Notre Dame visit brings hype to Heinz Field
The bus carrying the Notre Dame football team pulled up in front of LSU's Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, La., and the first-year coach stood and led his players through the crowd.
"People were spitting on us and throwing things," Lou Holtz said, chuckling at the 25-year-old memory, "and, good Lord knows, Louisiana is a Catholic place."
No one knows the U.S. sporting public's love-hate relationship with Notre Dame better than Holtz, who coached there for 11 seasons, winning the school's most recent national title in 1988.
"We never played in front of an empty seat, home or away," he said. "I don't care where we went."
Notre Dame arrives this week to play Pitt at Heinz Field. The game kicks off at noon Saturday, and Pitt officials are expecting a sellout.
Pitt has sold out Heinz Field five times since moving there in 2001, and Notre Dame was the opponent for three of them, drawing above capacity — 65,000 or more people — each time.
"Notre Dame could sell out in Tel Aviv," ESPN college football analyst Beano Cook said.
Pitt coach Todd Graham is spending the week reminding his players of the importance of a game against a team that has lost two of its first three games.
"There is Penn State, West Virginia and Notre Dame when you think of the three games that mean the most to our players and our program," Graham said.
"You win this game, and they put (a picture of) the scoreboard up on the wall. It's a big deal."
The Irish (45-20-1) largely have dominated the series, including a 56-7 victory in 1968 in which Notre Dame officials used a running clock in the second half, without informing Pitt athletic director Frank Carver.
Holtz recalls the game at Pitt Stadium five weeks into his championship season when the Irish trailed for the first time all year and the score was tied, 17-17, late in the third quarter. The turning point occurred when Pitt quarterback Darnell Dickerson fumbled right before crossing the goal line and twice tried to fall on it before Notre Dame recovered.
"The fans are screaming, players on the other side are jumping up and down and I'll never forget (quarterback) Tony Rice coming up to me and saying, 'This is a good game,' " Holtz said
But the coach wasn't so sure, until Notre Dame won, 30-20.
Graham's Tulsa team beat Notre Dame on the road last season, 28-27, for his only victory in nine tries against BCS opponents. He remembers the game as a great memory for his seniors.
"I want these (Pitt) seniors to have an opportunity to beat a program that has the respect and notoriety of Notre Dame," he said.
That tradition springs from Knute Rockne, The Four Horsemen, George Gipp, 11 national titles and seven Heisman Trophy winners.
Cook calls Notre Dame "the most liked team in America and the most disliked team in America. There are three teams that the general public likes to see get beat, Notre Dame, the New York Yankees and Dallas Cowboys."
Yet its Catholic roots created a following that was so devoted that priests and nuns used to ask students to pray for a Notre Dame victory.
From 1925-1969, Notre Dame refused to go to bowl games, only changing its stance when the national polls started taking their final vote in January.
"I don't know why they didn't go," Cook said, "but I asked Charlie Callahan, their PR guy for many years, and he said, 'Beano, we play a bowl game every week.' "