second if you exclude schools who haven’t won at least one title since 1930). They have a record seven Heisman Trophy winners. From mind-boggling statistics to iconic moments to countless gameday events, few schools can rival the pageantry of a fall Saturday in South Bend.
Of course, Notre Dame’s history goes well beyond the gridiron. The Irish are the only college football team to have played in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, the three biggest cities in the U.S., in the same season. The Irish just returned from playing in Ireland for the third time. Heck, the Irish have even played in Japan, which isn’t exactly a traditional football market.
And this global endeavor goes beyond football. The baseball team played in Wrigley Field last spring. Women’s basketball will take on South Carolina in Paris this fall. The golf team will head to Scotland to play the historic Old Course at St. Andrew’s the same weekend as the Ohio State game. Ted Lasso may have spent his college football coaching days at Wichita State (which doesn’t actually have a football team), but he’d probably like Notre Dame as well, because the Irish are so much more than the wins and losses.
On the football side, a lot of this is a product, at least partially, of Notre Dame’s independence. That, of course, is not a new talking point. Neither is college football realignment. That’s been happening since before the Irish won their first championship. But it’s clear that college football is in the midst of one of its most turbulent periods.
Between the transfer portal and name, image and likeness (NIL) policy, player empowerment has never been higher. The sport’s landscape will change drastically in 2024 as several iconic programs such as USC, UCLA, Oregon, Texas and Oklahoma switch conferences. The College Football Playoff will also expand next year to a 12-team format (one that could change based on all that realignment). Oh, and the Pac-12, a conference that currently includes a Stanford team the Irish have played in every non-COVID year since 1997, is in the midst of a five-alarm fire, which is one more alarm than the number of members it’s slated to have after this year ends.
Notre Dame’s status in college football has been perceived as entitled over the years. How dare the Irish have the audacity to not join a conference? Especially given that every other Irish sport is a conference member — hockey the Big Ten, everything else the ACC. Even the longest big-name holdouts like Penn State eventually relented to the appeal of affiliation. To Notre Dame’s detractors, this was an advantage that allowed the Irish to ease their football schedule and avoid a difficult conference championship game. A way to try and cling to the glory the program once held during its heyday before falling into an ongoing 35-year championship drought.
But as the futures of so many established programs are thrown into turmoil, suddenly Notre Dame’s hold on its past is the envy of the college football landscape. Notre Dame has changed plenty over the years, of course. The House That Rockne Built got a massive upgrade in 2017. And it’s not like the Irish are avoiding the NIL scene entirely. A 24-year-old is starting at quarterback. However, the Irish have carefully threaded a balance between honoring the past and not being afraid to innovate and forge new paths.
Case in point, Saturday’s opponent. Tennessee State is the first FCS team the Irish have ever faced. They’re also the first HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) to play against Notre Dame football. It may not be the most exciting development of Notre Dame’s season, but it is an important one.
“We’ll make sure they are grateful for the opportunity to be able to do this,” said Irish head coach Marcus Freeman about his players on Monday. “I know that they are different universities, but they’re both distinct in celebrating their own way. I think at the core, the core values that both universities possess, they align.”
Joining a conference wouldn’t have made scheduling this game as much of a challenge as bigger concerns like maintaining yearly matchups with Navy, USC and Stanford (the latter two of which allow the Irish to end their regular seasons in California, a nice recruiting convenience). But the bigger point still stands. Notre Dame never wants to become just another college football team, even if those other teams may be very, very good at football.
That isn’t meant to undermine schools like Ohio State or USC and their illustrious legacies. But the aura around Notre Dame’s status is almost undeniably greater than it was even a few years ago because of how much everything has changed around it. Saturdays in South Bend still have that warm, familiar feeling to them (and the equally familiar cold one once the calendar turns to October and November). College football isn’t going the way of the Titanic, of course. But a lot of schools and fans may find out the hard way that new doesn’t always mean better next fall.
When the opening kickoff sails through the air at Notre Dame Stadium a few minutes after 3:30 p.m. tomorrow, the Irish will make more history. Winning is important, but that’s what has long been the goal of Notre Dame football, and it doesn’t figure to change anytime soon.