After one of the more recent indignities heaped on the Notre Dame football team — Michigan State’s heart attack inducing fake field goal, I think — a faculty member vented on Facebook: “OK, joke’s over. Could whoever turned us into the Wile E. Coyote of college football these past years, please turn us back into the Road Runner?”
Notre Dame first ran off the cliff, legs churning, eyes forward, feeling gloriously, prematurely triumphant, on November 20, 1993. You remember. Quarterback Kevin McDougal — the last Road Runner — delivered a laser beam under duress to receiver Lake Dawson.
That touchdown pass should have completed a once-commonplace Epic Comeback against Boston College, punctuated a perfect regular season, and positioned Notre Dame for another national title. Boston College had done everything it could, but the hapless coyote always suffers comic ignominy in the end — the only question is how. It’s often anvil-related.
Except on that afternoon 19 years ago, the weight whistling from the sky landed on Notre Dame instead. A last-second BC field goal inflicted a 41-39 loss. Every year since, the Irish have dusted themselves off and concocted a new scheme to restore their supremacy. And every year, cartoon violence has intervened.
It’s always too soon to tempt fate, but if Notre Dame can wear those Purdue-surplus helmets and still win, looking up from underneath this ladder and marveling at how they got up there can’t be bad luck. This team seems immune to misfortune.
Those two No. 2s on the field at the same time for Pittsburgh’s merciful missed field goal? If the officials failing to notice that — the second time the Irish had committed that infraction this season — doesn’t signal karmic realignment, I don’t know what does.
Despite two decades developing groundbreaking forms of disappointment, Notre Dame had yet to lose by clerical error. The Wile E. Irish would have.
They also would have lost at least one of the collar-tightening encounters with Purdue, or Michigan, or Stanford, or BYU. Or face-planted at Oklahoma as so many expected. Or succumbed to the déjà vu dread that Pittsburgh conjured for the better part of four quarters and two overtimes.
With the possible exception of that Oklahoma game, these Irish have not yet proven themselves to be the old-school Road Runners that now require some straining to remember. Against Pittsburgh, at the very least, they showed a Dick Van Dyke-like agility to sidestep the footstool after pratfalling over it for so long.
Now looms [cue the anvil inching toward the cliff] Boston College, such a predictable calamity that Notre Dame fans could be forgiven for yelling warnings like a horror-movie audience. Or just averting their eyes until sunrise Sunday. The thing is, for the first time in a generation, it feels safe to watch.
Still, even three more wins could lead to an unhappy ending. An undefeated regular season might not secure a shot at the national championship. But if that’s the extent of Notre Dame’s bad luck this season, I suggest grateful acceptance. After the benefits of the BCS doubt over the years, let a Road Runner-esque record meep for itself.
That should be satisfaction enough because, after all these years, it feels like the Irish have been Wile E. Coyote forever. Or at least since 41-39 BC.
Jason Kelly, a former sports columnist for the South Bend Tribune, is an associate editor of the University of Chicago Magazine. His most recent book is Shelby’s Folly: Jack Dempsey, Doc Kearns, and the Shakedown of a Montana Boomtown. Email him at email@example.com.