What made Notre Dame, Notre Dame?

In the mid 90s I spent some time playing football and training at the University of Nebraska. I was in awe at how the football program generated such an advantage under Tom Osborne. You walked the hallways next to the locker room and you see each year’s roster, record, stats… 10-2 was an off year.

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Notre Dame became Notre Dame because it was one of the best football schools in the early days of college football, when a great coach with a few interesting strategies could make all the difference in the quality of a school’s team. They then managed to keep that advantage instead of either disbanding the football team (Thanks for the memories, Amos Alonzo Stagg) or losing the momentum due to poor coaching or difficult entry requirements (see Yale/Harvard/Army/Navy etc.). Notre Dame managed to find a compromise in terms of academics that allowed them to recruit effectively while maintaining a mostly high academic standard (compared to other schools with strong football programs) when the great shift from the Ivies to the State Schools occurred in the middle of the century.

In this case, it was Knute Rockne who led the school to prominence. He played for them in the early 1910s, and in 1913 led them to beat the then-dominant Army team soundly (35-13) thanks to his practicing the forward pass with his quarterback extensively during the off-season; the forward pass was legal but rarely used in football at the time.

He then became the head coach starting a few years later (1918), and led them to four national championships (1919, 1924, 1929, 1930, using the NCF designation as is usual in that era) and regularly won 9 or 10 games per year. He emphasized athleticism and speed, a change from many other teams at the time who were more of the pounding sort. He introduced the ‘shift’ (ie, changing alignment just before the snap). He also continued to emphasize the modern forward pass – while other teams did use passes, they tended to be shorter, screen-variety, while he used passing more extensively and more downfield.

He also was a great showman, as Wikipedia goes into some length to describe; as much as winning games, he had to sell the school and make the team profitable (or at least pay for itself!) as athletics weren’t the big industry back then they are now.

Notre Dame then built on his legacy in the 40s and 50s with Frank Leahy, who won four national championships and had the second highest winning percentage in NCAA history (.846). Future coaches built on the legacy, with several more national championships and very competitive teams until the last decade or so the SEC recruiting advantage seems to have lessened their status, although they still manage to be competitive on a fairly regular basis.

They continue to have a few advantages. One is their TV deal, which as being a single school with no conference to share revenue with is substantial, and pays for very good facilities. They also have a national following (driving the TV deal, among other things) because they are one of the leading Catholic schools in the nation, so their alumni tend to be more spread out over the country than a state school who would have most of their alumni centered near the school.

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