How my love for baseball shaped my attitude toward Notre Dame football; plus, meeting Bear Bryant
I did not watch the BCS Championship game between Alabama and Notre Dame on Monday night. I feared watching it might be a jinx. But I did follow the posts of the loyal Notre Dame fans on Facebook and therefore had a good sense of what was happening.
As a result, I was quite delighted by the outcome, wishing only that the point spread would have been greater.
Growing up near Notre Dame
I grew up about 45 minutes from South Bend, Ind., where the Notre Dame campus is located. My feelings for Notre Dame football are completely unambiguous: I hate it.
Like most things in my life, my attitude toward Notre Dame football was shaped by my love for baseball. Here’s what happened.
During my pre-teen years I don’t remember having much of an opinion about Notre Dame, or college football in general. We liked football in our household, although it served mostly as a filler between the end of the baseball season and Spring Training. But we liked pro football. The college game was simply some minor league contrivance that we found uninteresting.
Watching the World Series in 1972
Then one fateful October Saturday afternoon in 1972, college football and baseball met at a deadly crossroads. (Cue dramatic music)
You have to remember that in the early ‘70s, baseball played night games in the World Series only during the week. The Series would start on a Saturday afternoon, the second game would be played on Sunday afternoon, and then if it went six and seven games, those would be played on the following Saturday and Sunday afternoons.
So on this particular Saturday afternoon, my brothers and I turned on NBC (with Curt Gowdy and Tony Kubek announcing) to watch the exciting Series between the upstart, mustachioed Oakland A’s and Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine.
A hate affair is born
Imagine our horror when, instead of the World Series, we were met with Notre Dame football! The local NBC affiliate, with the call letters WNDU because it is located next to the campus, had decided to pre-empt the World Series to show the Notre Dame game.
This was a sacrilege. It was like attending church on Sunday morning and instead of an uplifting sermon, finding a hog auction in progress. It stunk.
The invectives we hurled at that station and Notre Dame football and all their fans were probably words we shouldn’t have used at that age. We were livid. We implored Dad to drive us to the station immediately so we could personally wreak our vengeance on them.
Fortunately, the CBS affiliate decided to pick up the NBC feed so we were able to watch the World Series game. But a hatred, deep and dark, was born that day for Notre Dame football.
I am now nominally a University of Michigan fan, after one of the high school students I covered while working at a newspaper went on to play at Michigan, and later for the Bengals. I found that Lloyd Carr, the Wolverines coach at the time, was extremely nice and always took the time to talk to me.
But for years, whenever people asked who my favorite football team was, I answered “Whoever Notre Dame is playing next week.”
Meeting Bear Bryant
“There’s a lot of blood, sweat and guts between dreams and success.” - Paul “Bear” Bryant
The game Monday night also reminded me of my brief encounter with legendary Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant. This was in 1982, and I was on my first reporting trip ever for a small sports magazine that featured articles primarily about Christian athletes.
The Alabama football team had an active Bible study that involved, among others, Steadman Shealy, who had quarterbacked the Tide’s 1978 championship and was an assistant coach at the time. My assignment was to attend that Bible study and interview several of the players afterward.
But that afternoon, the team’s chaplain said he’d introduce me to the legendary coach. I accompanied him to Bryant’s office and there stood the legend himself.
Bryant halfheartedly shook my hand while staring somewhere over my right shoulder, and never said a word. The handshake was the only indication that I had any more significance than a fly buzzing around the room.
The chaplain and I left the office, waited a minute for the elevator to arrive and then, just before the elevator doors closed, in strode Bryant. Naturally he wore his trademark houndstooth hat (I recall that he was wearing it in his office, and had an identical one hanging on a hat rack, but I could be mistaken).
Bryant stood in the elevator without saying a word or acknowledging our existence in any way. As soon as the doors opened on the ground floor, he strode out without a word or even a sideways glance, focused fully on reaching the football field for practice.
That was Bryant’s final season as Alabama’s head coach. He once joked that if he retired he’d probably “croak a week later.” He died four weeks after he retired, just a few months after I met him.