Notre Dame is 4-0. Easy now. We’ve been here before. We’re not going to get excited. By “we,” I mean college fans who’d like to hate Notre Dame football again. Irish fans probably think we’ve hated their program in the same way, and with roughly the same intensity, for a century. This isn’t true. The last decade-plus have been as hard on us as it has been on you. Maybe we’re finally on the verge of a breakthrough.
When you have a program with the illustrious history of Notre Dame, you create as many detractors as you do fans. Gazing into the history books, it looks like Notre Dame hating had three distinct eras, ranging from the ugly and bigoted to the football-driven hate that abounded during Rockne, Leahy, Holtz.
The first wave of Notre Dame hating was pure bigotry. By 1924, the Ku Klux Klan had reconstituted itself as anti-immigrant organization. It prepared a rally on South Bend. “The Klan and Notre Dame were ascending at the same time,” says Todd Tucker, author of the book Notre Dame vs. the Klan. “And it was for the same reason — this huge influx of Catholic immigrants.”
Notre Dame students intervened and repelled the Klan during a three-day riot. No one was killed, Tucker reports, though guns were fired and some bones were broken. Bigotry and football success dovetailed in a strange way. That November, Klansman Edward L. Jackson was elected governor of Indiana. Two months after that, Knute Rockne’s team went to Pasadena and won the national championship.
With that game, Rockne directed us into the second wave of Notre Dame hating. The second wave was based on the fact that Notre Dame was really, really good at football. And really, really mythic, in a way that even Ohio State and Alabama never quite pulled off. The Irish had Grantland Rice’s “Four Horsemen” (who played in the ’25 Rose Bowl); the tear-duct-activating George Gipp; Knute Rockne, All American, starring Ronald Reagan; Rudy; and, in my era, the NBC TV deal, which began in 1991.
The 1966 “Game of the Century” featured undefeated Notre Dame against undefeated Michigan State. The game was as badly played as this year’s Notre Dame–Michigan game. “It looked like the big intramural game at Columbia,” Sports Illustrated’s Dan Jenkins noted. With the score tied, 10-10, late in the fourth quarter, Notre Dame elected to run out the clock, prompting the immortal Jenkins line “tie one for the Gipper.” As Notre Dame knew, the AP pollsters would make them the national champs anyway. It was smugness worthy of hate.
In the second wave of Notre Dame hating, we hated that Notre Dame was a good school that won football games. In fact, during the period, it was a common charge that the Irish had sold their academic souls for national titles. I can transport myself to my teenage bookshelf and pull down the Lou Holtz era tell-all, Under the Tarnished Dome, which was packed with every Notre Dame subterfuge. “Notre Dame’s academic standards are shadow of their former self,” the authors wrote, adding, “Holtz’s pronouncements on the subject are just one more way the master illusionist makes us try to doubt what we’ve seen with our own eyes.”
We hated Notre Dame because they threw greatness in our faces. I got to see the Irish one fall afternoon in 1996, in Austin. I remember waking up at 11:55 for a noon kick — only my decision to live next to the stadium allowed me to make my end zone set in time. The game featured Texas cornerback Bryant Westbrook nearly beheading Randy Kinder, but Notre Dame won on a last-second field goal. Moments later, an anonymous Irish player came right up to the end zone and gave us the double horns-down. Jesus — no pun intended — I hated Notre Dame that day.
Which brings us to the third and final wave of Notre Dame hating. It probably started with Bob Davie’s promotion to head coach the year after that game. But you could back-date it to David Gordon’s nut-kick field goal in ’93; to Holtz going to 6-5-1 the following year (with the wins coming over Stanford, the service academies, and the Big Ten junk pile); or to Beano Cook predicting Ron Powlus, Notre Dame’s QB savior, would win two Heismans — one of the great bad-karma moments in the history of college football. But, in any case, with Davie, the third wave of Notre Dame hating began in earnest.
The new way to hate Notre Dame is not to hate them at all. It’s more like disappointment that they aren’t worthy of hate.
Rick Reilly’s Notre Dame jeremiad from August is the classic blast of the current period. “If I told you about a team that had lost 10 of its last 12 bowl games, had dropped nine of its last 10 to USC, had led the nation only in disappointment, you’d figure that team would be halfway down the Mountain West standings,” Reilly wrote. “But Notre Dame still gets perks and love from the NCAA and BCS as though the year is 1946.”
The perks — the NBC deal, the easy path to the BCS — don’t bother me much. All of college football is a grift. We just hate that Notre Dame wears its perks so awkwardly.
We hate that beating the Irish isn’t the schadenfreude fest it used to be. In 2010, the University of Tulsa’s win over Notre Dame should have been a once-a-century, program-defining moment for the Golden Hurricane. But it came a week after Notre Dame lost by 18 to Navy.
We hate that Notre Dame no longer floats above the rest of us. On my message board, the talk this summer was that Notre Dame might finally move its football team into a conference: the B1G, the Big 12, the ACC but only in its current, weakened state would Notre Dame even consider playing with the rest of us. Which, ironically, made the idea of landing Notre Dame not especially exciting.
We — well, I — mean every word of this. I wish Notre Dame was good enough to haunt my dreams, fulfill Beano Cook’s predictions, and inspire pseudo-mythic matchups with Miami, whom they play in Chicago on Saturday. This is why every inkling of a Notre Dame turnaround — the false spring of 2005 or the ugly win over Michigan two weeks ago — brings out of the hope of fans and enemies alike. I really want to hate Notre Dame again, but hate requires W’s.