Notre Dame evokes intense fan emotions

Bob Cohn
| Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2012, 11:06 p.m.

Chatting pleasantly with a woman at a law firm retreat, things suddenly went south for Matt Thornton. She asked where he went to college. Notre Dame, he replied.

“The first thing out of her mouth was, ‘My husband hates your school,' ” said Thornton, an attorney from Bethesda, Md.

An avid Fighting Irish fan, Thornton, 37, has encountered these conversational U-turns before.

“People aren't shy about telling you they don't like (Notre Dame),” he said. “I think it's unique in that regard. I don't think if I went to Vanderbilt anyone would say, ‘I hate your school.' ”

Or more to the point, “I hate your football team.”

Then again, a lot of folks love your football team, too. No other college program in any sport has evoked, on such a large scale, such intense dedication and affection in concert with equally fervent animosity and scorn.

This conflict of extremes was summed up several years ago when Dan Devine, safely distanced from coaching the Fighting Irish to a national championship, said, “There are two kinds of people in the world, Notre Dame lovers and Notre Dame haters. And, quite frankly, they're both a pain in the (rear).”

Both camps are getting worked up these days. After its stunning victory over Oklahoma last week, Notre Dame is 8-0 for the first time since 2002 and ranked third in the BCS poll heading into Saturday's home game against Pitt. A chance to win its first national championship in 24 years is on the radar.

“When Notre Dame is relevant, it creates a whole different atmosphere around college football,” former Irish and NFL quarterback Steve Beuerlein said.

This might be especially true for the haters, who are happy to reacquaint themselves with a large and powerful machine to rage against.

Beyond the anti-Catholic bigotry that flowered after Knute Rockne put the program on the map in 1913, what gnawed at folks was the uncommon success on the field accompanied by incessant attention and hype, the oft-embellished lore and a coast-to-coast “Subway Alumni” following. It fueled a deep and enduring resentment similar to that directed toward the New York Yankees and other major overdogs.

“It truly is the only national school in the country,” said Beuerlein, a CBS analyst. “Anywhere you go, be it Notre Dame fans or people who hate their guts, everybody follows them.”

The intensity fluctuated during the down periods, such as much of the past two decades. But even when Notre Dame was less than dominant, there was enough to pick on, like having its own major network (NBC) for football, and bowl people constantly tripping over themselves.

“A lot of people feel, and justifiably so, that Notre Dame is looked at differently than everybody else,” Beuerlein said.

Then there's the “arrogant” label, which seems as affixed to the program as the Golden Dome and Touchdown Jesus. “It's the corporate brand,” said Alan Grant, a former Stanford defensive back who authored a book about then-Notre Dame coach Tyrone Willingham.

“Arrogance goes along with that. It's like the Yankees. It's larger than life and people have a visceral reaction.”

While many enjoyed Notre Dame's recent struggles (a website, Notre Dame Sucks, has remained ever vigilant), the resurgence under coach Brian Kelly provides more of a purpose. Any fall from this point will cause a bigger crash.

“The Yankees weren't very good in the 80s and into the 90s,” Thornton said. “But the real intense feeling didn't ratchet up until they got good again.”

Bob Cohn is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 412-320-7810.

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