College football may seem like a religion to Americans, but to many American Catholics, the University of Notre Dame football team is the incarnation of their faith in sport. Yet apart from the battle for the college football national championship, the biggest news this season has been the continued decline of Notre Dame.
After another disappointing season, the University of Notre Dame has lost another football coach. Charlie Weis tried to make the Fighting Irish, once the New York Yankees of college sports, important again. He tried to recapture Notre Dame's fabled past. He couldn't do it. On Monday afternoon, Weis, head football coach at Notre Dame, was fired.
Notre Dame is 6-6 this season, and Weis, 54, didn't do much better in his previous four seasons as coach. While the Fighting Irish have won 11 national championships in their storied history, the team has not won one for 21 years. And while some may point to the shortcomings of its coach or players, a more fundamental reason may lie in a crisis of the Catholic faith.
In Notre Dame's glory days, Catholic secondary schools were prime recruiting centers. Priests and nuns would ask for prayers for "the boys" on Saturdays and would encourage their best athletes to attend Notre Dame. But many forces, including abuse by priests, have damaged American Catholicism and crippled the parochial school system. Nearly 1 in 5 Catholic schools in the U.S. has closed its doors this decade. Combine that with a more secular society, a more competitive college-recruiting environment and Notre Dame's tough admissions requirements, and it has become more and more difficult for the school to field a team capable of competing for a national championship.
Despite the high-profile nature of the job (apart from a nationwide fan base, Notre Dame has a lucrative contract with NBC), the best college coaches seem wary of Notre Dame. Weis ended up with the Notre Dame position only after another sought-after coach, Urban Meyer, showed little interest in the job and went to the University of Florida instead. There he has won two national championships and is in the running for a third this season.
The 2009 campaign has been particularly depressing for Irish fans, partly because it started out so promisingly. The team had won four of its first five games by mid-October, when it hoped for an upset against hated rival the University of Southern California in South Bend, Ind. On the day of the game, thousands of fans formed a receiving line and screamed as the players strolled through the gauntlet of cheers. "Goddam gifts to God!" shouted one supporter in unholy praise. "Probably be the best damn moment of their lives." The team's captain and quarterback, Jimmy Clausen, 22, of Thousand Oaks, Calif., had been the nation's top high school football player when he turned down all other offers to play at Notre Dame. Arriving on campus in a Hummer a flashier entrance than the team was used to he bragged that his goal was to win four national titles with the Irish. Now a junior, Clausen's single post-season win happened in something called the Hawaii Bowl.
Despite a valiant comeback by Notre Dame on that chilly day in October, the Irish lost to USC, 34-27. The team subsequently lost four of its last six games, including to non-football powers Navy and Connecticut. Clausen was sucker-punched by an irate fan last week, and the star quarterback and his best receiver, Golden Tate, are expected to bolt for the NFL, forgoing their senior year.
And so another Notre Dame season is gone, and so is another coach. In Weis' last game, on Saturday night, Notre Dame lost to Stanford, 45-38. Outlined against a black November sky, Weis, who'd had a botched gastric bypass procedure and hobbles on bad knees, seemed broken another man who couldn't bring salvation to the Irish.