The View from Notre Dame's Linebacker Lounge

Across the street from the University of Notre Dame is a quaint, old building called the Linebacker Lounge. On Saturday mornings before a football game, the beer tent is prepared for the impending stampede of fans. The golden Notre Dame helmet takes up a venerated position behind the bar. It is flanked by a multitude of signed photos of former Notre Dame legends, as well celebrities like Adam Sandler and Jimmy Kimmel. Framed jerseys line the walls throughout the bar's interior.

The famous Linebacker Pole sits in the center of the dance floor (many hours later, female customers will get creative with their dance routines around it, as they vie for attention from male patrons within the bar.)

An incoming stream of fans gives an indication that game time is approaching. Jocular friends meet up in groups to order Bloody Mary's, watch ESPN's Game Day, and to get fired up. The opposing team's fans are openly greeted and made to feel welcome. Meanwhile, former Notre Dame players and coaches are often spotted within the crowd.

As kickoff commences, everyone without a ticket has packed into the bar. Long Island Iced Teas flow like water. For the next three-plus hours, everyone's attention is glued to the numerous big-screen TV screens, situated throughout the bar. They boo lustily after calls that go against Notre Dame and erupt with cheers when they score.

Such was the case this past Saturday, as Notre Dame lost to Michigan State in a classic overtime finish. The defeat left the Fighting Irish with a 2-1 record. The team and fans from South Bend, Indiana now set their sights toward the Washington Huskies next Saturday in Seattle. They will be facing their former coach Tyrone Willingham, who was fired last November.

To get the perspective of the Notre Dame fans, spoke this week with Greg Delinski. His wife is the long-time owner of the Linebacker Lounge. For starters, Delinski was asked about the loss to Michigan State.

"People here were really pumped because of the new coach," he said. "After the game, even though it was a loss, people had a positive sense about the game. The team could have folded when down 31-17, but they came back. That's what everyone appreciated about this team. There's light at the end of the tunnel. We made mistakes and didn't play well, but we never gave up. That was the mood among the customers."

Delinski was asked of his remembrances of Husky fans, when Notre Dame hosted and thrashed Washington last season.

"They wear that crazy hat with the stuffed fuzzy dog on top," he said with a chuckle. "We had this one guy walk in wearing that crazy Husky hat, and it was hilarious. We saw a lot of people in purple and gold, and we could tell that they were proud of their team. We knew who they were, because we don't see purple and gold in South Bend very often. When you fly in all the way from the west coast, that costs a lot of money. It really said something about their level of support. The Washington fans sat around the bar and sang their fight song. They were very congenial and very nice. They didn't cause any problems at all."

This begged the question: If Washington fans posed no problems, which fans DO pose the Linebacker Lounge with the biggest headaches?

"Ohio State is the worst," he said. "I could go and on about their fans, but they are the worst. Michigan and Michigan State fans are always bad. They stir up trouble. I think it is due to the close proximity of the schools to each other. But we never had any problems with Washington fans."

(Some themes are universal: Delinski was told that Washington fans are often complimented on their class when visiting other schools. But if he were to ask a randomly-selected Oregon Duck fan and pose this question, Delinski would be told that Husky fans are the arrogant scum of the earth. After hearing this, he laughed in recognition of the irony.)

Delinski was asked what Notre Dame fans were talking about after Tyrone Willingham was fired as their coach.

"Well, going back to when Willingham was hired, we were in disarray, as far as organization," he said. "When Tyrone first arrived, we felt a lot better about our organization, and we had a lot cleaner understanding of where the program was going. He did a lot of good things in his tenure. But at Notre Dame, the bottom line is W's, as it is at all schools, but more so at Notre Dame. A lot of people felt he was a transition coach from where we were under Lou Holtz, to a position we are now in, with someone like Charlie Weis, who has been to championship games. Even though it was the pros, Charlie has won those Super Bowls.

"In the first or second year, we had a lot faith in Tyrone," added Delinski. "We felt this was a chance for him to show what he could do. That first year, when he had recruits belonging to former coach Bob Davie, he inspired them to perform (10-3 record in 2002). As his tenure went on, that enthusiasm slipped away. I don't know if it was his motivation, leadership, or if he was dealing with a different type of football player than he had coached in the past. But once you have a sense of failure, it kind of snowballs on you. Right now, it's just the opposite, as the ball is rolling up hill again for us. The enthusiasm is starting to build again. The enthusiasm is greater for Weis than it was with Willingham in his first year. What that goes back to is that Charlie won championships in the pros, and Tyrone had never won a championship. It is different expectations."

As Delinski went on to describe the changes that Weis has implemented this year, it sounds familiar to what Willingham has attempted at Washington.

"At the Blue-Gold game, Charlie brought back some of the great players of the past," he said. "He brought in Tim Brown, Joe Montana, Chris Zorich and Rudy Reuttiger (the man who inspired the film Rudy). Charlie Weis has brought these guys back because he was once a student here, and these were his heroes. He's bringing back a feeling of Notre Dame as it was in the 1960s and 1970s under Ara Parsegian and Dan Devine, and when we won championships under Lou Holtz. Charlie has a better insight on how Notre Dame as a community works, than someone like Tyrone who comes from the outside."

Delinski was told that since becoming Washington's coach, Willingham has closed practices and has kept the media at arm's length.

"When he was here, he had open practices," said Delinski. "But as soon as you start losing, you start having (media people) saying that so-and-so is hobbled, or so-and-so is in the doghouse. I think Tyrone has shied away from having open practices, because of his experience of being under the microscope at Notre Dame. Once you are under the microscope, especially with Notre Dame being the way it is, you get alienated because of the intensity of the scrutiny.

"Tyrone brought winning teams to Stanford, and Stanford beat Notre Dame a couple of times," he said. "That's why Notre Dame hired him in the first place. And I think he has a very good opportunity at Washington. Most Notre Dames fans feel that you're not getting a bad coach. You're just getting a coach that doesn't have the experience of being to championship games, which is what Notre Dame needs-- a different kind of motivation and leadership."

This coming Saturday, the Linebacker Lounge will begin to fill up in the hours before kickoff. People will endeavor to claim a good seat to watch the battle. The various big-screen TVs will be warmed up and ready to go. The infamous Linebacker Pole will still be cooling down from the previous evening's festivities. And green-clad fans will sit at tables and order Long Island Iced Teas, carousing and talking football. They, along with the rest of the country, will soon be watching Charlie Weis and his Notre Dame Fighting Irish run out of the Husky tunnel.

"The fans here are calling it the Ty-D Bowl," said Delinski. "There is nothing personal between the coaching staffs, because they don't know each other. So it's not a revenge thing. And the Notre Dame fans don't have any animosity toward Washington or Tyrone.

"We are simply looking forward to Charlie beating Tyrone for the self-satisfaction that we made the right decision to move on to another coach."

Derek Johnson can be reached at Top Stories