CAN THEY HANDLE THE HOLY TRUTH? NOTRE DAME IS NOTRE DOOMED
With a dated brand, an unwillingness to play the NIL game and a struggling head coach, the Fighting Irish no longer are special in college football’s new era — and should flee ASAP to the Big Ten
Not to offend those who still believe in the Gipper, Touchdown Jesus, the Four Horsemen, Rudy, echoes, legends, thunder and the fabled stadium as an outgrowth of the Vatican. But my fingers are turning arthritic as I type those words. Notre Dame no longer is a mystique as much as a cobwebbed myth kept alive by arrogant, ignorant Catholics.
And I can say that, not only because I was baptized as one but because I know religion can’t survive in the devil’s triangle that is college football in the 2020s. A brand that thrived in the last century now must wrestle in the mud with megaprograms willing to commit abundant sums to the best players, legally possible via NIL collectives/booster mobs. Vowing to remain holier than thou, Notre Dame won’t go down the pay-for-play rabbit hole, viewing the practice as slippery despite a network of wealthy supporters who’d love to “donate” seven-figure deals to quarterbacks and linebackers.
“It’s a mess,’’ athletic director Jack Swarbrick says of the NIL era. “We as college athletics have completely screwed this up. We never anticipated (NIL) would come online with no regulation. And that it would come online coupled with the unlimited right to transfer.”
He’s right about the mess, but as this new way of life pertains to Notre Dame, virtue no longer matters. Not long ago, university president John I. Jenkins said he would consider downsizing his storied program if the sport dipped too far into professionalism. Perhaps it’s time to consider that once-preposterous option, as college football takes on the distinct look of an on-campus NFL. If the Fighting Irish refuse to play the NIL game and aren’t diving headlong into the perpetual transfer portal, they’ll quick-fade in relevance and struggle to earn spots in the new 12-team playoff system.
The downturn already is in progress. When Brian Kelly decided Notre Dame wasn’t devoting the necessary resources to remain a major player and fled to LSU — a bombshell that shook the program to its core and sent the Leprechaun to therapy — Swarbrick may have been so hasty in naming a replacement that he created another mess. Marcus Freeman was 35 when he walked into one of America’s most pressurized sports gigs, per media attention and alumni demands, and he isn’t impressing anybody so far. He became the first ND head coach to lose his first three games, including a home shocker to Marshall of the Sun Belt Conference, and he looked horrified on the sideline Saturday as the Irish nearly blew a late lead at home against California.
“Starts with me,’’ Freeman said last week.
This week? He spent the frenzied final minutes of a 24-17 victory having “a conversation between me and God, and a conversation between me and myself to focus on what matters. There was some, ‘Lord, what is going on?’ That’s the challenge, our minds can drift to the outcome, to the future.”
They’ll dutifully pray on Sundays at Notre Dame. On Saturdays, they want to cheer and drink and dream of championships. They’ll have to recalibrate expectations, because theirs is a program going backwards, as two weeks of boos reflect. As it is, the Irish haven’t won a national title in 34 years. Under Kelly, at least they advanced to a title game and won 10 or more games in each of his last five seasons, but he knew the brand was broken.
To teen recruits born in the aughts, who view Joe Montana as the OG in the Skechers ads, Notre Dame is a cold place in the Midwest that isn’t part of the SEC or Big Ten. In any Gen-Z cool quotient, ND ranks far below the traditional powers that can pipeline kids toward the NFL — Alabama, Ohio State and Georgia — and is tumbling significantly below the new big-baller NIL players. USC can tap its enormous power-and-money base and entice impact transfers such as quarterback Caleb Williams — who already has a commercial running during NFL and college games — and receiver Jordan Addison, who might combine to lead the Trojans to a national championship game down the freeway at SoFi Stadium. Texas ran up a tab of $630,000 on two recruiting weekends in June, entertaining prospects and their families at a five-star hotel with unlimited gourmet meals, an open bar, a party at TopGolf — everything but piles of money left in their rooms. No wonder the Next-Gen Manning, Arch, signed with the Longhorns a few days later.
This is how it’s done now in the sport’s elite reaches. Notre Dame isn’t participating, unlike LSU, where Kelly has the budget to compete in the SEC without NIL hesitation. “It’s been awesome because you’ve got incredible facilities, you’ve got players that want to be great,” he said. “I want to be in an environment where I have the resources to win a national championship. And I came down here because I want to be in the American League East. I felt like I did everything that I could at Notre Dame and they felt like they did everything they could for me. I felt like we had both got to a point where this is what they could do, right? This is what I did. And we couldn’t get past that. OK? And so here we are.”
And there is Notre Dame, with academic standards that suggest it is more likely to join Stanford and Northwestern as champions of the U.S. News and World Report college rankings than do battle with Nick Saban, Kirby Smart and Lincoln Riley in future Januarys. Stanford already has waved the white flag, with one transfer this season compared to USC’s 26 in what is still the Pac-12. “We have a different approach. We’ll never have 20 guys transfer in,’’ said Stanford coach David Shaw, who might want to consider an NFL head coaching job once and for all. “We’re going to take freshmen. We’re going to take great students and great football players. We’re going to teach them. We’re going to develop them. That’s going to be our mode.”
Notre Dame’s mode, too? If so, the Irish would be wise to abandon their position among the nation’s last remaining independent programs. Though Swarbrick awkwardly continues to have a seat on the College Football Playoff’s management committee, along with 10 FBS commissioners, it was made clear long ago that the Irish wouldn’t qualify for a bye. How ridiculous would that be? Why would they deserve special treatment anymore? There was a theory, as college football was spinning in conference realignment, that Notre Dame still could command $80 million-plus a year in media rights from longtime partner NBC or another broadcaster. Anyone watching the Cal game knows that’s lunacy. Also, the prestige of the network production has scaled down — Mike Tirico and Drew Brees are now Jac Collinsworth and Jason Garrett — and the lowlight came when offensive coordinator Tommy Rees was captured chewing out quarterback Drew Pyne on the sideline phone, shouting, “Do your f–king job! The whole f–king team is counting on you!”
NBC was smart to get involved in the new Big Ten broadcast machine, but it doesn’t make financial sense to add Notre Dame separately. Rather, Jenkins and Swarbrick should make the move to the Big Ten, where up to $100 million in shared TV money annually would await. Oozing arrogance, Swarbrick recently said Notre Dame was well-positioned to remain an independent in the new paradigm. Why? If 2022 is a glimpse of what’s ahead — losses to behemoths Ohio State, Clemson and USC and too-close scrums against would-be pushovers, 6-6 at best — won’t the Irish be lonely and lame on their island? They’d make those annual $100 million deposits in the Big Ten. Without conference protection, what’s to say they wouldn’t become BYU?
It’s nice to see Freeman revive the tradition of pregame mass in the Basilica, followed by a walk to the stadium known as the Victory March. It also was nice to see Manti Te’o return to campus for the first time since his 2012 catfishing scandal. But even his gracious words Saturday revealed how the program has sunk.
“It's always good to be home. There's no place like home. But I want to make this real clear. It's not about me. It's not about one person. It's about this whole family,” he said, speaking to fans before the game. “This team needs all of us. It's easy to jump on the bandwagon when everything is going great. It's easy to get on when everything is right. But what I want to know is, who is with me? ... Who is going to get off that wagon and start pushing with me? That's why I am here.”
Time was when this program was too privileged and blessed to need help. Now, the wagon is stuck in a bygone era. If you look closely at the campus mural, tears are trickling down the face of Touchdown Jesus. Seems Notre Dame is Notre Doomed.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.