New York’s Fumble Recovery


Some sportswriters are fond of saying that New York isn’t much of a college-football town, or at least hasn’t been since around the time the city’s greatest football legend, Vince Lombardi, left his job as an assistant coach at Fordham for Army after the 1948 season. Exactly why no New York–area school ever developed into a major football power on a level with Ohio State, Michigan, Alabama, Oklahoma, Southern Cal, and a handful of others has never quite been explained; it certainly wasn’t for lack of fans or media attention.

The assertion, though, that New York isn’t a college- football town is easily disproved any Saturday in the fall, as one watches the traffic fan out to Hofstra, West Point, Princeton, or many other small-college or Ivy League games within driving distance—most notably, in the last two years, to Rutgers Stadium in New Brunswick, New Jersey. For that matter, you could always see the passion that New Yorkers invest in college football simply by drifting into any neighborhood bar with a television set in Manhattan, Queens, or Brooklyn on a Saturday afternoon. Notre Dame’s football team has always had far and away the biggest following of any school in the country, and its biggest fan base was and still is in the New York area—the term “subway alumni” was originally coined for them, not fans in Chicago.

Every football fan knows that Notre Dame was responsible for most of the great innovations that made football into what it is today; many don’t know that this influence began years before Knute Rockne became a legendary coach. Team captain Rockne and quarterback Gus Dorais made the forward pass into a weapon that changed the way the game was played, leading to Notre Dame’s 1913 victory over mighty Army at West Point.

Fewer still know that Notre Dame’s football team might not have been around to make those changes had not Rutgers played Princeton on November 6, 1869, in what historians regard as the first intercollegiate football game ever played. (In the first clash of the two great football factories, Rutgers steamrolled Princeton 6-4 in a game that would have struck the modern observer as looking more like rugby than football.) That year, Rutgers probably could have beaten Notre Dame’s football team—if they’d had one. That statement could not be made again for 138 years (though if the Scarlet Knights had played the Fighting Irish last year, I’d have picked them by about two points).

You can summarize nearly all the changes that have evolved in college football in the last 14 decades by the turnaround in the fortunes of these two schools.

Those old enough to remember the coming of Ara Parseghian to Notre Dame in 1964 have now seen the Fighting Irish rise and fall at least three times. The latest rise was in 2005, when Charlie Weis brought Notre Dame to a 9-3 mark after a combined 11-13 in the two previous years under Tyrone Willingham. The euphoria was short-lived. After a 10-2 regular season in 2006, the Irish had it demonstrated to them in no uncertain terms how far they were from being a national championship contender when they were crushed by Louisiana State in the Sugar Bowl 41-14. The previous year, Weis’s team had been whipped by national championship contender Ohio State 34-20 in the Fiesta Bowl. In fact, it has now been 15 seasons since Notre Dame won a bowl game. The post-season losses over this period haven’t even been close—only one has been by fewer than 11 points, and Notre Dame’s bowl losses since 1995 have been by an average of a staggering 18 points per game.

This is probably the worst start in Notre Dame history—three consecutive defeats by an eye-popping total of 102 points allowed to 13 scored. In three games, the Irish have yet to score so much as a single touchdown on offense. This time it doesn’t look like Notre Dame’s football program is going to rise again. In the past, Notre Dame coaches have always needed two or three years to establish themselves: Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine, and Lou Holtz all took three years to win their first national championship. The combined records of these five coaches in their third year is 50-2-1. This is Charlie Weis’s third season.

Notre Dame’s primary problem from 1997 through 2004 may or may not have been the fault of coaches Bob Davie and Ty Willingham (a combined 56-40), but they are certainly not now the fault of Charlie Weis, whose offensive genius helped produce three Super Bowls for the New England Patriots. The problem clearly is that the small school in the Midwest with high academic standards (or at least relatively high compared to most football powers) can no longer recruit blue-chip players. It’s about time for Notre Dame to admit what it has been denying for some time now: that as a football school, it now ranks with its old service-academy foes, Army and Navy. And it needs to make the same admission that they made about four decades ago: It should face up to the fact that Notre Dame can no longer compete with the big boys and should begin to schedule mostly Division I-AA schools.

In 2004, former Notre Dame Heisman Trophy winner Paul Hornung stirred up a hornet’s nest by suggesting that the school needed to relax its academic standards to “get the black athlete.” If Hornung had said that Notre Dame needed to lower its standards to get the best football players—most of whom, since the mid-’60s or so, have been black—nobody could have criticized him. Rutgers coach Greg Schiano has found a way to recruit the best football players, black and white—after more than 60 years, someone has once again discovered that New York might actually be an attraction to an all-American-caliber high-school player—and has added a whole new dimension to the local sports scene, the kind of genuine enthusiasm that is native to college football and can only be imitated in pro-football stadiums.

Last week, Rutgers officials sent an open letter of apology to the U.S. Naval Academy for the taunting of Navy players by Rutgers fans. How satisfying that must have secretly been to the Rutgers administration: Not since the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant have Rutgers football fans been in a position to taunt anybody.

Rutgers’ resounding victory last Saturday over Norfolk State may not seem like much, but Norfolk State is exactly the kind of school that Rutgers used to lose to and now dominates. The Scarlet Knights may not be ready to challenge Southern Cal, Florida, or Ohio State for national supremacy, but they have raised the bar for New York–area college football. If New Yorkers see no contradiction in driving to New Jersey to watch their pro-football teams, they should have no problem claiming Rutgers as their own.