In 1988, the last time Notre Dame won a national championship, its midseason matchup against the top-ranked Miami Hurricanes — a team that included players fond of hip-hop, big chains and military fatigues — was billed as “Catholics vs. Convicts” in some Fighting Irish quarters. The moment, with more than a whiff of elitism to it, signaled the erosion of the old Notre Dame working-class ethos that Rabbi Elsant so admired.
That perception has solidified in the years since, with the realization that some gifted players never will attract Notre Dame’s interest, beginning with academically underachieving high school stars whom other universities are only too happy to grab — the football giants in the Southeastern Conference, including Alabama, among them. In big-game trash-talking before Monday’s championship contest, some Irish fans’ T-shirts mock the perceived socioeconomic station of their Southern, state-school opponent. “Catholics vs. Convicts” has given way to “Golden Domers vs. Mobile Homers” and “Catholics vs. Cousins.”
But nowadays it is the SEC that is seen as the conference where talented athletes of nearly any background can play ball and get an education. It enjoys the populist appeal long gone from Notre Dame, whose “smart” teams over the past two decades often have been dismissed as slow, less athletic, mediocre.
In its defense, the university can point to the graduation rate of its football players — it’s the highest among the big teams in the nation, and this is the first time that the leader in graduation is also tops in the polls — as evidence that the school has its priorities in order. This seems to be Notre Dame’s lasting, self-imposed role in sports: the earnest ethicist, the dogged standard-maker, the nag — much like the church felt to me in my youth.