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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 21 Notre Dame at Georgia Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

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Notre Dame Football: The Irish Legacy and the Men Who Shaped It

Golden is thy fame.

Beginning in my junior year of high school, through college, and to my current search for the big girl job, I have worked as a cashier at my hometown grocery store. I have a few favorite ways of striking up a conversation.

[scans dog food] “What kind of dog do you have?”
[scans anything from Southern Tier Brewing Company] “They have a stout that I LOVE.”

There is, however, my favorite way of chatting someone up in my line, and that’s when I spot a person wearing Notre Dame gear. I like to tell them, “I love that hat. I’ve always loved Notre Dame,” and some of my favorite responses have included a customer excitedly showing me a full-on slideshow of his campus tour on his phone, and an alumna telling me “It really is a big family like they say it is!” Once during my first year at the store, my own dream of going to Notre Dame came up in conversation during a transaction, and as my customer was leaving, he said in the most sincere way, “I really hope you make it to South Bend, kid.”

Any Irish fan, whether he or she has that Notre Dame degree or rides the subway with pride, knows there’s a certain something to being a Notre Dame fan that just isn’t there in allegiances to other teams — not even other Catholic collegiate athletic programs. I wanted to know how this has been able to last through championship glory, struggles in the standings, and changes in leadership. To find out, I asked some of the men who shaped this distinct legacy. Their dedication forged the tradition that Brian Kelly’s squad now takes on the responsibility to honor. As another season has come to a close, former Notre Dame greats; Irv Smith, Clint Johnson, Corey Mays and Oscar McBride gave their insight into the development of this iconic legacy, and how it will evolve as the team heads into the future.

Only At Notre Dame

Whether you’re talking sports, business, or sports business; the culture of a team is everything in the pursuit of success. The culture of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish has thrived in glory, adapted to struggle, and become something that virtually commands relevance despite what any poll says. Former Irish TE Irv Smith explained how he arrived in South Bend to join the Fighting Irish, and said,

“Everybody — we all say the same thing when we talk about Notre Dame The campus is a special place. When you set foot on that campus, it’s just a feeling that you get, that you don’t get anywhere else in the world. You see the Lady on the dome, you see Touchdown Jesus — it’s just something that makes you feel like you belong. And when I took my trip to Notre Dame, I was already committed to go to Clemson, and Clemson begged me not to take that trip, because… I believe they realized the same thing. And so, when I got back from my trip and I called them on the phone, before I could get the words out they were like ‘Yep. We already know, you’re going to Notre Dame.’”

Smith then explained how Lou Holtz’s distinct leadership involved taking a personal interest in his players — even years down the line — and said Holtz’s leadership made himself and other players realize they played for something “bigger than just us.”

Another former Irish tight end, Oscar McBride, addressed the connections among past teammates and those between former players and past coaches and said, “We are still, today… brothers.”

He highlighted one of Holtz’s perceptions of committing to Notre Dame, “It’s not a four year decision. It’s a forty year decision.”

Notre Dame Fighting Irish

What Does it All Mean?

To McBride, Notre Dame’s legacy is all about excellence. When I asked him to sum up the history, legacy, and meaning of the program all in one word, he said,

“Excellence. That was a normal part of our conversation. We were never the teams that were just okay with just getting it done”

He went on to tell a story of a time he truly saw the impact of the movement of this emphasis on excellence from the coaches, to the veterans, to the youngest players.

“I’ll never forget Chris Zorich. I’m sitting there with these eventual All-Americans and Hall of Famers — Jerome Bettis, Bryant Young, Aaron Taylor —and we look down and we see this guy who’s bigger than life. This massive individual, Chris Zorich, who said ‘Look, I’m talking to you freshmen. We’re Notre Dame. This is how we do things. If you don’t want to do things this way, I’m sure there are other teams out there that would love to have you,’ and we were like, ‘did he just say that?’ It wasn’t a coach — Coach Holtz was not in there. There were no assistant coaches in there. It was truly embraced by our leadership. It was in our DNA.”

It is clear that one of the most critical components of the leadership of the Notre Dame football team had been that players were motivated to carry on the distinct tradition themselves, and developed expectations of each other.

Into The Future

The recruitment of high school football players will continue to grow more and more sophisticated. However, we all know no one can talk about Notre Dame without talking about history and tradition. So how will Notre Dame connect with a generation so far removed from the glory of the 70s and 80s — and even the movie Rudy? To Clint Johnson, a wide receiver for Lou Holtz from 1991-1993, the brand and program have cemented themselves as iconic. Johnson said,

“Notre Dame in and of itself is gonna attract football players because, again, the history, undefeated seasons, and you know you play on TV every week.”

McBride gave his perspective into the future of Notre Dame recruiting and explained the history and tradition must merge with the modern recruiting emphasis on advantages such as new turf, big screens, and uniform sponsorships. McBride said,

“It becomes really important for coaches to underscore the importance of legacy and tradition, and to marry that legacy of excellence with the excitement. You are the class of 2020. Congratulations. We’re glad you’re here, but it’s not just about you. It’s about the class of ‘93, you know. It’s about the class of ‘77… It’s about that legacy that you are now blessed to carry on the torch.”

Corey Mays, a linebacker that played under Notre Dame head coaches Bob Davie, Tyrone Willingham, and Charlie Weis during his time in South Bend, brought the business angle. Mays called for the program to improve its approach to appealing to new generations of players. The Mendoza College of Business graduate said,

“I think it’s about Notre Dame being innovative and moving with the times. A lot of times, it’s a reality in which Notre Dame has tried to be ‘Notre Dame’ for so long and stayed in such a tradition, that when times were changing around them — they didn’t change with the times. And, you know, the different generations — they don’t know about those championships. They don’t know about these certain players. I know it’s hard to change because if ticket sales are the same, and merchandise is still the same, and/or going up and your revenue isn’t changing, it’s hard to say, ‘Well, let’s do something different,’ from a business standpoint. It’s all about product. Trends change with what recruits want.”

Mays explained the program can’t push tradition so hard when today’s recruits might take more interest in perks such as facility amenities.

Navy Midshipman v Notre Dame Fighting Irish Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Playing For The Lady On The Dome

Catholicism’s emphasis on tradition, is one of the most significant contributors to the staying power of the Notre Dame legacy. However, a distinct component of Notre Dame’s Catholicism is how the university and athletic programs welcome and include those of different spiritual backgrounds. Without question, the traditional pregame mass, for example, acts as a unifying force between the players.

Kevin Helliker’s 2013 Wall Street Journal article “Notre Dame’s Holy Line” examines the intersection of faith and football. The article addressed Manti Te’o’s blessing from Father Ted Hesburgh. Even as a devout follower of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Te’o knew he belonged. Helliker quoted former team chaplain Father Paul Doyle, “This is not a place where you have to apologize for your spiritual interests, whatever they are, and Manti has said he feels supported here in his Mormon religion.”

Love Thee

So, what is it that has allowed the brand, the pageantry, and the legacy to last and evolve? When we listen to some of the men who worked to shape it all, we realize it’s all about players taking responsibility to remember it all in the pursuit of excellence, and to ensure their brothers do the same. It’s about honoring something greater, whether that’s in the record books, in faith, or both. This mirrors the “inheritance” of Notre Dame fandom in families that continues in struggle, and in growth.

I’ve seen and heard just about everything in my checkout line since my first day on the job, but one constant that I’ve found is that almost any person wearing Notre Dame gear has a story they’d love an excuse to share.

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