When I was covering Notre Dame in the ‘80s, I arranged a photo in front of the Golden Dome with basketball coach Digger Phelps, football coach Lou Holtz and the school’s new president, Father Edward ``Monk’’ Molloy.
A high-school teammate of the elder John Thompson, Molloy famously played late-night basketball with Notre Dame students, which made for a great story. While reporting on it, I had to share Molloy with Morley Safer and his 60 Minutes crew—hey, it was Notre Dame.
It was a cold day in South Bend when we shot the photo, and Holtz, who had declined to bring an overcoat, was shivering by the end.
``I don’t know why we do this stuff,’’ Holtz said to Phelps. ``Half the people love us, but half the people hate us.’’
``As long as they care,’’ Phelps replied. ``As long as they care.’’[membership level="0"] The rest of this article is available to subscribers only - to become a subscriber click here.[/membership] [membership]
When it comes to ND, they certainly do. One way or another, people feel passionately about the Irish.
I mention this because I grew up rooting for whoever played against the Irish. It wasn’t hating. But my populist ways always leaned toward, ``Let’s give somebody else a chance,’’ when a team wins too much. I felt the same way about the Yankees, the Celtics, the Canadiens.
That all changed in 1984, when I went on the ND beat. For one thing, the Irish weren’t winning. After a 3-4 start, they needed a miracle finish to slip into the Aloha Bowl.
That trip to Honolulu further helped defrost my icy feelings toward Notre Dame.
Meeting people like Father Molloy and his predecessor, Father Ted Hesburgh, also helped me see why Notre Dame feels it is special. This was a man who knew John F. Kennedy, the President, and Jane Russell, the actress—and juxtaposed stories about both in his Hollywood set of an office. I defy anyone to spend some time with people like Father Hesburgh and maintain ill feelings toward the Irish.
These people were about far more than athletics. All the best programs are. And so are many of the programs that struggle.
In this job, I have never rooted for teams to win or lose. I root for stories.
In that regard, Notre Dame is a win-win. As Digger told Lou, ``As long as they care.’’ And people still care so much when it comes to ND. Which is all a sportswriter can ask for.
This season should be no different. Brian Kelly, the son of a Boston politician who’s up to the many challenges of the Irish job, has a roster that has the potential to be in the College Football Playoff hunt.
No question, this team will be much less experienced than last year’s squad, which lost only two regular-season games, a pair of incredible nail-biters at national runner-up Clemson and at Rose Bowl champion Stanford.
What also made the 2015 season remarkable is the number of key injuries that ND survived.
That means the Irish basically have two starting quarterbacks returning: Malik Zaire, who went down with a season-ending broken ankle in Game 2 last September, and DeShone Kizer, who blossomed under intense fire the rest of the way. Rather than choosing, Kelly intends to walk the quarterback-controversy tightrope into the Irish’s opener against Texas.
Kelly's travails were further complicated when six players were arrested in two separate incidents on a variety of charges, including speeding, possession of marijuana and a handgun, and resisting arrest. Kelly reacted with a strong response, kicking starting safety Max Redfield off the team, suspending reserve cornerback Devin Butler indefinitely and saying the other four face internal team discipline.
Beyond quarterback, the Irish have quality depth at running back, where Tarrean Folston, (knee) and 2015 returning starter Josh Adams are both proven featured backs.
With only four starters back, though, the Irish offense will need some newcomers to settle in at receiver and the O line.
The defense, which returns five starters, also will be breaking in newcomers.
With all of this turnover, another key for Notre Dame will be the intangible—leadership. Every team needs players who define the group and keep it together under duress. That’s especially key at Notre Dame, which operates under an unblinking spotlight.
If Notre Dame can get its act together, the schedule could be manageable. If not, there are plenty of opponents who will be eager to pounce.
When it comes to Notre Dame, passions are always stirred.