Here was an early November evening gone dark and cold in South Bend. The afternoon's pale sunshine, which had warmed tailgate parties on the asphalt outside Notre Dame Stadium, had long disappeared, and so too had the rediscovered spirit that preceded the game against seemingly overmatched Pittsburgh. It had turned black and dreary, and the home team had fallen far behind, its unbeaten season seemingly finished. Then came the rally, fueled by genuine desperation, but also by a referee's phantom call and an inexplicably missed field goal by Pitt. More than four hours after the opening kickoff, Notre Dame scored the winning touchdown, remaining undefeated, and for the moment, rejuvenated.
In a corner of the stadium that Rockne built and NBC expanded, Notre Dame freshmen extricated themselves from the battered wooden bleachers and began chugging down the concrete steps toward the field. Three sections to their left, in the better seats that come with seniority, upperclassmen began chanting: Stay in the Stands! Stay in the Stands! Because, as senior Allan Joseph, editor in chief of the student newspaper The Observer, would later explain, "If we're trying to restore the Notre Dame football brand, you can't be rushing the field after beating Pittsburgh." At least not this year, you can't.
On the sideline, Notre Dame defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore, a 6'4", 306-pound fifth-year senior from Weatherford, Texas, scanned the rocking stadium. He had come to Notre Dame in the fall of 2008, with no knowledge of the school's mythic—and dusty—football history. "Didn't know about Knute Rockne or Lou Holtz or Win One for the Gipper," says Lewis-Moore. "I knew it was going to be cold, and that's about it." In the final home game of his true freshman season, Lewis-Moore had sat on the bench as Notre Dame was beaten by 2--8 Syracuse, and fans, some of them students, had peppered the players with snowballs and marshmallows. Now the Irish had gone to 9--0, and one group of students was telling another that the victory wasn't worthy of excessive celebration. As he stood on the field and sang Notre Dame's alma mater, a postgame ritual in good times and bad, Lewis-Moore absorbed the difference that four years makes and chose to accept it all as part of the same experience. "That whole thing about remembering where you came from?" he says. "That's big right now."
Two more wins have followed, a punch-the-clock, 21--6 victory at Boston College on Nov. 10, and last Saturday on Senior Day at home, a 38--0 trouncing of Wake Forest that elevated Notre Dame to an 11--0 record for the first time in 23 years and seemingly secured its No. 3 Bowl Championship Series ranking for another week. Five hours later the story became stunningly richer, as No. 1 Kansas State was beaten at Baylor and No. 2 Oregon was upset by Stanford in Eugene. As those games wound down, students on the Notre Dame campus spilled out of their dorm rooms and into the dry Clarke Memorial Fountain. The no. 1 sign atop Grace Hall at the northeast corner of the campus was illuminated for the first time since November 1993. With a victory over USC this Saturday night at the Los Angeles Coliseum—site of the some of the most resonant games in Notre Dame (and USC) history—the Fighting Irish will earn a place in the BCS national championship game in Miami on Jan. 7, their first appearance in any clear title game since 1988. Throughout the fall, Notre Dame's presence among the college football elite, whether judged as overdue, surprising or repulsive (there are constituencies in all three camps) has added a familiar layer of plot to the customary seasonlong BCS driven narrative. "It seems like Notre Dame is supposed to be up there, like they always ought to have a good team," says former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden. "This is the way it should be." Now the team stands on the precipice of adding a rich chapter to Irish lore.
It is not nearly that simple, because there are few places in American sports where the seemingly self-evident act of winning or losing a game is more complicated than at Notre Dame. It is a place where success is measured not just against the rest of the Top 25 (or in some recent years, the top 125), but also against an outsized football history that rolls back through a century of the real and the cinematic. Notre Dame can't merely be good; it must call to mind past glory. It is also a place where success must signify a triumph of some higher standard—generally known as Doing It the Right Way—that would expose most other winning programs as ethically bankrupt by comparison. "There is a culture at Notre Dame that's different from other schools," says New York Giants defensive end Justin Tuck, who was with the Irish from 2001 through '04. "And unless you've been there and lived it, you can't understand it." This seizing of the moral high ground, in turn, triggers a resentment from certain other programs and their fans and condemnation of Notre Dame as arrogant, self-righteous and insufferable (even if justified).
The cycle repeats itself whenever Notre Dame reappears among the elite, as it did in the 1960s and '70s under coach Ara Parseghian, who still lives half the year in South Bend; and in the late '80s under Lou Holtz, who can now be seen conducting daffy monologues as Dr. Lou on ESPN and is memorialized in bronze at Notre Dame Stadium, a bespectacled sentinel outside a gate named in his honor, where passersby have apparently repressed the antipathy that accompanied Holtz's departure in '96 after 11 seasons and 100 victories, the latter total second only to that of Rockne himself. And now it is happening again under third-year coach Brian Kelly, invigorating a campus that tries to separate itself from a football identity yet derives much of its emotional energy from that very team. Current seniors arrived in South Bend in the fall of 2009 and were welcomed by a 35--0 beatdown of Nevada on a beautiful late summer afternoon. "I remember thinking, We might not lose for four years," says Alex Andre, a senior from Chicago.
A week later the Irish lost to Michigan in Ann Arbor on a Wolverines touchdown with 11 seconds to play. Chris Allen, a senior from East Brunswick, N.J., and sports editor of The Observer, recalls shuffling from his freshman dorm to the dining hall that evening, despondent. "I was thinking, Why did I come here again?" he says. Notre Dame went on to win five of its next six games but closed the season with four straight losses to end Charlie Weis's tenure and then went 16--10 in Kelly's first two years. "It wasn't all sunshine and rainbows around here for a while," says fifth-year senior Mike Golic Jr., who has been visiting the campus since he was in elementary school—his father and two uncles played for Notre Dame.
It is palpably different now. Students awaken to class e-mails from professors that begin with: GO IRISH! or HOW ABOUT THAT GAME! As a freshman on fall break weekend, Joseph, the Observer editor, watched Notre Dame lose to USC and then rode home (to the Columbus suburbs) with his dad, stopping at a rural Arby's with his hair and face painted in Notre Dame colors, embarrassed and beaten. "Now," says Joseph, "the football team is winning, and it feels like it inspires everybody on campus to be on top of their game."
Manti Te'o—Notre Dame's All-America inside linebacker, likely Heisman Trophy finalist (the school has had just two finalists since Tim Brown won in 1987) and the emotional center of the team—says, "You can feel that everybody around here is just happier. It's getting colder. The snow is coming. Nobody wants that. But everybody is just happy. I'm so glad we've been able to give them this experience."
Yet the transition back to prominence has been at times turbulent, and at times tragic. Notre Dame's culture of rigid campus discipline has been altered in ways that have changed not just the football program but also the entire community. Two young people have died, one directly connected to Notre Dame football and the other at odds with it, both leaving deep scars and very different levels of closure. A daily battle is waged between a distant memory of the old Notre Dame and the more modern needs of the new Notre Dame. Football knits them together.
WINNING AS A PLAN
It's a bit of leprechaun's magic that the coach at the helm in Notre Dame's revival is named Kelly, but it's also a little misleading. Brian Kelly, 51, was raised in the small, industrial city of Chelsea, Mass., north across the Mystic River from downtown Boston, the second oldest of four children born to Paul and Thelma Kelly. They were Irish-Catholic and they rooted for Notre Dame on football Saturdays, but not nearly as hard as they rooted for the Celtics, Patriots, Red Sox or, especially in Brian's case the Big Bad Bruins. Brian's bedroom walls were decorated with years of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED covers as a kid, but more treasured was a print of the iconic Bobby Orr dive photo after the winning goal in the 1970 Stanley Cup finals. "Signed by Bobby Orr," says Kelly, who was eight years old on the night of the clinching game.
Brian's parents divorced when he was 10 and his older brother, Paul, was 11. Their mother moved to California with the two younger children, a brother, 9, and a sister, 8. Their father remarried almost immediately. The family was effectively split in half. "It wasn't easy, and the divorce was contentious," says Paul. "Brian and I did a lot of bonding."
Most of that bonding was over sports. When it came time for high school, the family moved from Chelsea to the distant suburb of Andover, and the boys were sent to St. John's Prep, a Catholic boys school in Danvers. Four years later Paul, now an oil trader, went to Holy Cross in Worcester, and Brian joined him there a year later when he enrolled at Assumption College, where he played linebacker on the school's club football team, wearing number 63. After college Brian worked in politics for a few years before taking a job as the defensive coordinator--linebackers coach at Assumption. From there he moved on to a graduate assistant job at Grand Valley State in Allendale, Mich., in 1987.
Four years later Kelly, at 29, became the head coach at Grand Valley, and in his 13 years the Lakers won 118 games, went to the NCAA Division II playoffs six times and won two national championships. Kelly then spent three years at Central Michigan and three at Cincinnati, leading the Bearcats to consecutive BCS bowls in 2008 and '09, before Notre Dame hired him in December '09. It was not a job he had dreamed of every day: "I didn't sit at my desk doodling the [Notre Dame] monogram," Kelly says.
Perhaps because it had been devalued. Kelly took over an Irish program that had been thrice battered, by the post-Holtz failures of Bob Davie (35--25 in five seasons; 5--6 in the last), Tyrone Willingham (21--15 in three seasons; 6--6 in the last) and Weis, a Notre Dame grad who came to his alma mater having earned three Super Bowl rings as the voice inside Tom Brady's helmet, promising a "decided schematic advantage," but providing only 35 wins in five seasons before he was fired in December 2009. At that point Notre Dame hadn't won a national championship in 21 years and hadn't seriously contended in 16, the longest such gaps in the school's football history.
Weis and his staff brought ample talent to South Bend. "I can honestly say this," says Robert Blanton, a rookie defensive back with the Minnesota Vikings who played two years under Weis and two years under Kelly. "Except for my freshman year against USC, we had as much talent as every team we played. You could see it on the tape."
Kelly walked in dishing out tough love. In the first spring players shoveled snow off the practice field and worked outdoors in the cold. A diagram was posted in the locker room with a precise configuration for equipment storage inside a dressing cubicle: helmet upper right cubby; playbook right side; shoulder pads on top. If anything was out of place, the player ran. Some days they all ran.
At the initial workout of the 2010 season, Kelly's first, Notre Dame players were doing a series of drills involving four rubber cones placed on the ground, and many were hopelessly failing. "We do it all the time now," says junior tight end Tyler Eifert. "Nobody ever messes up. That day people were running to the wrong cone, cutting in the wrong direction. Bad." Kelly stopped the drill and ordered three side-to-side gassers—sprints back and forth across the width of the field. Some players didn't touch the lines, so Kelly ordered more gassers. "Those three turned into six or seven," says senior offensive tackle Zack Martin. "Then eight or nine."
Eifert says, "Guys were falling out of the drill. At that point, you're thinking, This guy isn't messing around."
"When I got here, the locker room was a mess," says Kelly. "I'm not saying these kids were badly coached, but it was a mess. So we started there. We call it unconscious competence. At the beginning it was unconscious incompetence. Now it's in their DNA. And from Day One we preached mental and physical toughness."
Players who straddle a coaching change are sensitive to questions probing the difference. They are loath to trash the old, yet it slips into every endorsement of the new. "What did I learn?" asks Blanton. "I learned that coaching makes a difference. Coach Kelly and his staff were just more direct in what they wanted from us."
WINNING AS TRANSITION
Kelly was equally direct in what he wanted from Notre Dame. A training table, to start. Weis (right) had wanted one as well, but it had long been part of Notre Dame tradition that football players got no special dining privileges that might create a sense of entitlement or separate them from the campus community. Weis's staff—and probably earlier staffs, too—argued that it was affecting performance on the field, and that most other top college football programs have a training table to accommodate players after late practices.
"When Charlie left, [Notre Dame athletic director] Jack [Swarbrick] did exit interviews with Charlie's staff," says a Notre Dame employee in the football program during the Weis era. "Everybody told him, 'You need a training table.' You can't just send a guy over to North Dining Hall for scraps. We had kids losing 12 pounds, 15 pounds in the last month of the season, linemen more than that. We thought it was creating extra wear and tear on their bodies." (Weis's last two teams went 1--8 in November. His first three teams went 9--3 in November.)
Now Notre Dame players gather dinner from a buffet line arranged on a second floor landing of the Guglielmino Athletics Complex and eat at round tables in a seldom-used recruiting lounge at the corner of the building. These are not the intended uses for either space, but it works. (The training table began in the spring of 2010; other Notre Dame athletic teams now also have training tables.)
Downstairs in the players' lounge Kelly added pool and Ping-Pong tables, XBox 360 and PS3 video-game consoles and two arcade machines. "Now it's a place where you can blow off some steam with teammates at the end of a long day," says Golic Jr. This seems simple enough—it's not like Kelly has Guinness on tap down there—but crosses into yet another delicate area at Notre Dame, where Do It the Right Way assumes that football players are just regular students who play games on Saturday. This has generally been true: Notre Dame keeps most football players in campus dorms for three years before allowing them to move off-campus. There have never been athletic dorms.
As a social experiment this is an interesting idea, although some players fit in better than others. Many current students remember quarterback Jimmy Clausen, now a backup with the Carolina Panthers, as unpopular around the dorms. Golden Tate, a third-year wide receiver with the Seattle Seahawks, was universally liked and spent his final weeks on campus in the winter of 2010 (he left after his junior season) signing memorabilia for students, his dorm room door open for visitors. Then there is Te'o, whose campuswide appeal is described with reverence. "You read stories in the outside media about Notre Dame athletes, and you think, Well, that's not really true," says Joseph. "But with Manti, it's all true. He is everything people say about him."
Te'o lived in Dillon Hall for three years before moving off-campus for his senior season. "I miss dorm life," says Te'o. "I miss walking out of my room and seeing guys in the hallway playing board games, or kicking a soccer ball around. I don't miss my small bed, but that's a small price to pay to experience the spirit of Notre Dame. It's like no other place."
Whether tempting football players to leave their dorms and shoot pool or play Call of Duty can erode that spirit is a slippery question. Whether it might help win football games, not so much. The Weis-era employee says, "I thought the concept of being a well-rounded student at Notre Dame was a neat idea. But I also think the campus environment softens a kid. Then you've got to get him back over to the facility and unsoften him. Now I hear kids are coming to the building and hanging around as a team, not just hanging out on campus. I think that's a good change for the program."
It is not the only change. Generations of Notre Dame students, including football players, have lived by the rules laid down in a booklet (and now a Web page) called du Lac: A Guide to Student Life. Hence, when fifth-year senior fullback Rashon Powers-Neal was arrested for DUI in the fall of 2005, du Lac mandated that he be suspended from all extracurricular activities, including intercollegiate athletics. Weis had no say in the decision. Three years later Weis lost tight end Will Yeatman, who was arrested for suspicion of underage drinking, resisting arrest and providing false information in a raid at an off-campus party that nabbed 37 Notre Dame students, including 22 athletes. (The charges were dismissed against Yeatman, who had previously pled guilty to DUI. He transferred to Maryland and now plays for the Dolphins.)
Upon leaving Notre Dame, Weis did an interview with a small group of selected media in which he said, in response to a question about the biggest problem on Notre Dame's campus, "Oh, it's Residence Life [the disciplinary branch of the school's student affairs office]. It's not even close for second.... I just think these are college kids, and college kids do what college kids do. Let's say a kid has been too loud because he had some alcohol, why wouldn't you just tell him to go to bed? ... I'm just saying boys will be boys, and I'm just defending them." (Weis never specifically said that he was talking about football players, but he was the football coach.)
More quietly, in the summer of 2010 Notre Dame dismissed associate vice president for residence life Bill Kirk, who for more than two decades had been du Lac's enforcer. Kirk's leaving was seen by some in the Notre Dame community as a capitulation to the departed Weis's clamor for softer discipline. Philosophy associate professor David Solomon, who has taught at the school since 1968 and was the director of Notre Dame's Center for Ethics and Culture, wrote a 2,000-word post on the online newspaper The Irish Rover, in which he said that football fans, "... frequently charge that Bill Kirk's enforcement of Notre Dame's disciplinary code was too harsh and that his insistence that Notre Dame athletes be subject to the same rules as other Notre Dame students was responsible for our repeated failures on the athletic fields." And also this: "In a summer in which all Domers were celebrating the distance between our oversight of athletics and the disorderly mess at USC, this incident [Kirk's exit] raised questions about just how different we really are."
Kirk, who was hired as vice president for student affairs at Ave Maria University in southwestern Florida in July, had no comment about the state of Notre Dame's disciplinary enforcement.
The changes became evident when wide receiver Michael Floyd was arrested for drunken driving in the spring of 2011, before his final season at Notre Dame. It was Floyd's third alcohol-related offense during his college career, yet his discipline was handled by Kelly, and Floyd did not miss a game. "With Michael Floyd," says Kelly, "I was the beneficiary of the student code of conduct being updated. Residential Life is going to be the final authority, but changes to du Lac kept Michael in the university, which then allowed me to discipline him to the level that [I deemed]was appropriate."
Brian Coughlin, Notre Dame's associate vice president for student development, says that a review of Notre Dame's disciplinary policies was undertaken in the spring of 2009; and changes were installed a year later that allowed for any student to be on probation without losing the right to participate in extracurricular activities, including football.
Whether these changes shrink Notre Dame's ethical soapbox is a debate over which purists will wring their hands and others will shrug. Few football powers have lost players for underage drinking; now Notre Dame generally will not. The school's academic record among football players remains healthy. In the most recent NCAA GSR (Graduation Success Rate) figures, Notre Dame is tied for first with Northwestern; by U.S. Department of Education accounting, Notre Dame is sixth, behind Northwestern, Boston College, Stanford, Rice and Penn State. Measured by the NCAA's Academic Progress Rate (APR), Notre Dame is tied for 25th among 120 FBS schools (among those higher: Ohio State and Miami).
Much of what Notre Dame does, it does indeed do the right way. "They won't knowingly break the rules," says Mike Tranghese, who worked closely with Notre Dame as Big East commissioner from 1990 to 2009 and as a BCS official. "But there are a lot of schools that won't knowingly break the rules. There is a certain kind of kid that they want, but they will make exceptions. People perceive them as acting privileged. They've earned that."
The school is in a unique position to control its message. In the winter of 1990, NBC executive Ken Schanzer told his boss, Dick Ebersol, that because of potential changes in the structure of college football broadcasting contracts, Notre Dame might be interested in cutting an exclusive deal with the highest bidder. Early in his career, at ABC, Ebersol had shared an office with Beano Cook, the former University of Pittsburgh sports information director and tireless college football proselytizer. "Beano impressed on me that Notre Dame was by far the strongest brand in college football. He thought it was worth more than Casablanca," says Ebersol, now retired. (Cook died in October.) "I told Ken, 'Get out of my office. Go do it.'"
So a school with only 8,372 undergrads but untold support among Irish Catholics got its own TV contract. That deal is now in its 22nd season, signed through 2015 at $15 million a year for Notre Dame. "We love the relationship," says NBC Sports chairman Mark Lazarus. "We intend to be their partners for another 25 years." For NBC, which paid $1.2 billion for the 2012 Olympics, the cost is minimal. And for Notre Dame, the money is less significant than the platform. "You watch the telecast, and it's clearly a Notre Dame telecast," says Tranghese. "It may not be maximum dollars, but Notre Dame has a brand, and the NBC deal allows them to advertise that brand." Notre Dame further solidified its financial well-being by joining the Atlantic Coast Conference in all sports except football beginning in 2014, while also keeping a spot in the BCS and in the ACC's rotation of non-BCS bowls.
The truth of Notre Dame is somewhere between the mythology and the haters' vision. Vikings safety Harrison Smith spent five years at Notre Dame, three under Weis and two under Kelly. "I was never a guy who would say, Oh, we're Notre Dame, we do things in a special way and we're better than all these other schools," says Smith. "You're expected to go to class and not just be a football player. That's real. It's going to be hard academically, just like it's hard academically at a lot of schools. But we're all just college kids, we're all playing football, and we're all going to make mistakes. Notre Dame is not some golden perfect place. It's a place that tries to do the right thing."
WINNING AS TRAGEDY
The current generation of Notre Dame football will be forever connected—and in a very complex manner—to the lives of Declan Sullivan and Lizzy Seeberg, both of whom died during Brian Kelly's first season. Sullivan was a 20-year-old junior who worked as a videographer for the football team; he was killed on Oct. 27, 2010, when the portable tower from which he was filming football practice crashed in high winds (after which the practice was not immediately stopped). Seeberg was a 19-year-old freshman at Saint Mary's College in Notre Dame, Ind.; she accused a Notre Dame football player of assaulting her on Aug. 31, 2010, and 10 days later committed suicide in her dorm room.
Three days after Sullivan's death, which came on a day when wind speeds reached 53 miles per hour, Notre Dame honored him with a moment of silence before a home game against Tulsa, and players wore helmet decals in his memory. In July 2011, after admitting that adequate safeguards were not in place, Notre Dame agreed to pay a $42,000 fine imposed by the Indiana Department of Labor to launch a program aimed at improving safety in the use of scissor lifts.
The school also made a substantial donation to the Declan Drumm Sullivan Memorial Fund, which was established by Sullivan's family, and established a scholarship in Sullivan's name. On Oct. 22, 2011, Notre Dame dedicated a memorial to Sullivan at the corner of the Guglielmino facility. On the weekend of Notre Dame's win over Brigham Young this fall, people sent photos of the memorial site to the Sullivan family, with little gifts left on the ground nearby, silently commemorating the two-year anniversary.
The Sullivans, Barry and Alison, did not seek legal action against Notre Dame. "The university shared our sorrow, they embraced us," says Barry Sullivan, a 56-year-old Marquette graduate whose daughter, Wyn, is a Notre Dame junior, and son, Mac, is a high school senior with plans to apply to Notre Dame. "Their support helped us deal with it. To drag them through another painful experience seemed like a cruel thing to do." The Sullivans went to graduation last May, where they accepted Declan's diploma posthumously. They have been to half a dozen football games. "Unavoidably, when we're on campus, we think about Declan," says Barry. "But we think about him every day. It doesn't take a trip to South Bend to trigger memories. Now we participate in the things that Declan enjoyed, and we create new memories. We cheer for Notre Dame. We're happy to see them doing well."
His memory is a part of the team; many of its members were on the practice field when he died just a few yards away. "The Declan Sullivan situation, in particular, is something that we all carry scars from," says Kelly. "They're both tragedies, but we walk past a memorial with Declan's name on it every day. It's a reminder that you have to appreciate the things you have."
The aftermath of a loss has not been so satisfying for the Seeberg family. After an interaction with a Notre Dame football player on the night of Aug. 31, Seeberg sent a text message to her therapist that said: "Hey- can we talk in a little bit. I've been drinking and something bad happened. I can't talk right now because I'm kinda in an awkward situation but I'm on my way back to saint mary's." Upon returning to her room, Seeberg wrote and signed a description of having been assaulted by a Notre Dame football player in his campus dorm room and gave the paper to Notre Dame's campus police the next day. Two days after the encounter Seeberg received a text message from a friend of the player, which said: "Don't do anything you would regret. Messing with notre dame football is a bad idea."
Eight days later Seeberg committed suicide by ingesting a lethal dose of medication that had been prescribed to treat depression and anxiety. Notre Dame police didn't attempt to contact the accused player until nine days after the alleged assault and didn't reach him until five days after Seeberg's death. The story of Seeberg's accusation and death remained largely unreported until the Chicago Tribune broke it in mid-November of that year. On Dec. 16, 2010, the prosecuting attorney for St. Joseph County announced that there would be no charges filed in the case, most pointedly because Seeberg's written statement would be ruled inadmissible as hearsay, because she is dead. In his first interview on the subject, Lizzy's father, Tom Seeberg, told the Tribune, "Ultimately, there's a sense of betrayal."
In conversations with SI, Tom Seeberg declined to make further public statements, but it was clear that his outrage has not ebbed. The player accused by Lizzy is still a member of the football team. Rev. John Jenkins, Notre Dame's president, refused to meet with the Seeberg family, 11 members of which have attended the university (and two others Saint Mary's). Two years ago, Jenkins made one statement to the South Bend Tribune in which he explained that as the final arbiter of campus discipline he couldn't meet with the Seebergs because, "I try to remain somewhat distant so I'm not tainted by one side or another presenting their side of the story." A Notre Dame spokesperson declined further comment this week. The Seeberg case did trigger an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights into student-on-student sexual harassment, including sexual violence at Notre Dame, and resulted in significant changes in the ways such incidents are handled by the university.
On the first Saturday in November, Tom Seeberg found himself watching part of Notre Dame's comeback victory over Pittsburgh with his son, the first time they have watched a game since Lizzy's death. He was not enthralled by the victory and no longer charmed by the traditions. His son once had a PLAY LIKE A CHAMPION poster, but that's been taken down. Here, as the cameras focused on students singing Notre Dame's alma mater, he felt himself tearing up, knowing that his girl would have been sitting in the seats. But instead she was gone.
WINNING AS FULFILLMENT
One afternoon last summer Notre Dame players were slogging through an overheated session of preseason conditioning. Te'o (right) called them together. "You feel that pain?" he said to his teammates. "It's gonna be gone in a day. It might be gone in a couple hours. That loss to Michigan [35--31 the previous September]? I still feel that pain today. So do the preparation now." A few days later the Irish worked so hard in the heat that strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo told them to skip the weightlifting session. Nearly all of the players lifted anyway.
The Year Three Phenomenon notwithstanding (Parseghian and Holtz each went unbeaten in their third seasons), Notre Dame's re-emergence has been a surprise. The Irish were ranked 24th in the preseason coaches' poll and did not make AP's preseason Top 25. The staff of the campus Observer compiled predictions before Week 1 and none had the Irish better than 9--3. Now they are 11--0 and maybe it's truly the fruit of all that summer's work. It's also a mix of underrecognized talent, a world-class defense, a wiry redshirt freshman quarterback on a steep learning curve and, it must be said, a healthy dose of very good fortune.
Much of the roster was recruited by Weis, 11 starters in all, though several have matured into solid players only under Kelly. An NFL executive who attended a November game was asked if the Irish have good players. "A boatload of talent," he said, and then ticked off several names. "Best tight end in the draft [Eifert], Te'o is a first-round guy who might struggle a little in space, but he's good, finds the ball. The left tackle [Martin] does a great job. They look more like football players, physically, than they did with Charlie."
The Irish have allowed just 10.1 points per game, tied for best in the nation with Alabama. In their signature win, 30--13 over Oklahoma, they held the Sooners to 15 yards on the ground. Oregon would not score 60 on this bunch; Johnny Manziel would not run wild. The offense has forced Notre Dame to win ugly. It ranks 50th in total offense and 71st in passing efficiency. That falls on Everett Golson, a 6-foot, 185-pound quarterback from Myrtle Beach, S.C., whose offensive system in high school was, according to Kelly, "Drop back, look around, make something happen," and who is now trying to guide a major college attack.
Kelly pulled Golson just before halftime of the Pittsburgh struggle and replaced him with junior Tommy Rees, but Golson led the fourth-quarter comeback that kept Notre Dame's unbeaten season alive. A week later he was solid against Boston College, completing 16 of 24 passes for 200 yards and two touchdowns, without a pick. Boston College coach Frank Spaziani said, "They're trying to win with an offense that's adjusting to a young quarterback. They struggle with that sometimes." Come spring, they're preparing to do something else, by opening up the quarterback job to competition, including freshman Gunner Kiel, who was highly recruited. "I hope we always have somebody breathing down Everett's neck," says Kelly. "You'll never hear me say somebody is secure." Surely Golson is a little more secure after throwing for 346 yards and three touchdowns in the win over Wake Forest. Everett Football, anyone?
The charm of the autumn in South Bend is no better measured than by the good luck three times afforded Notre Dame during the season. On Oct. 13 Stanford running back Stepfan Taylor appeared to stretch the ball into the end zone to score a tying touchdown in overtime (assuming the extra point was successful), but officials ruled Taylor had been stopped and inexplicably did not reverse the call on review, preserving a 20--13 Notre Dame win that sent the Irish to 6--0. Three weeks later in the Pittsburgh win, a desperate fourth-quarter drive was extended by a terrible fourth-down pass interference call on Pitt. In the overtime, when Pitt senior Kevin Harper missed a 38-yard field goal that would have won the game, Notre Dame had two uniform number 2s on the field. It should have been a penalty on Notre Dame that gave Harper another shot from five yards closer, but it wasn't called.
Te'o hadn't heard of the double deuces even three days later, and when told by a reporter, his eyes widened and he said, "We did! Chris Brown went out there. Oh, man. Oh, man. I'm glad they didn't catch that. It would have been bad." Te'o, the leader and the soul of the Irish in an autumn for the ages, threw his arms behind his head. "The Lord," he said, "works in mysterious ways." Of course, that is one explanation that always works here.
Notre Dame can't merely be good. Its success must call to mind past glory and signify the triumph of a higher standard.
Kirk's leaving was seen by some as a capitulation to the departed Weis's clamor for softer discipline.
While purists wring their hands, the academic record among football players remains healthy.
The story of Seeberg's accusation and death remained unreported for 2½ months.
"Notre Dame is not some perfect place," says Smith. "It's a place that tries to do the right thing."
Photograph by JOHN BIEVER
MAIN MANTI Heisman contender and senior leader Te'o took the field at Notre Dame Stadium for the final time on Saturday, as Touchdown Jesus signaled his approval in the distance.
Photograph by JOHN BIEVER
FLASHBACK When George Atkinson went in against Wake Forest, everything from the uniforms and the campus vibe to the blowout score felt like old times.
PUSHING BACK Notre Dame has prevailed in only one of its last 10 games against longtime rival USC, a symbol of how far the program had fallen.
RISING UP Eifert's touchdown helped clinch ND's afternoon win, and when K-State and Oregon lost that night, BCS fever swept South Bend.
COURTESY OF THE SULLIVAN FAMILY (DECLAN)
COURTESY OF THE SEEBERG FAMILY (LIZZY)
COURTESY OF THE SEEBERG FAMILY (TEXT MESSAGES)
TROUBLING SIGNS Sullivan (top) died when a lift toppled, and Seeberg took her own life after an alleged assault by a football player and a subsequent warning she received by text (right).
INDIANA DEPARTMENT OF LABOR/AP (LIFT)
[See caption above]
Photographs by JOHN BIEVER