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Notre Dame Fans Believing again

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From Independent Record


What a remarkable change in all of us.



Notre Dame has its fans believing again

By KYLE NAGEL - Cox News Service - 12/26/05

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — A hundred or so people wandered outside of the University of Notre Dame’s Joyce Center on a chilly September evening, either listening to the external speakers or hovering near the multiple double doors.


Inside, football coach Charlie Weis and a few of his select players were addressing an overflow crowd in the first pep rally of the season. The Irish, who had again stomped into national football prominence with early-season wins against Pittsburgh and Michigan, would play their first home game — the Notre Dame Stadium opener of Weis’ trumpeted tenure — against Michigan State the next day.


But, there was a problem. The crowd inside had become so large (the arena holds 11,418 for basketball), ushers had been ordered to close the doors to avoid a fire hazard. Each time a spectator exited, another rushed the doors, as if hoping to sneak into the back of a Rolling Stones concert.


‘‘I’ve never seen anything like this,’’ said Dale Hooper, a 25-year veteran as an usher for Notre Dame football and basketball games. ‘‘We’ve had to physically hold the doors shut to keep people from busting in.’’


There was no question that night — as there wasn’t on a quiet December afternoon last week — that the Notre Dame faithful have again found their pride. After a an up-and-down decade of almost-resurgences, scandals and plenty of losses, Irish fans around South Bend, and ND backers across the country, have a reason to hold their heads high.


That reason, of course, is success on the field. The Irish ripped off a 9-2 record (six points shy of 11-0) and a No. 5 national ranking while earning a trip to the Jan. 2 Fiesta Bowl to face No. 4 Ohio State.


‘‘I think the city needed a good team this year,’’ said Nancy Balnick, a receptionist at South Bend’s Morris Performing Arts Center. ‘‘You can tell when people come to events, they’re talking about the football team and the players. And, trust me, a lot of these people wouldn’t usually be football fans.’’


They are now. A Notre Dame alum who never played college football, Weis has returned a successful attitude since his arrival last December. Irish fans know they have a good team, not one that is winning on shaky ground, as was the case with some recent squads.


‘‘This is a team you can win an argument with,’’ said Tom Noble, who lunched last Monday at the Linebacker Lounge, a popular South Bend sports bar. ‘‘You don’t have to justify it. The team speaks for itself.’’


A city and a school


Through most of the century, the Irish have rarely left the national football conversation. In the past decade, though, coaches Bob Davie and Tyrone Willingham faced criticism for fading success. One argument contended that the Irish couldn’t land the nation’s high-caliber recruits due to the school’s stringent entrance requirements.


In between, coach George O’Leary added embarrassment for the school when it was revealed he had inaccurate facts on his resume. O’Leary resigned on Dec. 14, 2001, five days after he was hired to replace Davie.


There was another ugly parting with the next coach. Notre Dame fired Willingham last December after three seasons, including a 6-5 performance in 2004. Many believed the school acted harshly, as Willingham raised social and academic standards for his players.


Athletics Director Kevin White then turned to Weis, a 1978 graduate. Anticipation immediately swelled around college football, and most wondered if the NFL offensive whiz who helped New England win three Super Bowls could resurrect the tarnished golden dome.


Hence, the large gathering on Friday, Sept. 16. Those crowding the Joyce Center included students, grandmothers, professionals, lawyers, Catholics and everyone in between. The Irish, however, would lose to Michigan State, 44-41, in overtime.


On Oct. 15, Notre Dame played in what many consider the game of the year in college football. Top-ranked USC visited South Bend and left with a breathtaking 34-31 victory earned on a short push into the end zone by Trojans quarterback Matt Leinart.


The Irish then closed the regular season with five straight wins as support in the city grew.


‘‘Oh, people ask us about Notre Dame accessories all the time,’’ said Kelly Brown, a sales associate at The Bridal House, which sits on the main drag into campus. ‘‘People ask about vests, flowers, even garters. More so this year.’’


While the stores and hotels don’t arrange the letters on their signs to support the Irish, the subject is quick to the lips of almost anyone on the street. Even from those whom you might least expect.


Everyone, it seems, has found some reason to root.


‘‘Of course I watch the Irish,’’ said Melinda Sampson, a 76-year-old crossing guard outside of the James Madison School. ‘‘I like that Brady Quinn. He looks like such a nice boy.’’


Kyle Nagel writes for the Dayton Daily News. E-mail:

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