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Notre Dame Football - An Alternative Abridged History

Late on the eve of the next installment in the USC - Notre Dame rivalry, it seems like time to take a good long look at our rivals. Sure we may tease them about getting shelled the last few years, and their resorting to getting misty eyed over their actual scholar athletes, but how much do any of you actually know about Notre Dame. I was certainly ignorant, and some of the things I found out were eye-opening to say the least. Torpedoes, nudists, money, Fibonacci numbers: this story has them all. Tally ho!

In the beginning...

The University of Notre Dame du Lac was founded in 1842 and eventually fielded a football team in 1887. By this time, the complete collapse of the French Second Republic during the Franco-Prussian War 17 years previously had caused some of the more astute members of the Notre Dame football team to be concerned about being seen as cheese-eating surrender monkeys, so they dropped the "du Lac" part of the name for public consumption, fearing that association with moist-to-soggy French mademoiselles would either inflame anti-Catholic sentiment or football players deprived of female companionship during the long Indiana nights. And so the stage was set for an early 20th century reign of terror...

Learning to deal with competition...

Notre Dame's first game was to the University of Michigan, which they lost, as indeed they did the following three times they attempted to beat the Wolverines. Between 1887 and 1913, the Notre Dame team played both collegiate and high school teams, a habit abandoned on the basis that colleges like Syracuse could generally provide respectable but hapless competition - a strategy that bore fruit until the Gerging of Charlie Weis in 2008.

Michigan refused to play Notre Dame between 1909 and 1942. Whatever moral ground that Michigan may have thought that they were occupying, they in fact handed the Notre Dame team their first opportunity to deploy the "snubbed by a team we could have beaten" theme that has allowed them to discount any losses to Michigan since 1942 on the grounds that Michigan isn't a real rival anyway and probably just got lucky on the day.

Nonetheless, Michigan football demonstrated sound thinking that day in 1909 when they decided to avoid Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish "respect" campaign led them to take on the likes of Army, Penn State, and Texas. Strange things began to happen to those teams though - Pancho Villa expanded his operations to include Texas, and Pennsylvania separatists attempted to annex College Station to West Virginia. No conclusive proof was found that Notre Dame was involved, but suspicions ran high because of the multi-year effort to stick it to Army.

That effort culminated with the sinking of the Lusitania by former Notre Dame exchange student and walk-on linebacker Kapitanleutnant Walther Schwieger. Schwieger's log entries typically started with references to being under the blue-gray sky, and while weather in the North Atlantic is generally pretty crap, it has been established that Schwieger used this phrase even on sunny days.

What has a U-Boat attack got to do with the Army football team, you might be asking. Well, the eventual result of the sinking of the Lusitania led to the US entry into World War I, which resulted in the machine-gunning of most of the Army team members who had thwarted Notre Dame's football team. Wolverines shuddered to think that it could have been them.

USC, the Hays Board, and the cinematic propaganda war...

The nicey-nicey version of the start of the rivalry between USC and Notre Dame is that Knute Rockne's wife was persuaded by the wife of the USC Athletic Director that going to Los Angeles every other year would be a jolly change from South Bend. Others suggest that the combination of cash-money for Notre Dame was pretty compelling, giving them a way to maintain their princpled objection to bowl games while pocketing serious cash - a canny eye on the bottom line underneath self-presentation that culminated in NBC setting back college football broadcasting roughly 6 times every fall. Still others suggest that Knute Rockne's friendship with new USC coach Howard Jones was the key.

In fact, all three were true, but not the whole story. Mrs Rockne did lobby for the trip to Los Angeles. A habitual naturist (as seen in this NSFW picture from their wedding), she was tired of the short sun-bathing season in Indiana, and tired also of the constant cover-ups (figurative and literal) by athletic department staff and mortified Jesuits. Knute Rockne did want to head to LA to play against his old buddy Jones, and saw a chance to pick up some cash while he did it - by reminding Notre Dame every year that USC had tried to hire him before Jones, and increased pay would be a plus. Notre Dame needed the appearance money to meet Rockne's salary demands, as well as for paying off photographers who hung around the Rockne yard trying to get compromising pictures of Mrs Rockne.

It was the perfect storm, but the missing detail is the threat of excommunication: Rockne was warned that the Jesuits hadn't forgotten the dark arts of the auto-da-fe, and a painful painful runup to being thrown out of the Church would result, if he ever forgot who was paying the bills and yielded to the siren call of coaching on the west coast.

At the same time, movies were becoming an ever more important part of popular culture. It seems curious to note that it was Notre Dame who had captured the popular imagination through this medium: thousands of kids who saw films with Irish ragamuffins in Hell's Kitchen crying out "just trow me da ball Fadder!" were the genesis of the Subway "alumni," and Knute Rockne even had a film made in his honor after he died... But where was USC? The film school had been founded in 1929, Buster Crabbe and John Wayne were getting into films, the university is in Los Angeles, and Fatty Arbuckle even lived near campus. Why the hell was USC not on the silver screen?

Once again, the Domers had outflanked the competition. By 1934, the Hays Code was being enforced, and it had been principally written by one Father Daniel Lord SJ (talk about a name driving your profession!) in 1930. There were three main principles:

  1. No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it. Hence the sympathy of the audience should never be thrown to the side of crime, wrongdoing, evil or sin.
  2. Correct standards of life, subject only to the requirements of drama and entertainment, shall be presented.
  3. Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.

This was deep, deep cunning. What could be more lowering of moral standards than undercutting Notre Dame by letting those lapsed Methodists from Los Angeles show their football team in a good light? Nothing, that's what, with Catholic organizations spearheading the drive for removing moral laxity from the movie screens of America. And so, from a cinematic standpoint, USC became an unteam.

In fact, USC was so bamboozled by these years that when they eventually placed a football player into the popular culture, it was OJ Simpson, widely assumed to be a safe Negro until it emerged that his Hertz musings on getting out of town in a hurry foreshadowed his need to flee following his emergence as a homicidal lunatic. A university with 30 plus years of placing its football team in films would never have made that kind of mistake.

The End of Sabotage, Imposition of Numerological Strategy, and Surprise Results...

With the end of the Second World War, and the rise of the Cold War, the powers behind Notre Dame football concluded that it was time to enter a new era in confounding their opponents. The beginning of the end of the Hays Code with louche foreign films (imported by a splinter group from USC trying to bring down the Notre Dame film embargo on their team) reduced the tools at their disposal, and the election of President Kennedy and attendant anti-Catholic fear-mongering meant that using foreign agents and shadowy organizations were out of the question.

This made it imperative that the Notre Dame football structure put their money where their mouth was about being brighter than the average college athlete... and they came up with something cunning: using numerological cycles and occasionally posting counter-intuitive results so people stopped noticing the trends because of the recency effect.

Here's how it works: ever since 1941 the coaches produce results that either correlate to Fibonacci numbers or - when deemed necessary - cycles equivalent to 8.6 years / pi multiplied by 1,000 days. If the cycle is down, then there has to be a counter-intuitive positive result. If it's an up cycle, then the counter-intuitive result has to be negative. Sometimes there are sequential periods of success rather than a strict alternation of success and suckage.

When you look at it this way, the results almost fit - which makes sense, there has to be some deliberate variation to throw people off the scent. After all, the best evidence of a conspiracy is the absence of evidence! But after literally minutes of work with Excel, we can show that the results for Notre Dame football in the years since 1941 break out like this:

  • Coach Leahy had a tenure of 13 years, with good results: 13 is a Fibonacci number
  • Coaches Brennan and Kuharich each had 5 year tenures with bad results, but Paul Hornung won the Heisman: 5 is a Fibonacci number
  • Coaches Parseghian and Devine coached for a cumulative 17 years, which is just about two 8.6 year cycles, with good results, and threw people off the Fibonacci trail
  • Coach Faust coached for 5 years, with crap results, but started the 13 year streak of beating or tying with USC: 5 is again a Fibonacci number
  • Coach Holtz coached for 11 years, with good results, and produced the counter-intuitive result of losing his final game against USC, breaking the 13 game streak. Since Dr Lou doesn't do math as such, the 11 year tenure doesn't conform to anything, but the end of the streak against USC at 13 years kept a Fibonacci number in the mix despite his best efforts to defy the laws of mathematics and the iron law of the Athletic Department
  • Coach Davie produced 5 years of crap results, but beat SC and nearly beat Nebraska: another instance of the Fibonacci number 5 and counter-intuitive results
  • Coach Willingham produced some seriously crap results, and was out in 3 years: the administration had to drop him on the Fibonacci cycle or else be stuck with a guaranteed 2 more years of suck

And then we get to Charlie Weis, whose tenure thus far defies easy classification: he's in his fifth year, which would be a classic Fibonacci year to round out sequential crap results and get shitcanned, but the counter-intuitive games have been bad (Syracuse and Navy, for a start), and his contract is so long that he could theoretically have one crap period and one good period.

So how can someone make sense of this season? So far, it's been going well, which might mean that Notre Dame will lose against USC this year, to produce a result that doesn't go with the season. Or perhaps the tyranny of the long suck means that the season so far is the counter-intuitive result, and the Irish will lose tomorrow to wake up the echoes of the Brennan and Kuharich years. I just don't know which one it will be. Why oh why couldn't Dan Brown have turned his attention to this Catholic numerological mystery? WHY!?!?!?!??

It looks like we'll just have to wait and see what happens on the field.

Fight On, and beat the Irish (numerological conspiracy)!