It's not that I can't see or feel the difference between the coaching regime of Charlie Weis and Lou Holtz's two immediate successors. I don't listen to columnists, analysts and talk show hosts babble on about identical 11-4 records and find myself nodding along. I can see what preparation, organization and tenacity have accomplished in recruiting. I can see that same preparation and attention to detail applied to the offensive game plan and acknowledge that things are much better now. Anyone closer to the situation than Bristol, Conn. cannot help notice the difference those 11-4 records don't show.
I came of age as a Notre Dame football fan during the reign of Lou Holtz. My freshman year was his first year. Was 5-6 in 1985 equal to 5-6 in 1986? No, it wasn't. And the phoenix predicted by Ara Parseghian rose from that humble beginning to great heights. During those years we became accustomed to winning. Though I wouldn't say we were spoiled. You don't become the most famous college football program ever by being unable to handle success. We were, however conditioned to expect to win.
Losses – none in 1988, one in 1989, three in 1990, three in '91, one in '92, one in '93 – were isolated, unexpected, close games and generally could be shrugged off with the expectation of a win the next week.
In hindsight, though the cracks wouldn't appear for years, my confidence took it's first hit in 1993, the last year of that amazing run, when Pete Bercich couldn't hang on to a sure interception that would have iced a second national championship in five years. Throughout the furious second-half comeback, the outcome seemed preordained. Kevin McDougal would be the hero. Lou would be coronated. Inexplicably, it didn't come to pass.
Two years later the foundation was shaken again with an opening game loss to Northwestern.
The fact they would go on to win the Big Ten championship was immaterial. The psychological damage had already been sustained (and augmented by a 19-point loss later in the year to Ohio State).
The process that started occurring even when Lou was still the coach could have been stanched with the right successor. Alas, things did not work out. The official death of my expectation that Notre Dame had a chance to win every game came with a 2-5 start in 1997, courtesy of Bob Davie.
I have never felt safe sitting down to watch the kickoff of a game since then. I've felt excitement, joy when things worked out, nausea when they didn't, pride at our traditions and how our payers generally represent my university. But underneath it all, there has always been a nagging undercurrent of fear. It's not that I have been conditioned to expect to lose. It's that I have been conditioned to not know what the hell was going to happen. I have been conditioned to expect inconsistency. I have been conditioned to accept lopsided losses.
And, after the latest one, I know that one extremely encouraging 9-3 season has not done much to change that. I hope that the reversal of the process that has embedded itself in my football DNA over the past 10 years has begun. I hope, but am pessimistic, that the reversal will be quick. What I am sure of, is that it will take wins. Lots and lots of wins.
Through it all my allegiance hasn't wavered. THAT part of my DNA never mutated. But I'm impatient. How long will it take? I want to ask the question of those who lived through Joe Kuharich or Gerry Faust. Did my introduction to ND football at the dawn of a golden age warp my perspective? Would I have been better served latching on to this team a few years earlier and experiencing some adversity before success?
It may be that Bob Davie and Ty Willingham have permanently altered the way I experience one of the true passions in my life. It may be that I view Notre Dame football through a cracked lens that can't be replaced. I hope that's not the case.
All indications are that Charlie Weis has the passion, ability and work ethic to turn this program into a champion. As of now, though, I don't know. And it's driving me crazy.
Death of Expectations
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