For most of my childhood, I wanted to go to Notre Dame if for no other reason than my dad and his brothers – raised Catholic by a 100-percent Irish mother – were fans of its football team. The Fighting Irish were on TV every Saturday in a time when nobody else was. And at that time they deserved the air time, too, Coach Lou Holtz leading the likes of Tim Brown, Rocket Ismail and Tony Rice in contention for national titles.
I finally made it to South Bend for the first time last week, some 25 years later, sent to the city to cover a women’s basketball game.
It was not what I expected.
For starters, Touchdown Jesus – the towering mural painted on the campus library – is infinitely more impressive to look at than the outside of Notre Dame Stadium. It’s an ornate work of art whereas the stadium is light brick arranged in a circle. Honestly, the thing that stood out most to me about the stadium was the size – it didn’t look big enough to hold 80,000 people. Many other college venues are more intimidating. I mean, LSU has a multi-million dollar habitat for a live tiger outside its stadium.
Plus, South Bend itself is underwhelming – at least the parts I drove through. Most of the homes look like they were built during the “Rudy” days, the only changes being for the worse. In my short time there, I saw a handful that were boarded up or dilapidated. It gave the impression of having fallen on hard times as much or more than being a blue-collar community. The campus is not only the focal point, but the crown jewel. I couldn’t help but wonder where the well-compensated coaches live. Maybe in the bookstore? Because that was majestic, almost castle-like.
Also, it was cold – not relative Indiana cold, but legit frozen-ears cold.
Speaking of “Rudy,” did you know that many believe he’s a fraud? That some key elements of the movie – like when the other players threatened to quit the team if Rudy didn’t get to dress for a game – about his career at Notre Dame were fictionalized, that some believe he violated the walk-on honor code by selling his story to Hollywood? Because I didn’t.
At the women’s basketball game, I was assigned a seat next to longtime former Irish men’s basketball coach and current ESPN analyst Digger Phelps. While I’m not the type to strike up conversations with unfamiliar people, Phelps sure has no problem with it. We spoke at length; he did most of the talking. He reminisced about beating UCLA and graduation rates and predicted mid-majors will pull more upsets than usual in the next NCAA tournament. Friendly guy. He should write another book. (He probably will.)
I’m glad I finally made it to Notre Dame, one of the most iconic college campuses in the country. But I didn’t leave feeling regret, wishing I’d spent four years (or more) there as a student. Just as some of the shine has come off the Irish football program, the allure of my youth has faded. Give me the lifestyle of Oregon, the greens of UCLA or the independent-spirit of Athens instead.