This Saturday (2nd September) heralds the beginning of the latest campaign by the Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team to bring a National Championship back to the success-starved South Bend, Indiana home of the team that can legitimately claim to be the most supported collegiate sporting outfit in the US (and, for that matter, probably the world as collegiate sport has a unique place in American society.)
This season opener is special as the game will be played at the Lansdowne Road Aviva Stadium before a sell-out crowd under the grand title of ‘The Emerald Isle Classic.’ The opponent will be the US Naval Academy (Navy) who have played the Fighting Irish annually since 1927, the longest uninterrupted college football rivalry series.
It promises to be a significant boon for the Irish economy, with over 30,000 Americans purportedly making the trip. Several other college sides and US high school football teams are also making the trip to play in a series of games hosted around the capital on the Friday evening, which will culminate in a Pep Rally at the 02 Arena that evening.
On Saturday morning, a special Mass will be held at Dublin Castle before the famous Notre Dame marching band parades down O’Connell Street (as they did on St Patrick’s Day earlier this year) as a tailgating party commences in the Temple Bar district of the city (where I will likely be located at about this time…..)
Notre Dame has a special place in the American sporting scene, provoking strong emotions in favour or against the team. The Irish identity of the team’s support base was more accidental than intentional in origin, but it is undoubtedly the case that for long the university’s sporting teams have attracted a level of National support and prominence well beyond that of other teams simply due to its association with the Irish community and its status as one of the most pre-eminent of catholic universities in the country.
For this reason, Notre Dame’s football team, alone amongst major universities, has bucked the trend and remained an Independent as opposed to member of a regional conference, meaning it is free to devise its own playing schedule and (most importantly) secure its own lucrative television contracts. Every Notre Dame home game is featured on NBC in the States, and for the past couple of seasons Eurosport has shown the Irish’s home fixtures on this side of the Atlantic with numerous away games being shown on ESPN.
The team’s National reach and appeal has been reflected in US popular culture: before being elected as California Governor and subsequently US President, Ronald Reagan was best known for his portrayal of the legendary Notre Dame star George Gipp in ‘Knute Rockne- All American Hero,’ a film about the greatest head coach in Notre Dame and college football history.
Another Hollywood film about the Fighting Irish, ‘Rudy,’ recently provided the storyline in an episode of HBO’s ‘The Newsroom’ and references to Notre Dame appear throughout the most popular of American television series’ (The West Wing’s President Bartlett was an ND fan and the classic ‘Airplane’ featured a parody of the legendary death-bed appeal by George Gipp to Coach Rockne to tell the boys to ‘win one for the Gipper.’)
For generations, the Irish ruled the roost, claiming the most National Championship titles as well as Heisman Trophy winners (the award given to the best college player at the end of every season.) Renowned college football legends like Knute Rockne, Ara Parseghian, The Four Horsemen and George Gipp have been known to Americans of all ages for generations as, more than any other programme, the Fighting Irish dominated college football during the glory days when it outshone the professional game.
But whilst history was good to the Irish, the past 25 years have witnessed one disappointing season following quickly after another, the lowest point being a record nine consecutive bowl losses.
Bowls are the end of season games to which college teams are ‘invited.’ The most significant were for a long time played on New Year’s Day, but nowadays they are stretched out over the first week and a half of the New Year and are preceded by more than 30 less significant bowl games. It was this tradition of collegiate ‘bowls’ which led to the creation of a ‘Super Bowl’ as a means of determining which professional team was the Nation’s greatest at a time when two separate leagues vied for fans’ attention nationally.
The Notre Dame- Navy fixture has for long been an encounter dominated by the Fighting Irish, whose record 43 consecutive victories over Navy was only brought to a halt in 2009 (a humiliation revisited upon the Irish the following year.)
Anything less than a comprehensive rout of Navy for the Fighting Irish will cause considerable anxiety for the Irish fan base who know that this season’s schedule is particularly challenging, with the team due to face numerous potential National Championship contenders in USC, Michigan and Oklahoma, as well as difficult fixtures with Stanford and Michigan State.
The most anticipated aspect of the game will undoubtedly be the performance of the new starting quarterback for Notre Dame, Everett Golson, who was only officially given the nod by Head Coach Brian Kelly on Thursday of last week ahead of Andrew Hendrix and previous starter Tommy Rees (who blotted his copybook by getting arrested following a street party in the university town of South Bend in the off-season.) In reality, Rees was never likely going to emerge as starter as his turnover rate was alarmingly high last season.
Fighting Irish fans will be hoping that Golson can lead his team through a dynamic performance combining his exciting running game potential with accurate passing against a Navy side the Irish are heavily fancied to beat.
Ironically, the evolution of American Football as a quarterback driven passing game owes much to Notre Dame’s legendary victory over another institution associated with the US Armed Forces, the Army.
The development of the ‘forward pass’ as an integral part of the game is often incorrectly attributed to the stunning Irish victory over Army in 1913- though, as this 1906 newsreel illustrates, the movement to bring the pass into the game had already begun before then in response to the violence associated with the ground game.
It was the ingenius schemings of Pop Warner as coach of a school for Native Americans (Carlisle Indian Industrial School) who first proved how effective the passing game could be in 1907, using one of his most gifted players and future 1912 Olympic gold medallist, Jim Thorpe, to great effect. Incidentally, future President Dwight Eisenhower would be injured when attempting to tackle Thorpe in a contest between Army and Carlisle 100 years ago in a famed 1912 encounter. That contest, just 20 years after the massacre of Native Americans at Wounded Knee, inspired Pop Warner’s pep talk which included these words:
“Remember that it was the fathers and grandfathers of these Army players who fought your fathers and grandfathers in the Indian Wars. Remember Wounded Knee.”
Whilst Warner and his Carlisle team effectively patented the passing game at collegiate level, it was the success of the passing game in the famous Notre Dame-Army 1913 triumph engineered by Irish players Gus Dorias and Knute Rockne that popularised the passing game on the National stage.
Many famous professional footballers were former Notre Dame heroes. The great Joe Montana, whose 49ers were so dominant when the game was first introduced in a meaningful sense to a British and Irish audience by Channel 4 in the 1980s, was one of the greatest ever Notre Dame quarterbacks (and hero of ‘The Chicken Soup’ game for the Fighting Irish.)
One of his rival quarterbacks throughout the early and mid-1980s, the Redskins’ QB Joe Theismann, was also a former ND starter.
More recently, former Pittsburgh Steeler running back, Jerome ‘The Bus’ Bettis, was a star turn for the Irish – as this clip of his stunning performance in ‘The Cheerios Game’ illustrates- and the most exciting player to come out of Notre Dame for many years, Michael Floyd, was drafted by my own beloved Arizona Cardinals earlier this year.
The game will be broadcast on ESPN this Saturday and the 02 Arena Pep Rally is being broadcast live on RTE1 on Friday evening under the heading ‘The Gathering: A Welcome Home.’
The Gathering is a tourism campaign launched by the Irish Government aiming to entice members of the Irish Diaspora back to Ireland, and the Notre Dame game has been sold as a part of that overall strategy. Alas, it would appear that our DUP Tourism Minister, Arlene Foster, has shunned efforts to include the North in this tourism campaign.
Of course, any prospect of the North hosting such a fixture would require a pro-active approach from Executive Ministers who one would have thought should jump at the prospect of 30,000 Americans making Belfast their summer holiday destination, in spite of the natural antipathy such an expression of Irishness would be met with by some of our unionist elected representatives. The only northern stadium capable of hosting such an event would be the renovated Casement Park.
What chance then of Notre Dame- Purdue @ Casement Park, 2022?