(MCT) — When Notre Dame last won a football game that made the Irish the No. 1 team in the country, 19 long years ago, then-coach Lou Holtz received a congratulatory phone call from President Bill Clinton.
“We talked a little about NAFTA,” Holtz cracked then.
It has been awhile since the world noticed Notre Dame football for being the best. Nobody expects President Obama to call or even tweet Brian Kelly now that Notre Dame finally returned to the top Sunday for the first time since Nov. 14, 1993 — 317 Associated Press polls ago. But the prevailing thought after Kansas State and Oregon fell Saturday night — the first time in five years the Nos. 1 and 2 teams lost the same weekend — was that the events turned the Bowl Championship Series upside down.
In reality, it was the day college football went right side up.
Notre Dame No. 1, Alabama No. 2 . . . is Keith Jackson doing anything Jan. 7? ESPN executives hyperventilated. College football traditionalists, rejoice. Maybe legitimate BCS contenders don’t need to run video-game offenses to impress voters or fill schedules with sacrificial FCS schools looking for paydays. A team that has beaten 11 straight legitimate opponents looks capable of restoring faith in the old-fashioned football truism that defense indeed wins championships.
This is where Notre Dame should be, on the pedestal it puts itself on, living up to its own lofty standard. This is where the program belongs more than once every 19 years and shouldn’t vacate again next Sunday until 2031. This is who they are and where they expect to be, looking at everybody else pressing their noses to the glass. This is the elevated status Notre Dame must attain to justify making all those decisions to remain independent in football.
They write books and make movies about Notre Dame football lore. Historically, the aberration isn’t a Notre Dame team becoming No. 1 for the first time since 1993 as much as the preceding era of relative ineptitude spanning the tenures of Bob Davie to George O’Leary to Tyrone Willingham to Charlie Weis. Those coaches provided fodder that gradually devalued its 24-carat gold brand and made Notre Dame something it seldom had been throughout its rich football history: vulnerable, exposed, ordinary. It all made great copy — thanks, fellas — but never made sense why Notre Dame, with everything its program had to offer, never capitalized more consistently on its distinction.
Davie worked hard but followed a legend in Holtz, and nobody’s first head-coaching job should be at Notre Dame. O’Leary lied on his resume and left a campus disgraced five days after he arrived. Willingham teased Domers with a ground-breaking first season that, ultimately, too many recruits ignored so the Board of Trustees with deep pockets forced him out two years later. Weis bragged from day one of bringing a decided schematic advantage, but after successful flashes from teams led by Willingham recruits, all that amounted to was more of the empty talk Domers heard too often for two decades.
Enter Kelly, whose evolution as the Notre Dame head coach explains this magical season as much as any factor. Kelly came to South Bend confident in his abilities as a head coach based on success at Cincinnati, Central Michigan and Grand Valley State. He underestimated how different being a Notre Dame head coach would be. A disastrous first season marked more by tragedy than triumph educated Kelly.
He made choices that deserved scrutiny in the unfortunate aftermath of the deaths of Lizzy Seeberg, the Saint Mary’s student who killed herself after an alleged attack by a football player, and Declan Sullivan, the team’s videographer who died when wind blew over the elevated scissor lift he was standing on. But one can think Kelly could have handled those situations better and still respect his growth on the job. Gradually, Kelly changed, perhaps because Notre Dame doesn’t.
He got tougher with discipline and smarter with game plans, but nothing offers more evidence of change than Kelly’s handling of starting quarterback Everett Golson. A redshirt freshman, Golson represented an unknown commodity to everybody but Kelly. Inexperience and inconsistency showed. Had Kelly berated Golson on the sideline as he had done previously to Notre Dame quarterbacks, he risked ruining him. Whatever Kelly did to nurture Golson worked. Whatever Kelly did to inspire loyalty from Manti Te’o, the leader of Notre Dame’s best defense since 1988, worked. Whatever Kelly did in ‘12 eventually will be football literature provided Notre Dame beats USC to go 12-0.
Campus tradition calls for Grace Hall to light up “No. 1” whenever Notre Dame ascends there in any sport.
This time, it won’t be for women’s basketball, fencing or soccer. This time will be for football.