Unbeatable

I was there for Notre Dame football’s national championship in 1988. I was my senior year though, so I had bigger fish to fry. After reading this book, I realized that I didn’t really appreciate it as much as I could have. At times, this book made me feel almost like an outsider; I didn’t know half of what went on.

In my defense, there was a lot of stuff going down senior year – job interviews, CPA exam. Okay, not that much. So maybe I should have taken time to make a bigger deal out of it, to savor the victories, to party with my friends, to take it all in, because the victories have been few and far between since then.

Reading this book brought me back to that time in a lighthearted way. Lighthearted because it has a heavy Notre Dame bias. It made me feel good about my time at ND, but it also made me reflect on college football in general, my relationship to collegiate sports as entertainment, and where in my life I should place ND football fandom.

When I rolled into South Bend in 1985, this is how ND treated bad coaches:

“You better fire me. I’m just going to ruin this thing,” Faust said to Father Hesburgh.

“Hey, we signed a five-year contract with you, and if you lose every game you’re still going to be coach for this season. So I don’t want to talk about it. We don’t play those games. Now, if you just want to walk away, I can’t control that, but you probably don’t.” (loc 163)

I lived through that year. It was Faust’s final year and we were 5-6. But things were about the change. Father Hesburgh’s value system was quickly going to buck up against multi-million dollar TV contracts, massive endorsement deals, and a growing nation of aggressive fans and alumni.

It was all going down right then. Monied interests had made inroads into college sports in the past, but nothing like what was happening in the mid-80s with college football, and Notre Dame was at the forefront of converting the popularity of their athletics into dollars. I highlighted these passages:

Before the Supreme Court changed the system, no team was allowed to play more than two games on national TV, no matter the school’s ranking or following. The NCAA held a vise grip on college football broadcast rights. The organization restricted schools’ TV opportunities because it believed if more football appeared on the tube, fewer people would attend games, and that would mean less revenue from ticket sales. (loc 3296)

Notre Dame’s executive vice president, Fr. Edmund Joyce, was instrumental in forming the CFA, which originally started as a lobbying group. When the CFA first formed in 1977, it accomplished restructuring the NCAA into Divisions I, II, and III, but the TV issue worsened. (loc 3304)

In June 1984, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the schools in the case of NCAA v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma. With just a few weeks before the start of the season, the CFA scrambled to put together a TV package. (loc 3329)

The power shift occurred in 1986 when the CFA signed a deal with CBS and ESPN to air games on network and cable TV. (loc 3332)

In the same season the CFA struck its new deal, the Fiesta Bowl hosted an unofficial national championship game between Penn State and Miami. (loc 3336)

Enter Lou Holtz. This wave of increasing exposure in college football coincided with ND’s hiring of the football genius in 1986 and ND rode the wave into a money-making machine of epic proportions. It evolved over the course of Holtz’s tenure, but by the time he “retired” in 1996 after two pedestrian seasons of 9-3 and 8-3, ND had pretty much made the conversion to a coach-churning, conference-realigning football beast. A beast that continues to succeed marginally on the field but hugely off the field.

I love ND football. I love sports. I use them to connect with other humans and I’m not ashamed of that. But I don’t take sports fandom with any seriousness now, especially college sports fandom. ND losses on Saturday come with very little pain and victories come with very little joy. I watch college football with a clinical interest that gets occasionally stirred by the drama of the game, but it’s fleeting.

I do sometimes wonder what life would be like without sports, would there be gaping holes in my life that I couldn’t fill with other pursuits? What the hell would I do on a rainy Saturday in the fall? Read more books? Help other humans? These are big questions, worthy of more thought, and ones I’m going to pay attention to as we inch closer to football in 2014 (I’m actually writing this in July).

Reliving my senior year in college through this book was a great exercise. I have new found respect for what the team accomplished and the players who participated in it. I wish I would have been a little more tuned in to it. I went to every home game and cheered like a mad man, but I didn’t really entertain the thought of going to the championship game.

On the flip side, I wish I would have paid more attention to the changes that were happening in collegiate sports at that time. Had I done so, I would have been a much different fan during the 90s. I would have been able to place my feelings in a context much different from the win-at-all-costs mentality of rabid fandom. That would have been a healthier approach I think.