Monday, November 19, 2012
As Mark Massa, SJ notes in his book Catholics and American Culture: Fulton Sheen, Dorothy Day, and the Notre Dame Football Team (Crossroad, 1999), one of the formative experiences of American Catholic culture has been the improbable success of Notre Dame's football team, initially under the ingenious leadership of perhaps the greatest coach in the history of the game, the Norwegian Protestant-turned Catholic convert Knute Rockne. From 1924 to 1949, Notre Dame won seven national championships and bequeathed a sense of pride and identity to generations of immigrant Catholics.
But for almost 20 years, Notre Dame football has labored in mediocrity--flashes of promise under Bob Davie, Tyrone Willingham, and Charlie Weis, but all were fired, each after a series of poor seasons and ignominious defeats (losing to Navy in 2007 after winning 43 games in a row in the series, losses at home to Syracuse and UConn in 2008 and 2009, a series of bowl embarrassments). A year ago, most of us who are rabid Notre Dame fans were prepared to face the fact that Notre Dame would never again compete at the elite level in college football and was consigned to being remembered in the display cases at the Hall of Fame--the geographical center of football had shifted from the upper Midwest to the South, and Notre Dame's academic standards, independent status, small size, and difficult schedule were slowly but surely pulling the program down.
Now, for the first time since 1993, Notre Dame is ranked the #1 team in college football. And perhaps there is a larger point here. As the Catholic Church in America faces the legacy of scandal and seeming collapse of institutional presence, there's hope that God somehow brings about dramatic changes of fortune, sometimes in mundane ways (like college football, maybe) and sometimes in ways that change the world. It may all come to a crashing end this Saturday in Los Angeles against USC or on January 7th in the BCS national championship game, but, for at least a week, we can rejoice at how quickly things can change and our hope affirmed.