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Can Notre Dame regain its storied glory?

By Terence Moore, Special to CNN
updated 2:19 PM EDT, Thu November 1, 2012
Fighting Irish players pray before last week's home game against BYU. Notre Dame defeated BYU 17-14.
Fighting Irish players pray before last week's home game against BYU. Notre Dame defeated BYU 17-14.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Notre Dame hasn't won a national championship since 1988
  • However, pep rallies Friday nights before home games host crowds of 20,000
  • Coach/player duo Knute Rockne and George Gipp were immortalized in the 1940 film
  • Today fans are inspired by Manti Te'o, who played the day his girlfriend and grandmother died

Editor's note: Terence Moore has been 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. Follow him on Twitter

South Bend, Ind. (CNN) -- When you say "Notre Dame" and then throw in words such as mystique, storied and blessed, you create as many folks rolling their eyes as wiping away tears of joy.

This has been so throughout the 125 seasons of football for the Fighting Irish, especially when they are good.

Well, forget about placing "Notre Dame" and "good" in the same sentence for a moment. With overwhelming losses to supposedly inferior foes on a consistent basis and underwhelming coaches from Bob Davie to Tyrone Willingham to Charlie Weis, "Notre Dame" has been "mediocre" or less during the last two decades.

Now, with Brian Kelly in his third year of leading the Irish while having the fourth-most victories of any coach among the big boys of college football since 2006, "Notre Dame" is flirting with "greatness" at 7-0 despite a monster schedule and all those haters.

Oh, and lovers.

This gets a little confusing. After all, no team this side of the New York Yankees, Duke basketball and the Dallas Cowboys is more polarizing than the famous -- or is that the infamous? -- one that resides among the majestic oaks, maples and pines of Northern Indiana.

Notre Dame can further its return to prominence Saturday night, when it takes its No. 5 ranking in the Bowl Championship Series standings on the road to No. 8 Oklahoma. Not surprisingly, Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops is calling this the biggest game for his team in 12 years -- maybe ever -- because it's Notre Dame.

It will be televised nationally on ABC, and the ratings will be huge, partly because of the game's magnitude, but mostly because of the staggering number of Notre Dame haters and lovers.

I'll show you how this works, and I'll start with a confession: I was born and raised a few punts from the Notre Dame campus. Not only that, I was at the Irish's home game last week against Brigham Young during their attempt on a heavily overcast afternoon to remain undefeated this late in a season for the first time since 2002. They trailed BYU by four points deep into the third quarter, but then something happened -- first away from the playing field and then on it.

The sun burst through the clouds, and as I looked to my left inside the Notre Dame Stadium press box toward the nearby Hesburgh Library, I saw the brightest of sunlight touching the face of Jesus on the mosaic that is as high as half a football field.

The \
The "Word of Life" mural, also known as "Touchdown Jesus" on Notre Dame's campus.

They call the mosaic Touchdown Jesus around here.

Needless to say, Notre Dame's offense promptly roared to the end zone after that to take a lead the Irish would never relinquish. Then, after the Notre Dame Marching Band finished its eternal playing of the Victory March at the end, the Irish players gathered before the student section for one of Notre Dame's slew of traditions.

The others?

The pep rallies on the Friday night before every home game, with a crowd as high as 20,000 at times.

The public luncheon (average attendance of 1,500) that happens on the Friday afternoon before every home game.

The lighting of candles on campus at The Grotto for miracles ranging from game-winning field goals to huge interceptions.

The Midnight Drummer Circle, featuring those from the Notre Dame Marching band spending 45 minutes in front of the Golden Dome leading cadences and cheers.

But back to the BYU game, when Notre Dame players continued a post-game home tradition that happens whether they win or lose. After they reached the front of the student section, they joined those who remained from the sellout crowd of more than 80,000 to sing Notre Dame's alma mater called "Notre Dame, Our Mother."

Tears were everywhere.

You may roll your eyes now.

I haven't even mentioned that the whole Notre Dame Nation these days is inspired by Manti Te'o, the Irish's senior linebacker from Hawaii with a story built for Hollywood -- you know, like the one about George Gipp, otherwise known as The Gipper.

Ronald Reagan as George \
Ronald Reagan as George "The Gipper" Gipp in "Knute Rockne, All American"

Gipp was the Notre Dame running back who played for legendary Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne from 1917 to 1920 before his death from a throat infection. Notre Dame's dynamic coach and player duo inspired the phrase "Win one for the Gipper," and they were immortalized in the 1940's movie "Knute Rockne, All American."

Somebody named Ronald Reagan played The Gipper. To hear political pundits tell it, that role contributed to his earning the right to spend two terms in the Oval Office.

You may roll your eyes again.

Either that, or you can wait to hear more about Te'o, the undisputed leader of Notre Dame's bone-crunching defense.

Before Notre Dame went to then-10th-ranked Michigan State in September, Te'o's grandmother and girlfriend died in Hawaii within six hours of each other. He played anyway. Along the way to a 20-3 victory, he had 12 tackles, broke up two passes and intercepted the first pass of his four-year Notre Dame career.

(Editor's note: Since this story was first published, Notre Dame officials and Manti Te'o have called the story of the death of his girlfriend a hoax.)

After the interception, Te'o pointed to the sky, with emotion -- the kind he sends through the rest of his teammates.

"There are a lot of leaders that think a quality of a leader is just to talk," Te'o told me after the BYU game. "I think the strongest leaders are those who not only verbally communicate but communicate by action."

Manti Te\'o, No. 5, is a linebacker for the Fighting Irish.
Manti Te'o, No. 5, is a linebacker for the Fighting Irish.

Exhibit A: With much help from Te'o, the Irish rank second in the nation by allowing opponents just an average of nine points per game. They also possess the only defense at the NCAA's highest level of football that hasn't allowed a rushing touchdown.

Te'o leads the team in tackles, ranks second in the nation in forcing turnovers (four interceptions, two fumble recoveries) and is among the handful of legitimate candidates for the Heisman Trophy, which is college football's top individual award.

He would join Michigan's Charles Woodson (1997) as the only person to win the Heisman Trophy as primarily a defensive player. He also would help Notre Dame break its tie with the University of Southern California for the school with the most Heisman Trophy winners (7). (Seven trophies also have gone to Ohio State, but two went to the same player.)

In addition, when it comes to The Associated Press and The USA Today/ESPN (formerly the United Press International) polls, Notre Dame has more consensus national championships than anybody (11).

Nobody has more consensus All-Americans than Notre Dame's 80, and the Irish lead everybody in first-round NFL draft picks with 63 and in overall No. 1 NFL draft picks with five.

Still, the haters would mention Notre Dame hasn't won a national championship since 1988. In contrast, the lovers would mention Te'o isn't alone as an Irish star these days.

Notre Dame has other splendid players, such as future NFL tight end Tyler Eifert, athletically gifted quarterback Everett Golson and the speedy 6-6 and 303 pounds of Stephon Tuitt at defensive end. With Kelly's expertise and the Gipper's guidance, they are on the verge of turning Notre Dame's glory days of the past into those of the present and the future.

You may roll your eyes some more.

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