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Don't dismiss the Fighting Irish

By Terence Moore, Special to CNN
updated 9:43 AM EDT, Fri October 28, 2011
Notre Dame's Hesburgh Library is adorned with a mosaic depicting Christ. The mosaic is referred to as "Touchdown Jesus" because it aligns with the football stadium's end zone. Notre Dame's Hesburgh Library is adorned with a mosaic depicting Christ. The mosaic is referred to as "Touchdown Jesus" because it aligns with the football stadium's end zone.
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Notre Dame's "Touchdown Jesus"
Notre Dame's "Touchdown Jesus"
Notre Dame's "Touchdown Jesus"
Notre Dame's "Touchdown Jesus"
Notre Dame's "Touchdown Jesus"
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • South Bend, Indiana, native Terence Moore: Players come to Notre Dame "to be great"
  • Irish remain relevant, despite lack of national championship for 23 years, he says
  • Several Notre Dame players are speculated as future high picks in the NFL draft

Editor's note: Terence Moore is a CNN contributor and a sports columnist of more than three decades. He has worked for The Cincinnati Enquirer, the San Francisco Examiner, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and AOL Sports.

South Bend, Indiana (CNN) -- The glow from the Golden Dome still is wonderfully blinding on bright days. Touchdown Jesus, the nickname of the skyscraper-sized mural on the side of the Hesburgh Library, continues to inspire with its version of Jesus stretching his arms high and wide as a football referee signaling for a touchdown.

The Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes, where folks haven't stopped lighting candles for miracles. The Basilica of the Sacred Heart, which resembles something straight from the Vatican.

The splendid lakes.

The immaculate trees, with leaves that dance in the autumn wind while dressed in various October colors.

For a guy born and raised a few punts away from all of this on the campus of the University of Notre Dame, I keep hearing a depressing question: Is Notre Dame football relevant anymore?

The answer is yes, definitely yes.

"Talent-wise, we're pretty much there, because players keep coming here to be great, and they know there is life after football when they choose to play for Notre Dame," said Adrian Jarrell, now a senior financial analyst, who had several gigantic catches as a wide receiver for the Fighting Irish during the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Those were the last of Notre Dame's glory days. Thus the question of relevancy. "I live in Dallas, and I hear that question all the time," Jarrell said, chuckling, while many Irish eyes are crying.

Here's why: With Notre Dame spending another season tumbling into obscurity, there are more than a few reasons to doubt its relevancy. For one, this 125-year-old football program that made dominance famous hasn't won a national championship since 1988, when that other Gipper was in the White House.

The original Gipper was George Gipp, Notre Dame's icon of yore. Years after legendary Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne satisfied the wishes of a dying Gipp by delivering his "Win one for the Gipper" speech before a Notre Dame game against Army during the 1920s, Gipp was portrayed in Hollywood by future U.S. President Ronald Reagan.

That Gipper speech was about the last time Notre Dame won a bowl game worth mentioning.

Actually, we're talking about 1993, when Jarrell helped Notre Dame beat Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl. After that, the Irish dropped a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) record nine-straight bowl games, spanning from the mighty Orange to the lowly Insight. They've won their last two bowl games, but nobody who participates in either the Sun Bowl or the Hawaii Bowl is considered a national power.

They've had four coaches since College Football Hall of Fame inductee Lou Holtz resigned after the 1996 season. Three of those post-Holtz coaches were fired, and the fourth is Brian Kelly, whose team in his second year at Notre Dame had a disturbing 31-17 home loss last Saturday to archrival Southern Cal. It dropped Notre Dame's record to a sloppy 4-3.

Of the 120 schools at the top of the NCAA's two-tier system, 119 of them have a better turnover margin than the Irish.

Worse, Southern Cal players accused Notre Dame players and coaches of quitting during Saturday's game. Southern Cal coach Lane Kiffin apologized to Kelly for the remarks, and Kelly joined Notre Dame players in denying the charges.

Then again, those things happen when the mighty has become the meek in the minds of many.

"For anybody to say that Notre Dame can't win again is the most ridiculous, asinine comment I've ever heard, because they've got more going for them now than they've ever had before in the history of the school," said Holtz, 74, now a college football analyst for ESPN. He finished his 11 years at Notre Dame with a 100-30-2 record, featuring that 1988 national championship and three other seasons with one loss or less.

Holtz's legacy at Notre Dame is even more astounding when you consider the following: Back then, Notre Dame officials didn't allow "red shirting," which gives players a chance to spend an extra year with a team while retaining their normal four years of eligibility. Holtz had several five-year players at Notre Dame, but that mostly was because they were exempt for medical reasons.

Now, even though Notre Dame officials don't call it red shirting, they allow five-years players for a variety of reasons.

There also is Notre Dame's change in recent years to allow freshmen to enter the university in January instead of September. It has expanded the Irish's recruiting possibilities.

Then there is the acceptance of transfers. It was discouraged for academic reasons during the Holtz era, except in rare cases. Transfers happen slightly more frequently these days at Notre Dame.

Plus, former Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis and his strength coaches often complained about players suffering huge weight losses near the end of seasons. Because of football and Notre Dame's fierce academic schedule, players weren't eating properly. Unlike other major programs, Notre Dame lacked a training table, which allows players to eat structured meals each day around class and practice times.

Notre Dame finally got a training table during Weis' last year there in 2009, and since then, players have enjoyed meals at the Irish's state-of-the-art football complex that was built across 96,000 square feet in 2005.

That was nearly a decade after Holtz's era.

With its multiple fields, extensive weight-training area and huge locker rooms featuring the latest in technology, the so-called Guglielmino complex (nicknamed The Gug) is eye candy for recruits. In other words, those who keep saying the Irish can't recruit anymore aren't paying attention. They had more players (11) on preseason "watch lists" this year for major individual awards than any team outside of Alabama (12).

Wide receiver Michael Floyd and linebacker Manti Te'o are among several Notre Dame players tagged as future high picks in the NFL draft.

Speaking of the future, there were around 50 of the nation's top recruits at the Southern Cal game, and despite the Irish's ugly loss, the South Bend Tribune reported that most of the recruits said they were highly impressed with the Notre Dame atmosphere.

"In the end, Brian Kelly will figure it out, just the same as Ara Parseghian did and every other coach before him," said Holtz, referring to Notre Dame's legacy that has produced 11 national championships and seven Heisman Trophy winners under the likes of Parseghian, Frank Leahy, Dan Devine, Rockne and, of course, Holtz.

What Kelly must do to join them at Notre Dame is win, and he must do so for just shy of forever.

That's all.

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