In his column for ESPN The Magazine, Peter Keating wrote that Notre Dame did not belong in the BCS Championship game. He used a system he called the Simple Rating System that ranks teams by their margin of victory by accounting for the strength of their opponents.
Despite it’s name, the system is not simple…at least for people like me. It uses something called matrix algebra to determine which teams should be in the championship and while it is explained well in the piece, my brain, which cannot handle basic calculus, is absolutely unable to process matrix algebra. Want a better explanation of the concept? Ask Neo.
On Monday, however, any dummy could have told you that Notre Dame did not belong on the same field as Alabama.
Forget the undefeated season. Forget the fact that Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine and Lou Holtz all won their National Championships in their third year. Forget that ND went won 12 games in 2012 and needed to win No. 13 in 2013 to earn their first championship since 1988.
Forget the cutesy Hollywood story.
From my seat in the upper deck of Sun Life Stadium, I could have sworn I was watching the New England Patriots play Savannah State. Alabama was up 21-0 after the first play in the second quarter and led 35-0 after the opening possession of the second half.
It was only after the game that I found out that Brent Musburger got so bored with the action that he started drooling over Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron’s girlfriend, former Miss Alabama Katherine Webb, in such a manner that ESPN had to issue an apology after the game.
Sportswriters from every sports news outlet lost their marbles over the blowout.
SI’s Michael Rosenberg called it a joke of a title game. He admitted that the referees jobbed Notre Dame twice early in the game while the Irish still had some hope, but claimed by that logic Walter Mondale got a couple of bad breaks and should have ousted Ronald Reagan when he was running for re-election. “Outlined against a blue-black January, sky,” concluded the former Detroit Free Press columnist, “the Four Horsemen got run over by a locomotive.”
Even the locals didn’t give the Irish a break. “The Tide rolled. And rolled. And steam-rolled,” wrote South Bend Tribune columnist Al Lesar echoing Rosenberg’s analogy. “The Irish were left with tread marks on their back.”
Even ESPN piled on. Mark Schlabach claimed this matchup justifies the need for a playoff system. Ivan Maisel said the Bama O-line “bludgeoned” Notre Dame. Gene Wojciechowski wrote that Nick Saban, a notorious perfectionist, could not find a mistake in his team’s victory.
Fans in the stands yelled things like, “Kelly came unprepared!” and “We’re just happy to be here!” while wearing Catholics vs.
Cousins t-shirts. Never mind that only moments before kickoff, the Irish backers complained that the 44 days between Notre Dame’s final game against USC was too much time for Kelly and his crew and that it was ridiculous to think anyone other than the undefeated Irish should go to the National Championship.
Lost in all the madness is that Notre Dame remains the premier Catholic football program in the nation. Boston College must have ceded their rivalry with the school because there were plenty of BC students wearing ND gear at the game. In fact, last time I was at a contest between the two schools, the Irish fans chanted “Backup College!” and got no response—almost as though it was a statement of fact, not a taunt.
With all due respect, Holy Cross’ DI-AA program couldn’t hold its own against a force like Notre Dame. Other religious schools that once had a strong football program, like my alma mater, Santa Clara, have given the sport up entirely due to Title IX cuts and the expense of fielding an activity that requires so many personnel.
Notre Dame isn’t really the school’s football program; it’s bigger than that. It’s God’s team*. Touchdown Jesus stands over the end zone, the school’s clergy grant blessings to the players and everyone says an Our Father before the game.
*It was pointed out to me, however, that Alabama might be Jesus’ team. After all, when he parted the Red Sea, he might have yelled “Roll Tide, Roll!”
There’s a lot to like about Alabama football: the culture of winning, the way it prepares players for the NFL, its incredible fanbase
full of some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet, et cetera. The reason they don’t have the clout of Notre Dame, however, is branding.
The reason that the Fightin’ Irish can remain popular despite losing, and draw the ire of people like Rick Reilly, is that they have branding down. They want to be the premier religious university in America. They’ll have you believe that watching Notre Dame football on Saturday is a pre-requisite to going to mass on Sunday. And it doesn’t matter if the team is 12-0 or 0-12; a good Christian doesn’t turn its back on a losing team.
In the end, it works.
The school will always be associated with the Golden Dome, Touchdown Jesus and their live leprechaun mascot. Those three elements are the Holy Trinity of the religion that is Notre Dame football.
It is the latter that will always haunt Alabama: No matter how many championships they win, and no matter how badly they beat up the Fightin’ Irish, they will always be associated with another leprechaun—the one in that there tree (you know the one, he’s a little crack head).
Notre Dame has a God-like omnipresence. It begins with parents like mine that sing their children the fight song before bed, is cultivated in products in bookstores across America and is reinforced with an NBC contract that nationally broadcasts their games every Saturday.
There are thousands of arguments about why ND did not belong in the National Championship. Many of them are entirely valid, but no matter how hard Alabama tried to erase the Irish from the face of the earth on Monday, everyone will wake up tomorrow knowing that someone in their neighborhood watches Notre Dame football every Saturday. No matter how hard you try to escape it, the ND symbol and that little leprechaun will always find you—somewhere, somehow.
Love it or hate it, that’s the power of Notre Dame.
Tom Schreier writes for TheFanManifesto. He can followed on Twitter at @tschreier3. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.