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JONATHAN CHAIT

Notre Dame never fumbles the myth

September 24, 2006|JONATHAN CHAIT

YOU HAVE probably heard the story about how a former Notre Dame football player, George Gipp, lay dying in bed and asked his coach, Knute Rockne, to tell the players to "win one for the Gipper." Later on, when his team is trailing at halftime, Rockne goes on to relay this moment to his players, who, in a burst of inspiration, go on to win the game. It is one of the most iconic episodes in the history of American sport.

It's also a fabrication.

Rockne never heard Gipp's dying words, and he never mentioned him in a halftime speech. (And Gipp, far from the heroic figure Ronald Reagan portrayed him as in the 1940 film "Knute Rockne All-American," was a card shark and pool hustler.)

Notre Dame football occupies a central place in the culture of American sport. Newspapers in the Midwest generally have dedicated beat writers for the hometown teams and one other program: Notre Dame. The 117 Division 1-A football teams that are not Notre Dame share time slots on ABC, CBS and ESPN. Notre Dame has its own network, NBC, whose college football coverage is limited solely to Notre Dame games, which it covers with all the journalistic tenacity of a church newsletter.

There is no other team in any sport -- except perhaps the New York Yankees -- that is so uniquely prominent that it is synonymous with the sport itself. The prominence of the Yankees makes sense; the team has won more games and more pennants than any other in baseball. But Notre Dame does not have the most wins nor the highest winning percentage of any college football program. So why does Notre Dame football hold such a prominent place in our culture? The answer lies in the power of myth.

Myth is deeply embedded in Notre Dame football, the way it is in no other sports team. Not only is the "win one for the Gipper" story a fabrication, so too is Rockne's image. Murray Sperber, who wrote a book on the coach, has reported that the real Rockne was far from the "symbol of all possible virtues" that was his public image. Rockne published a newspaper column giving advice to college football gamblers and was obsessed with making money. His life ended, somewhat fittingly, in a plane crash on the way to sign a lucrative Hollywood deal. "He died, in a sense, chasing the dollar," Sperber noted last month in the South Bend Tribune.

The pattern has recurred through modern times. Remember the film "Rudy," the heartwarming tale of a luckless kid who got into Notre Dame, joined the team and recorded a sack? The central plot tension -- when Rudy's teammates turn in their jerseys to protest his exclusion from the team -- never happened. Moreover, the person on whom the film is based went on to be a career failure until he persuaded Hollywood to buy his story. He now has a lucrative career recounting his own story. How perfectly fitting for Notre Dame: His one demonstrable skill is self-promotion.

In 2002, Notre Dame hired a new coach, Tyrone Willingham, who led the Fighting Irish to a 10-3 record -- respectable but unremarkable by the standards of college football powers. Massive media hype, including a celebratory book, "Return to Glory," ensued. Alas, the Irish crashed and burned the next two years, and Willingham was fired.

His successor, Charlie Weis, piloted his first team to a 9-3 record, largely on the basis of a vastly weaker-than-expected schedule. Even greater hype followed, including yet another celebratory book, "The New Gold Standard: Charlie Weis and Notre Dame's Rise to Glory."

Clearly Weis was a genius. How did we know? Because Weis said so himself, boasting that he could out-strategize any coach in the college game. Coming into this year, pundits fawned over Weis' genius and picked Notre Dame to win the national championship. Last weekend, Notre Dame was on the receiving end of a vicious beat-down on its home field at the hands of underdog Michigan (full disclosure -- my alma mater) -- not the sort of performance turned in by great teams, let alone national championship-caliber ones. Still, Weis' genius image endures. If it doesn't, he will be replaced, and Notre Dame will "return to glory" yet again under his successor.

The huckster and the self-made man -- sometimes one and the same -- are classic American characters. In this country you can make yourself into whatever you want, and sometimes all you have to do is convince everybody else that you are who you say you are. Pundit Michael Novak recently rejoiced that Notre Dame had become "America's team." Fans of other programs may bridle, but the appellation fits.

jchait@latimescolumnists.com

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