During his senior year as a Notre Dame student, Park City financial planner Joe Cronley enjoyed the week when the “#1” sign atop an 11-story residence tower was illuminated, signifying the Fighting Irish’s football ranking.
Having returned to the campus in November when Grace Hall’s light shined again, Cronley said, “If someone had told me it would be another 19 years, I would have thought, ‘Man, you’re nuts.’ ”
If the president of the Notre Dame Club of Utah ever had told me the Irish would be playing in Monday’s national championship game, I would have thought he was crazy. Frankly, I thought it never could happen in this era of college football, with a generation of recruits who know nothing about Notre Dame’s history, tradition or mystique.
I figured the cold weather, demanding academic standards and the fact television exposure hardly is exclusive to Notre Dame anymore would keep the Irish from returning to the elite level. The Irish, irrelevant? Not exactly. But certainly not in the national championship conversation, either. I lived through former Utah coach Urban Meyer’s rejection of Notre Dame in 2004, when he shrewdly determined he would have a better opportunity to win big at Florida.
Yet here they are, facing Alabama for the title, and the Irish have a genuine chance Monday in Miami. Notre Dame is very lucky to be there, having barely survived against the likes of Purdue, BYU and Pittsburgh this season, but nothing about their personnel makeup suggests the Irish will be overwhelmed by Alabama.
And how strange is it that Notre Dame, the school everybody loves to cheer against, is the sentimental choice of those who are tired of the Southeastern Conference’s dominance? The reviled Irish have become the symbol of the downtrodden masses.
I’m as enamored with Notre Dame as any Catholic would be, hearing about the Irish from the pulpit most Sundays. Which is weird, being Lutheran. In fairness, Rev. Steven A. Klemz regularly references the Chicago Cubs as well, so he’s entitled to basking in the success of his beloved football program.
Part of the fascination involves how the Irish have made this resurgence in coach Brian Kelly’s three seasons after a series of coaches before him failed. I can claim to have witnessed the turning point, the rainy day in November 2010 when a 4-5 Notre Dame team produced a 28-3 win over No. 14 Utah.
As for BYU, the Cougars fit into this story among unranked teams that could — or should — have beaten the Irish in 2012. The pain of BYU’s near-miss in South Bend in October lingers to such a degree that former quarterback Riley Nelson was making no plans to watch Monday’s game.
“It’s tough,” he said last month.
Nelson famously missed a wide-open Cody Hoffman midway through the fourth quarter, when BYU trailed 17-14.
The Irish’s escape was nothing compared with the following week, when they trailed Pitt 20-6 in the fourth quarter and later advanced to a third overtime only when the Panthers missed a 33-yard field goal.
For Cronley, Notre Dame’s title shot brings back memories of 1988, when he was a high school junior making a pilgrimage to South Bend. The Irish’s 31-30 upset of No. 1 Miami on the way to the national championship was “the best game I ever witnessed; it was great stuff,” he said.
Notre Dame football “used to be my life,” Cronley said. “Now it’s not my life. It’s a nice distraction.”
Yet his interest level was sufficient for him to fly to Miami this weekend, hoping to secure a high-priced game ticket. That’s an expense I never imagined a Notre Dame fan incurring in this century.
No. 1 Notre Dame
vs. No. 2 Alabama
P Monday, 6:30 p.m.
TV • ESPN