After many years of wanting to, we finally made it onto the Boot Train from Chicago to South Bend. As usual when the two of us show up, Stanford lost. But you knew that already. Here are a few random impressions from our first trip to Notre Dame, for whatever, if anything, they are worth. They are only that — impressions of a couple of Stanford fans. We make no claims to expertise or impartiality.
What Impressed Us:
Every Bootie needs to do this trip at least once. Lars and Jim do a great job of putting this together. The Boot Train has plenty of food and drink and, more importantly, plenty of Cardinal fans. I had guessed there might be a couple dozen of us, but it turned out, by my estimate, to be about 150. As veterans of many a trip to Stanford sporting events where we could fit the Cardinal rooting section into a phone booth, it was great to be with so many folks in Cardinal.
After an all-night drive to get to Chicago before the 7:30 a.m. departure time, we used the ride from Chicago to South Bend to get a bit of sleep. Happily, we were able to use the trip back to meet several Booties we previously knew only online. In addition to Lars and Jim, we also visited with Bootie dignataries Matt Squeri and Troy Clardy. We even met Jim Harbaugh's sister-in-law and her family from suburban Kansas City. [When we got back to Chicago , they invited us to join them in watching Mizzou play Nebraska in a game with somewhat better results for the MizzouCard family than the one in South Bend.]
For a couple of guys who are mighty lonely Stanford fans, it was great to be among others who care deeply about Stanford sports. The mood on the way back was one of disappointment about an opportunity lost (and a bit of anger — see below), but hope. It has been a while since Stanford football fans felt optimistic about the future. It is a nice feeling indeed.
Stanford Running Game
Not sure I ever expected to say this, but it was true: Our offensive line pushed the Domers around on running plays. Admittedly, they had some problems in pass protection, but not on running plays. Toby, Anthony, and others looked good running behind them, too.
Irish wide receiver Floyd seemed like he was open on the right side all day. On top of that, he caught the ball when Clausen delivered it to him.
Notre Dame Fans
Let's give the fans their due. They are polite and almost friendly, with their ubiquitous "Welcome to Notre Dame" greetings. [Given the general politeness of most Domer fans, we are willing to overlook the guy who saw our "Cardinal" bus after the game and calmly flipped us the bird.] They care a lot about their program. They make a fair amount of noise at the right time. And there are lots of them. If we had ten percent or so of the Domer's "subway alums," we would be in nice shape.
Our guys have adopted their head coach's fire. After an unfortunate end to our first possession and a pretty quick trip down the field by the Domers, our defense stiffened and held the Domers short of first down. [The fact that the guys in stripes saw things nobody else saw does not change the fact that our guys had a heck of a stop.] At least a couple of times, once toward the end of the first half and another midway through the second, we teetered on the edge of being blown out, but our defense stiffened. We battled back from down three touchdowns very late in the game to have a chance with four minutes to go. I sure would have liked to have seen a win, but I loved seeing our guys fighting hard until the bitter end.
On the subject of "fire," it is good to see our coach willing to let the officials see his when they are so badly off base (see below). I, for one, am sick and tired of the "we are too dignified to complain about officiating" view. We need to give them an earful, from the sidelines and from the stands, when they deserve it. It is great to see a coach who cares that much.
Admittedly, this is a side note, but this pair of Stanford fans could not help but notice that Notre Dame proudly announced its huge number of Notre Dame affiliated Olympians at halftime. The grand total (including those representing Nigeria, Ireland, and Canada)? Nine. Stanford had four or five times as many, right? And that is four or five times as many as a school that has a pretty solid sports tradition. We often take it for granted, but Stanford's presence in the Olympics is pretty darn impressive.
What Failed to Impress Us:
There were other things that failed to impress us. In some cases, we got what we expected, but we were still disappointed. In others, we were perhaps the victims of inflated expectations.
I know we are all supposed to be above this, but this is starting to get old. UCLA gets that ridiculous foul call on Lawrence Hill, then gets away with a real foul in the Pac-10 Tournament a couple of weeks later. Notre Dame gets a generous spot on third down, then a ridiculous spot on fourth down. The next play, which should have been first down Stanford, they score. As if that were not enough, they get a "you have got to be kidding me" call when two of their guys collide on a punt. They got a ball that we deserved, plus fifteen free yards, then they score again. That is fourteen points—half of what they scored—on possessions they did not deserve (before one even considers points we might have scored). Sure, they deserve credit for taking advantage of those undeserved opportunities, but this getting old.
Please do not give me that tired old line about how this stuff all evens out over time. It does not. The UCLAs, Dukes, North Carolinas, _._._.s, and Notre Dames of the world get substantially more than their fair share of these calls. That, by the way, is one reason we need to grow our fan base. When we are home, we need the officials to hear and feel the passion of the home crowd. It makes a difference.
Sometimes I think we think too hard. I am a huge fan of our coaching staff, but I would have run the ball more. We seemed to be able to run even when they expected it, with the painful exception of the "let's let everybody watching the game know what is coming" direct snap to Michael Thomas. [On a side note, we are also hoping our other team, Mizzou, falls out of love with direct snaps to Jeremy Maclin, too. There are a whole bunch of better ways to get him the ball.]
Quite a few folks have told me that there is no better game day atmosphere than the one in South Bend. Admittedly, there was more excitement than on The Farm (sadly), but it did not match the hype. Mississippi has them beat in the pre-game partying category. The noise level at the game is substantial, but it is well behind the decibel level in Lincoln (or, for that matter, Arrowhead). The atmosphere was okay, but the general feeling is one of "our best days are behind us" (and, perhaps, ahead of us). Maybe it was just the familiar disappointment of seeing a movie after everyone tells you it is great, but it was a bit less than advertised.
[MiniMizzouCard deserves most of the credit or blame on this one.] The stadium fell even further short of expectations. The wooden bleacher seating is the rough equivalent of Stanford Stadium circa 1990. Admittedly, without a track, the fans are much closer to the field than in the old lady of The Farm. But, somewhat amazingly, there is no video replay screen. Even Blair Oaks High School, located in a small Missouri town of a couple hundred people, has a video screen, for goodness sake. The "bad dot matrix" scoreboard they do have is pretty much unreadable, so you have to wait for the stadium announcer to get out of town scores. The lights are weak. There is nothing special about the building.
In the Notre Dame world, much was made of the comments of Stanford offensive lineman Chris Marinelli, which included, "I grew up with a bunch of Irish and Italian Catholic people back home, and all they talk about is Notre Dame this and Notre Dame that. I hate those guys. I hate that school."
My own feelings do not run that strong, but I think I have a bit of common experience with Marinelli. Like pretty much every kid who went to Catholic school, I spent years being force-fed Notre Dame. Indeed, as a kid, I dreamed of playing football at Notre Dame. [We Catholic boys don't have a lot of imagination. At least three quarters of us grew up dreaming exactly the same dream.]
After half a century on this planet, this was the first time I ever set foot on Notre Dame's campus. My overall impression can be summed up as "Is that all there is?" It is a nice enough campus, but as someone who has had the good fortune to spend a lot of time on campuses, I would rank quite a few (including at least a couple of Catholic schools, USD and Catholic University) as nicer.
As a Catholic, though, you constantly run into folks who think Notre Dame is the Magic Kingdom. As a Catholic who went to Stanford, you actually run into folks who ask you why you did not "try" to go to Notre Dame. Under your breath, you mutter, "You have got to be kidding me. I got the chance to go to Stanford. Stanford! And you think I should have gone to Notre Dame?" But, like the good little Catholic boy you are, you politely note that Notre Dame is a "good school, too."
After a while, though, their inflated view of themselves gets a little old. Even the "Welcome to Notre Dame" greetings have a discernable "You are so lucky to be in this wonderful place" to them. These folks, even (and most aggravatingly) those who have no direct connection to Notre Dame and have never even been there, really are convinced that it is something substantially more than what it is. A big part of you wants to scream what you really think, which is something along the lines of: "You want to know what I really think? That place is nothing special. It is an okay, maybe even a good, school, but no better than that. Do I really need to tell you all the ways Stanford is a better school?" Apparently Marinelli gave in to that feeling. He overstated his case a bit, but I can relate to his inner Domer hater, even if mine has become a bit mellower in the last decade or so.
For their part, the Domers totally overreact to any criticism of their wonderland, as they did to Marinelli's admittedly overstated comments. Overreaction is the national pasttime of Domerdom, after all. How could anyone dare question what a wonderful place Notre Dame is?
This is a different reaction than one finds in most rivalries. For example, everyone here in Columbia, Missouri, expects that pretty much everyone in Lawrence, Kansas is convinced that Columbia is hell on earth and our beloved Mizzou is a joke. After all, we feel exactly the same way about KU and Lawrence. [Actually, most of us on both sides of the rivalry just pretend to feel that way. But we pretend hard enough that it counts anyway. And there are plenty of folks who are not pretending at all, so we are not shocked when someone from enemy territory admits he hates us.] That is all part of the fun. Even we Stanford folks, with our own rather high opinion of ourselves, understand that there are folks out there who hate us. But Domers cannot stand the tiniest criticism of Notre Dame, especially by Catholic boys.
For my part, this first trip to the place I myself once thought of as nirvana served as a nice reminder of how lucky I was that Stanford, for all its strengths, occasionally makes admissions mistakes. If life would have worked out differently, I could have easily been one of the folks who thought it was great to get two free extra possessions Saturday. I am sure that would have been okay, but I feel mighty fortunate to have been screaming in protest instead.
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