Irish sighs

Theories abound as to why Notre Dame hasn't played like a champion

By Tom Coyne
Associated Press / August 31, 2008
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. - The last time Notre Dame claimed a national championship, this year's freshman class . . . wasn't alive.

Such a statement once was unimaginable to Fighting Irish players and their fans. But it's true, for the first time since Knute Rockne roamed the sidelines.

The Irish haven't been champions since Lou Holtz led them to a title in 1988.

That's the longest drought in school history - but it's not just the lack of championships. It's the inability to compete for titles. During the longest previous dry spell, which began with the 1949 championship and ended in 1966, the Irish finished in the top 10 seven times.

So why can't Notre Dame win like it used to? Whether it's been Holtz, Bob Davie, Tyrone Willingham, or Charlie Weis coming out of the tunnel in Notre Dame Stadium, the Irish just haven't been on top at the end of the season.

There a litany of standard responses about why. Some blame Notre Dame's high academic standards. Others cite the facilities. Others say Notre Dame's schedule as an independent is too tough (last year, it faced 10 bowl teams).

Notre Dame has taken steps to address some of those concerns. It built a 96,000-square-foot athletic complex with generous amenities three years ago, and this season began practicing on two new artificial turf fields and another new grass field.

Before leaving for Duke in May, former athletic director Kevin White took steps to soften Notre Dame's schedule. The Irish open this year against San Diego State and next season start against Nevada and will play only four road games. Weis has recruited three straight top-10 classes, so academics don't appear to be the problem.

Observers, though, say there are other factors making it harder for Notre Dame to hit the heights it reached in the past.

Bobby Burton, editor-in-chief of, says the changing football landscape has hurt.

Before 1970, schools could give an unlimited number of scholarships. In 1974, when Joe Montana was a seventh-string quarterback for Notre Dame as a freshman, the NCAA allowed a maximum of 105 scholarships. Two years later, scholarships were cut to 95, then to 92 in 1992 and gradually to the present 85 by 1994.

"So yesterday's third-string quarterback at Notre Dame might be starting at Central Michigan or some other place," Burton said.

Murray Sperber, a visiting professor at California-Berkeley, who wrote "Shake Down the Thunder," a history of Notre Dame football, points to a 1984 Supreme Court decision that ended the NCAA's monopoly on selling football television rights. That decision cleared the way for more games to be shown on television.

Greater TV coverage allowed more teams to compete nationally with Notre Dame for recruits, Sperber said.

"TV in the '80s shrank America," he said.

When Notre Dame surprised the collegiate world in 1990 by becoming the first school to negotiate its own contract with a major network, some thought that having all its home games on NBC might give the Irish an unfair advantage. But since then there has been a proliferation of cable networks and a proliferation of college football games on TV.

Tom Lemming, recruiting analyst of CBS College Sports, said being on TV helps when the team is good. "It also could be to your detriment if you're a weak-looking team," he said.

No one wanted to watch the Irish last year as they struggled to a 3-9 finish, drawing the lowest ratings since NBC began broadcasting their games.

Lemming believes Notre Dame's biggest problem, though, has been its inability to attract game-breaking talent. "You have to have the great players," he said.

In 1990, Holtz recruited five future first-round NFL draft picks in one recruiting class - running back Jerome Bettis, defensive tackle Bryant Young, offensive guard Aaron Taylor, safety Jeff Burris, and cornerback Tom Carter. In the 14 drafts since, Notre Dame has had a total of four first-round picks.

During that same span, Miami has produced 33 first-round draft picks, Ohio State 25, and Southern Cal 17.

The lack of impact players also shows up in Heisman Trophy voting.

From 1936 until Reggie Brooks finished fifth in '92, Notre Dame never went more than five years without someone finishing in the top 10. After that, Notre Dame went 12 straight seasons without anyone until Brady Quinn finished fourth in '05 and third in '06.

Lemming believes Notre Dame's troubles began with the 1991 recruiting class, when several players Holtz recruited weren't admitted.

Holtz confirms there were two recruits who scored well on their college entrance exams, but weren't admitted because the admissions director had a policy that he wouldn't accept a football player from a high school where another student who was more academically qualified was rejected.

"That's just the way Notre Dame operated," Holtz said. "That was his philosophy. I disagreed with it, but obviously the president agreed with it because that's the way it was."

But it shouldn't stop the Irish from competing for titles, said the coach who won 100 games for Notre Dame.

"The good students are going to be really attracted to Notre Dame. Even today, just the words 'Notre Dame' carry such power."

Jack Swarbrick, who just started as athletic director full-time Aug. 18, said he knows of no reason why the Irish can't compete, although he does believe its academics gives the school a smaller margin of error than other places.

"That doesn't mean we can't win. We might not be in that game as often as somebody who doesn't face that. But it doesn't mean we can't be there," he said.

Weis also believes the Irish can be on top again, though before he took the job in December 2004 some people told him he shouldn't because of all the obstacles critics cite.

"What I found from being here is it's the furthest thing from being the truth," Weis said.

"We've taken all those things and flipped those. When we go out recruiting, we ask students, 'What are other schools saying, you're too dumb to come here?' And that gets their attention because that's a negative recruiting tool that's frequently used against you."

Weis can't explain Notre Dame's title drought better than any other Irish fan. He just wants to be on the sideline when it ends.

"I'm just trying to get there," he said. "I'm just worried about heading in that direction."

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