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Mystique missing for Notre Dame football

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Published:   |   Updated: March 20, 2013 at 08:34 PM

University of South Florida football coach Skip Holtz said he wasn't particularly surprised by a practice-field question last week.

"What is Touchdown Jesus?'' one of Holtz's players asked.

For the young generation, there might be a more pointed question.

What is Notre Dame football? Answer: Not what it used to be.

Undoubtedly, it's a big deal for the Bulls to open their season on Saturday afternoon at Notre Dame, the home of 11 national championships and seven Heisman Trophy winners. But in many ways, the Notre Dame mystique has faded. Some wonder if it can ever return in a big-time manner.

"If you look at Notre Dame's athletic talent level that has been on the field for the past 10 or 12 years, then compare it to Oklahoma or LSU or Auburn or Florida, it's two different levels,'' ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit said.

The Fighting Irish finished in the Associated Press final top 25 rankings only five times since 1996. They are just 5-20 against top 10-ranked teams in that span. They had lost 11 straight times against ranked teams – period – until defeating No. 15 Utah last season.

Even in changing times, Notre Dame has vehemently clung to its independent status, refusing to join a conference. The same Irish goals remain: Getting to a BCS bowl game, winning the national championship.

And there's the modern-day rub. Notre Dame is 0-3 all-time in BCS bowl games. In fact, its last major bowl victory was the 1994 Cotton Bowl.

"What (goals) do you throw out there? Sun Bowl? Champs Bowl?'' said Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, entering his second year after guiding the 2009 Cincinnati Bearcats to a 12-0 regular season. "We don't have any way other than (to) set the bar at a BCS. But I knew that coming in.

"Any time you (underachieve), there are some things internally that need to be addressed. You don't want to change who you are, but there are changes you can make in how you do those things.''

Some things about Notre Dame, though, will never change.

***

On most college recruiting trips, Bucs center Jeff Faine said he typically was greeted by beautiful women.

"At Notre Dame, we arrived in a snowstorm and this 5-foot-6 student manager picked me up at the airport,'' said Faine, a proud Irish alum. "When you're recruited by Notre Dame, the glitz and glam, that's not what they're all about.

"If the football works out, great. But you're there because you can perform academically.''

Despite reports of the private school working to relax its rigorous academic standards for athletes, Kelly said he recruits to the academic philosophy of Notre Dame.

"I've never had a policy conversation where the president, myself, admissions, we all sat down and said, 'Coach, we're going to open up the vault for you. Whatever you need, you got.' '' Kelly said. "One, they better graduate. Two, they better represent us in a positive way. And other than that conversation, that's how we've gone about recruiting to the University of Notre Dame.''

Past players confirm that approach.

"It isn't a four-year decision, it's a 40-year decision,'' said former Notre Dame quarterback/tight end Gary Godsey, of Jesuit High School, now a vice president with Jones Lang LaSalle, a commercial real estate firm in Tampa. "There are a lot of great places to play football in this country. But at Notre Dame, that degree carries so much weight. That was one thing I couldn't argue with.

"Not everybody makes it to the NFL. At Notre Dame, you play on national TV every weekend. You're playing against the best teams in the country. Those things will never change. Neither will that diploma.''

Former Notre Dame defensive back Preston Jackson, of Hillsborough High School, said he felt the same attraction.

"But let's not kid ourselves, it's a lot harder to win at Notre Dame,'' said Jackson, now a business technology teacher at Hillsborough. "That 6-foot-6, 280-pound offensive tackle who has a 3.5 grade-point average, you've absolutely got to land him. The next guy won't have the grades.

"If there are 36 offensive tackles, you're only going to recruit two of them. You can't work your Plan B. Sometimes, people don't see what Notre Dame coaches have to deal with. It's different.''

***

Coaching at Notre Dame might be different, too.

Ara Parseghian, 88, still lives in South Bend. He won two national titles, while going 95-17-4 in 11 seasons (1964-74), a span known to Irish fans as the "Era of Ara."

"When I first got to Notre Dame, it was like an electric charge went up my back,'' Parseghian said. "Suddenly, I was associated with such great history. Was there pressure? Of course, you felt a great, great responsibility.''

Since the departure of Lou Holtz, following the 1996 season, Notre Dame has entrusted that responsibility to five men.

Bob Davie (1997-2001) and Charlie Weis (2005-09), who had never previously been head coaches, were each fired after five seasons. Tyrone Willingham (2002-04) was fired in the third year of a five-year contract. George O'Leary (2001), who lasted just five days, was fired after admitting he lied on his resume.

"When you don't have stability, it's tough to build it up,'' said Skip Holtz, an Irish alum who played one season (1986) for his father. "But the expectations and standards have remained high.''

Even as college football has undergone a seismic shift.

"The name 'Notre Dame' in 2011, it doesn't speak as loudly as it did in the '90s and the '80s,'' said Jackson, who played at Notre Dame from 2000-04. "You can't go to a recruit's school wearing a Notre Dame shirt and expect them to be that impressed. Not any more.''

"Tradition only means so much,'' said Godsey, who played at Notre Dame from 1999-2003. "You've got to go out and perform. It's good to want a BCS game every year, but these days, is it realistic? It's such a tough balance, but I do get the sense that it's getting back on the right track.''

Faine said he feels the same way after meeting Kelly over the summer. His enthusiasm for Notre Dame's football future never has been higher.

Lou Holtz said Notre Dame is well-positioned with a $25-million practice facility, something he never enjoyed because he said administrators didn't want to enter "an arms race.'' All that's left is a return to championship form. Lou Holtz said that's a function of leadership.

For his part, Kelly said he's clinging to Notre Dame's ideals.

"You're not coming here to hang your hat because you're going to the league (NFL),'' Kelly said. "If you want to do that, there are other schools for you.

"They could be eight-star, nine-star players, whatever the highest star is out there. If they fit that mentality, we won't recruit those guys. We recruit guys who want to be at Notre Dame, get their degree and play here. That's who we are.''


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