Commentary

Even sans titles, Irish relevant

Originally Published: August 17, 2012
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

Notre Dame hasn't won a national championship since 1988.

Heck, the Fighting Irish haven't won a BCS-level bowl game since they defeated Florida 39-28 in the 1992 Sugar Bowl, which was played about four months before current quarterback Tommy Rees was born.

In fact, Notre Dame has won only two bowl games since 1994: the 2008 Hawaii Bowl and 2010 Sun Bowl.

But, with apologies to my esteemed colleague Rick Reilly, the Fighting Irish are still relevant in college football.

[+] EnlargeRick Mirer
Stephen Dunn/Getty ImagesNotre Dame's last big bowl win? The Sugar Bowl in 1992 when Rick Mirer was the quarterback.

When Notre Dame opens the season against Navy in Dublin, Ireland, it's expected to be the biggest single-day sporting event in that country's history. More than 35,000 tickets have been sold for the game in the U.S., and Sept. 1 is expected to be the busiest day in the history of Dublin's airport. ESPN will broadcast the game to more than 20 million households in Europe alone.

The not-so-Fighting Irish might not be the heavyweights they once were, but plenty of people still care passionately about them.

College football fans either love the Fighting Irish or hate them, as there's very little middle ground when it comes to Notre Dame football.

"I'd look at it as the most loyal fan base in the country because we haven't won," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. "Football is really, really important here."

As Kelly prepares to begin his third season as Notre Dame's coach, he's trying to accomplish something his three predecessors (Bob Davie, Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis) couldn't do: guide his team to at least eight victories in three consecutive seasons. Somehow, the Irish haven't accomplished that modest feat in 18 seasons, when current ESPN analyst Lou Holtz was nearing the end of his tenure as Notre Dame's coach.

Knute Rockne and Frank Leahy just rolled over in their graves.

"Stability and consistency," Kelly said. "We're in the stability and consistency market. When you get that, then you can talk about the next level."

While the Fighting Irish have barely been a blip on the BCS radar, they're still one of the most coveted franchises in American sports. If Notre Dame athletics director Jack Swarbrick ever picks up the telephone to tell conference commissioners the Irish are finally giving up their independence and NBC television contract, he'd have the pick of the litter. There's a reason Swarbrick still had a seat at the table when college football's powerbrokers decided the future of the sport's postseason this summer.

Why? Despite their mediocrity, the Irish are still a ratings and attendance bonanza.

When a 6-6 Notre Dame team defeated a 7-6 Hawaii squad in the 2008 Hawaii Bowl, which ended the Fighting Irish's NCAA-record, nine-game losing streak in bowl games, nearly three million U.S. households watched the game on Christmas Eve. When the Irish lost to Florida State 18-14 in the Champs Sports Bowl last season, TV ratings for that postseason game jumped 64 percent from the year before.

While the Irish might not be very good, college football fans still enjoy watching them, win or lose.

And Notre Dame is still an attractive ticket from coast to coast -- and even internationally. More than 70,000 fans watched the Irish defeat Maryland 45-21 at FedEx Field in Landover, Md., last season -- and most of them weren't there to watch the woebegone Terrapins. In 2010, more than 54,000 fans saw the Irish beat Army 27-3 in the first college football game played at new Yankee Stadium in New York.

Along with playing Navy in Ireland in this season's opener, the Irish will renew their rivalry with Miami at Chicago's Soldier Field on Oct. 6. Next season, the Irish will play Arizona State at Dallas Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, and then they'll face Syracuse at New Meadowlands Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., in 2014 and 2016.

Swarbrick has even approached Stanford officials about moving their game to China next season.

At least Notre Dame quarterback Andrew Hendrix still believes he's playing the most coveted position in all of sports. Hendrix is one of four players battling for the starting job, along with Rees (who is suspended for the opener following his offseason arrest), redshirt freshman Everett Golson and freshman Gunner Kiel.

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame head coach Brian Kelly
AP Photo/Bill FundaroNotre Dame coach Brian Kelly knows it'll be a fight this season for the Irish.

"It's the highest-profile position in sports, quarterback at Notre Dame," Hendrix said. "It doesn't get any better than that. Kids dream about it, you dream about it, obviously it means a whole lot because this university means a lot to a lot of people. So the position of quarterback at Notre Dame is a little bit more special than it would be at someplace else."

Quarterbacks at Alabama, LSU, Oregon and USC might beg to differ.

Until the Fighting Irish start winning again, they're nothing more than a box-office draw. Their lucrative TV contract with NBC doesn't mean as much anymore because seemingly every team plays on TV every week. And not every blue-chip recruit in the country wants to spend four years surviving cold, Midwest winters (see sophomore defensive lineman Aaron Lynch, who transferred to South Florida this summer).

"I think that they need to understand what distinguishes Notre Dame from other institutions -- we don't hide from that," Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said. "There's going to be snow on the ground, it's going to be cold. It's not about trying to trick recruits and bring them up here on a sunny day in September. Life's not going to be like that -- then we have the player and he's disenchanted because he doesn't want to trek through 10 inches of snow. It doesn't make any sense."

Without more victories, and it won't be easy this season against a schedule that includes road games at Michigan State, Oklahoma and USC and home games against Michigan and Stanford, about the only thing that distinguishes the Irish from everyone else in college football is their tradition and history.

"Nobody wants to hear about program building," Kelly said. "They want to hear about this team. It's the first time I can say it's my team. It's taking the face of my personality. These guys are fighters and they'll battle. They have to against the schedule."

Win or lose, much of America will still be watching.

Mark Schlabach | email

College Football and Basketball