Expectations, reality put squeeze on Irish

College football: Nothing is easy anymore for Notre Dame, which faces unbeaten Navy next.

October 14, 2004|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

Ara Parseghian stepped into a time warp Saturday afternoon as he stood on the field at Notre Dame Stadium ready to present the American flag to the honor guard before the team's home game against Stanford.

It could have been 1964, the year Parseghian came to South Bend from Northwestern and began 11 seasons in the human fishbowl that accompanies coaching the Fighting Irish.

"Seeing what used to be a 60,000-seat stadium and now is an 80,000-seat stadium, all I think is that you have more people who are just as enthusiastic as they've ever been," Parseghian said by telephone earlier this week.

"They'd like to have more ups than downs, but that's one of those things you have in college football."

After decades of unmatched success - even Gerry Faust, considered by many to be the worst coach in school history, had a winning record - Notre Dame has steadily watched its presence on the national stage wane over the past 15 years.

The team hasn't won a national championship since Lou Holtz led the Fighting Irish to an NCAA-record 11th title in 1988. No Irish player has won the Heisman Trophy since Tim Brown in 1987. Notre Dame has been to only one Bowl Championship Series game - and was crushed by Oregon State, 41-9, in the Fiesta Bowl to end the 2000 season.

Third-year coach Tyrone Willingham has experienced his ups and downs since replacing Bob Davie, going from a 10-win debut to a 5-7 disaster last season. This year has provided another wild ride and has produced a 4-2 record heading into Saturday's game against Navy (5-0) in East Rutherford, N.J.

Which Notre Dame team shows up at Giants Stadium is anyone's guess. Will it be the one that lost the season opener at Brigham Young and, more recently, was demolished by Purdue at home? Or will it be the team that made second-half comebacks to upset then-No. 8 Michigan and Stanford, while also winning at Michigan State and at home over Washington?

This week presents another intriguing challenge - how to keep alive a streak of 40 straight wins in the series with the Midshipmen, the longest currently in Division I-A.

"Those games don't have anything to do with this game," Willingham, 50, said Tuesday during his weekly teleconference. "We're going to play a Navy team that's a very good football team. It's an undefeated football team. They've earned the right to be where they are. We've got to be prepared to play that team and play very well."

Asked about the pressure that he and his teammates face trying not to become the first Notre Dame team to lose to Navy since 1963, sophomore quarterback Brady Quinn said, "It's funny. I'm sure there've been teams asked year after year after year, `You don't want to be that team [that loses to Navy]?' Obviously, the past is the past and we're only worried about this week."

Navy coach Paul Johnson joked that the Fighting Irish roster is filled with Parade All-Americans while the Mids often parade at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, but the truth is that Notre Dame's level of talent and depth has dropped markedly since Holtz left eight years ago.

Paul Hornung, once a symbol of the program's immense popularity as the only player to win the Heisman Trophy on a losing team, went so far last spring as to suggest that Notre Dame needed to lighten its schedule or lower its academic standards to recruit more African-American players.

Parseghian said that Hornung's remarks, however politically incorrect and racially flammable as they might have been, were nothing new to him.

"It came out wrong any way you want to add it up," Parseghian said. "The academic situation at Notre Dame hasn't changed. It's been the same during the times they won.

"I heard this clear back when I was coaching. When I came there, they hadn't had a winning record in five years. Look to see what we did for 11 years under the same rules and regulations."

It is difficult to rebuild quietly at Notre Dame simply because the fan base is so much bigger than at any other school, and the expectations are still high, even though that since starting 8-0 under Willingham in 2002 - including a win over Maryland at the Meadowlands in the opener - the Fighting Irish are only 11-13.

"I think being in the spotlight all the time makes people more critical of every little thing," Quinn said. "I definitely think that's good for us because we're always going to be our own worst critic."

There had been talk of Notre Dame breaking at least one tradition, of being an independent and joining the Big East, as it has done in other sports. But its contract with NBC to televise all of its home football games has been extended through 2010, so that move seems unlikely.

Nor does it seem that Willingham, whose initial contract was longer than the five years given all of his recent predecessors, is going anywhere. The anti-Willingham postings on fan Web sites have softened a bit since the loss to BYU, if not completely disappeared.

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