It was just a little more than 100 years ago when Jesse Harper, the newly hired football and baseball coach and athletic director at the University of Notre Dame, was trying to put together the schedule for the 1913 season.
On December 18, 1912, a letter was sent to Army, which agreed to host a contest.
As told by Murray Sperber in Shake Down the Thunder, Harper had come to Notre Dame after four years at Wabash, and inherited a situation fraught with financial and logistical pressures. With Notre Dame on the outside looking in with many regional powers, Army — which faced criticism of its own for often giving more eligibility to football stars who had already graduated elsewhere — the contest was somewhat a marriage of necessity.
Those broader forces, however, largely remain in the history books that analyze them. Notre Dame fans now remember that 1913 Army game as the day when Charley “Gus Dorais, class of 1914, and Knute Rockne, class of 1914, unveiled an aerial attack that spurred a shocking 35-13 win over the Cadets and propelled the University into a new strata of collegiate sports consciousness.
Sperber notes one historian called the victory “‘The greatest single miracle in the history of Catholic higher education’ because it began the transformation of Notre Dame ‘into a household word.’”
I’ve often wondered if Harper, Dorais and Rockne knew when they stepped on the field to play Army that day whether it would become a defining moment in the history of Notre Dame. It’s hard not to wonder the same as the Fighting Irish take the field tonight against Alabama.
The fan fear of losing has largely tempered my attempts at historical vision; by trumpeting this as some sort of history-defining moment, I would open myself up to a sort of sports promised land with a victory, and a long off-season in purgatory with a loss. And as any Notre Dame fan could tell you, you never know when you are going to get out of sports purgatory.
I’ve been to plenty of football games over the past 13 years that I thought were going to be my own 1913 Army, be it 2002 Florida State, 2005 Pittsburgh or 2006 UCLA. While each was incredible from a pure athletic contest standpoint, none has held up to the gravity of the victories truly held in the hearts of Notre Dame fans. All of us want to be there for one; all of us hope we get the opportunity.
And in my blinks of optimism, I imagine that tonight’s game will be another 1913 Army; that Notre Dame will find a way to overcome the odds again, will reclaim a championship and will return to its rightful place among college football elite. I want it as a fan and I want it as an alum. At moments, I think, I’ve loved that place in South Bend for too long and have suffered so many slings and arrows without that reward.
But I want the team to win for bigger reasons than my own happiness. I want them to win because it could reinvent what it means to be a “student-athlete.”
By now, plenty of people have probably heard that Notre Dame is the first school to be simultaneously ranked first in student-athlete graduation rate and in the BCS standings. In my eyes, the debate over whether an institution can have top-rank academics and athletics at the same time should have ended the instant that happened, but as a realist, I know plenty of doubters remain.
Until Notre Dame is able to win a national championship in football with its No. 1 graduation rate, there will always be a question mark in collegiate sports at the end of the noun “student-athlete.” It is unfair to the incredible accomplishments of our women’s basketball team, women’s soccer team and fencing, among others, but football defines Notre Dame for the outside world and what it thinks sports mean in South Bend.
Notre Dame has been a great school for a long time, but in the current age of U.S. News & World Report rankings, the past championships don’t count for as much. Doubters can dismiss all of the admirable achievements of former student-athletes by saying they attended a different Notre Dame than the one considered as part of the “new Ivies.”
I don’t just want this for me. I don’t just want it for the team or the current students or graduates or subway alumni.
I want this for all the kids out there who haven’t started playing tackle football but one day will earn athletic scholarships. Let’s give them a new model. Let’s change the face of college athletics.
Notre Dame, by the end of tonight, could say once and for all, “This is how you do it.”
Liam Farrell is the alumni editor of Notre Dame Magazine.