It won’t just be a national championship Notre Dame’s football team plays for Monday night, Jan. 7, when the Irish face off against SEC titan Alabama in Miami.
It will be to change the lives of thousands of people nationwide who spend their fall Saturdays living and dying with the fortunes of a small Catholic school in South Bend, Ind. — particularly the small but growing throng of fans who have no memory of the dominant Irish teams of the past.
Wild though it may seem to those of a certain age who can remember a day when you couldn’t discuss preseason national title contenders without including Notre Dame, the fact is that anyone under the age of 30 has no real recollection of Jan. 2, 1989. That was the day the Irish last won a national title with a dominating Fiesta Bowl victory over West Virginia. I was two years old, about the same age Whitehall High School alum and current Notre Dame offensive graduate assistant Pat Welsh was.
I spent a short time on the phone with Welsh a few weeks ago for a feature you may have read in November about Welsh’s ascension to the Notre Dame coaching staff after a childhood spent rooting for the team. The prevailing thing that kept coming to mind listening to Welsh talk about how blessed he felt and how anything else that happened to him in his coaching career would be gravy at this point was, “No one saw this coming.”
Year after year, pundits have said that this will be the year Notre Dame returns to the top, and year after year they have been wrong.
What makes the 2012 season so remarkable is that no one of real note — aside from former Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz, an ESPN commentator who is kind enough to make absolutely no attempt to hide his affection for the school — predicted a big-time seaon for Notre Dame. Eight wins, maybe nine was the general consensus. With a first-year starter, Everett Golson, at quarterback, two first-round draft picks gone to the NFL and growing uncertainty about whether head coach and former Grand Valley State leader Brian Kelly was ready for the big time after consecutive 8-5 seasons, not to mention a murderous schedule that included trips to preseason top-15 teams Michigan State, USC and Oklahoma, there was no reason for anyone to predict anything more.
It is unnecessary to recap each step in the Irish’s rise to 12-0, but two things have been striking about the team’s run — the sheer guts of the team, and the long-awaited turn of fortune in its favor.
It took guts for the Irish to bounce back after a late turnover allowed Purdue to tie the game in a September showdown that seems eons ago. It took guts for them to rally from a fourth-quarter deficit against a really good Stanford team with Golson sidelined due to a concussion. It took guts to fire back after Oklahoma tied the score in the fourth quarter of ND’s game there in October. It took massive guts for the Irish to overcome a 14-point second-half deficit the next week when the season appeared lost against Pittsburgh.
At the same time, it took good fortune — fortune the Irish didn’t have from 2009-11, a span during which they found just about every possible gut-wrenching way to lose football games and invented some more for good measure — for Pittsburgh to miss an overtime field goal that would have ended the run in November. It took good fortune for the team’s most important offensive players to miss just one combined game due to injury, that being Golson’s concussion. And it took good fortune for the Irish to end up playing against Alabama for the whole enchilada.
That last one was not a typo. ND could have won a title if the opponent had been Kansas State or Oregon, as it appeared may happen in mid-November. It may even have been an easier road if one of them had managed to get this far. But the fact that they didn’t sets up one of the biggest games in the sport’s history, and a chance for Notre Dame to not just win the title, but be the team that ends the SEC’s reign of tyranny over the sport, put to bed that league’s well-earned superiority complex, and be remembered forever as the squad that won the biggest game of the BCS era.
For people like Welsh and other younger Notre Dame fans that spent the last 15 years or so rooting for a team that resembled the Irish legends of the past only by the uniforms they wore, it wouldn’t make up for those years wandering in the sports-fan wilderness. But it would be a victory made all the sweeter due to the wait.