When Notre Dame stunningly resolved to play in a bowl game for the first time in more than four decades, or since that national championship team of Harry Pestilence, Don Famine, Sleepy Jim Death and Elmer War galloped out to Pasadena in 1925, Athletic Director Moose Krause mentioned the modern convenience of jet travel as one of the small reasons for the university's decision. This, in turn, as South Bend might have guessed, led a number of us stubborn Notre Dame teasers into the same gag: that the Fighting Irish may have invented college football glamour, but it seems to have taken them 45 years to discover the airplane.
It is more fun to joke about the Irish, of course, than it is to play them a game of football, the main reason being that Notre Darners take their spirit and their winning so seriously. Notre Dame has never been one of those schools you go looking up if you hope to beat somebody. In these 45 seasons that Notre Dame has avoided postseason play, all the campus has produced is 11 more teams that won national championships (in some poll or another), nine teams that went undefeated, eight that lost only one game, 16 that lost only two games, more than 100 All-America selections and six Heisman Trophy winners.
Thus, Notre Dame simply has to pardon all of its trampled victims of the years for giggling now about the fact that its academic standards at long last have reached such excellence that it can spare a few days off during the holidays to play a game for $350,000. To be fair, one should add that all this while most Notre Dame exes and members of its far-flung subway-bus-streetcar-speed-boat-and-convertible alumni have felt that the Irish should always have been going to bowl games. And rightly so.
Had it done so in the years since Knute Rockne took his Four Horsemen and Seven Mules out to the Rose Bowl to whip up on Ernie Nevers and Stanford on the first day of 1925, the institution, it is safe to say, would be infinitely wealthier and its number of victories would be even heavier than it is. A peek at the record indicates that probably 20 Notre Dame teams could have gone bowling between 1925 and this season. And a modest estimate of what this might have been worth is between $2 and $4 million, not to overlook all of those extra opportunities to sing the Victory March and recruit.
The logic behind Notre Dame's refusal to participate in postseason play all of this time is known only to those faculty men in South Bend who have been responsible. More than likely it was based on the fact that in the 1920s Rockne's one trip took almost a month, going and coming, by train. But there can hardly be any excuses for the policy existing after World War II when modern transportation, either on the ground or in the sky, made it possible for both the squad and its student fans to attend a bowl and miss no classwork.
The continuation of the policy probably results from a misguided notion that participation in a bowl game would make Notre Dame look like a football factory. Football, of course, has done a great deal for Notre Dame—far more than anything else. Nor is there much wrong with this, except that there happen to be those within the bright glare of the Golden Dome who do not like to admit it.
Actually, for whatever the reasons, Notre Dame has quite possibly rendered a kind and philanthrophic service to a great many other schools by staying out of bowl games. A number of teams in the past would not have gone to so many postscason games had the Irish been available. It almost goes without saying that there are bowl sponsors among us who would tap dance and strum the banjo to get Notre Dame with even a 5-5 record. Such is the drawing power of its wildly loyal fandom, whose box-office tendencies have prompted Beano Cook, once of rival Pittsburgh and now of the television industry, to observe, "Notre Dame is the only team in the country that never plays a road game."
Several explanations were put forth as to why Notre Dame chose this interlude in its glorious history to play a postseason game—the Cotton Bowl—against, as it happens, No. 1 Texas. One was that, since this was the centennial year of the sport, South Bend had a built-in excuse for rescinding, momentarily, its bowl policy. This was better than nothing. At least every 100 years some lucky bowl could expect to land the Irish. Another explanation was that Coach Ara Parseghian had been lobbying for bowl participation ever since he got there in 1964 and finally had rounded up enough strength on the board of regents, which had been enlarged to include a number of football-minded laymen, to swing it. Like any other coach, Ara knew the benefits of bowl play—recognition of the squad for a good regular season, a chance to make whoopee in the ratings and a splendid opportunity to recruit a specific area of the country.
But, as it turned out, the real reason that Notre Dame lifted its bowl ban was money. The road to the decision was laid as early as last June when the financial committee on scholarship aid discovered it needed help. Notre Dame already was up to its statue of Moses in fund drives totaling $52 million, and, thus, some other source of revenue would be required to aid a program for underprivileged students. The committee thought of a bowl game as one possibility, believing, naturally, that Ara's team would do no worse than 8-1-1.
Then, rather surprisingly, when this was suggested to the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, the president, a man who had never encouraged bowl talk, he said, "Let's think about it," dropping the hard line for the first time and offering encouragement to all those Notre Darners who had long sought bowl play.
In late September the athletic board talked informally in favor of a bowl bid, and in late October the alumni board unanimously endorsed the recommendation and sent a committee to Father Hesburgh with the news. About this time, of course, word was being leaked around the world that Notre Dame might be interested in a bowl, but most postseason sponsors paid little attention, mumbling to themselves, "We've been down that road before, and we don't want to blow Penn State or Missouri on the basis of a rumor."
Comes now the drama of how the Cotton Bowl got the Irish when it was working double time to grab Penn State, hoping to arrange the only bowl game that would make any sense, since Ohio State was out of things—No. 2 Texas or Arkansas against No. 3 Penn State—with the faint, dim, desperate possibility that this game could match No. 1 against No. 2 if somehow the Buckeyes lost to either Purdue or Michigan.
The adventure began on Nov. 12 when the race seemed to be between the Cotton and the Orange for Penn State. At the time it appeared that Penn State could have its choice of the undefeated Texas-Arkansas winner in Dallas or then undefeated Tennessee in Miami. The Vols had yet to lose to Ole Miss.
On that day in Dallas, a Wednesday, a man named Field Scovell, the vice-president of Southland Life Insurance and co-chairman of the Cotton Bowl Selection Committee, got a phone call from Ed Haggar Jr., a Notre Dame alumnus in Dallas, who said that the Irish wanted to go to a bowl. Phooey, said Scovell, who got in touch with Ed Haggar Sr. to check out his son's information. "He knows more about it than I thought he did," came the father's reply.
Further checking revealed that Notre Dame might prefer the Orange Bowl against Penn State for a lot of reasons—good trip, nighttime TV, big exposure with the Eastern press. "This made us wonder what had happened to Tennessee," Scovell says. "We heard the Orange Bowl had Tennessee and Penn State in bed together. But we decided to go after Penn State, anyway, unless Notre Dame was really serious."
On Friday, Nov. 14, Scovell and Wilbur Evans, the executive director of the Southwest Conference, fought their way in planes and cars through snowstorms to Penn State for the Nittany Lions' game against Maryland, fully prepared to issue an invitation to Coach Joe Paterno at noon on Monday, the official date that bowl invitations could be tendered. All the while, however, they were talking by phone to their deployed Notre Dame watchers and feelers.
On Friday night at Penn State, Paterno told the Texans that he personally favored the Cotton but that he felt his team probably wanted to go back to the Orange Bowl. He said they would vote on Sunday. "Our only case was that we'd have a higher ranked team, cither Texas or Arkansas, for them to play," Scovell says. "But in all that snow I could sort of understand voting for the sunshine."
The following day Tennessee got stung by Ole Miss, and every bowl except the Gator lost interest in the Vols. Ohio State crushed Purdue and remained No. 1. Texas remained No. 2, Arkansas three, Penn State four.
Had Joe Paterno wanted to gamble at this point, or wanted to keep his team more than alive in the trot for No. 1, he could have enticed his players to vote for the Cotton. At least by doing this he would have been certain of meeting the No. 2 team and possibly the No. 1 team if Ohio State were upset by Michigan. Besides this, who was to say that all of the awardgivers of a national championship, those that would wait until after the bowls to decide—the Football Writers, the AP and Helms—might not favor an impressive 11-0 team over Ohio State's 9-0, and especially if Michigan played the Buckeyes a close contest?
As far as the Cotton Bowl was concerned, a Penn State in the hand was better than a Notre Dame in the rumor. But, alas, the feeling sank through to Scovell and Evans that Penn State was lost. So they spent all day Sunday telephoning Notre Dame friends and getting ripples of encouragement. The day passed, Sunday did, with Scovell and Evans wondering how Penn State had voted, while calls came from Notre Dame pals, offering such intriguing phrases as, "It's warming up...." "The Irish prefer the highest rated team possible...." "They like the conference tie-up of the Cotton as opposed to a purely commercial bowl sponsor...." "It's really getting hot...." "You'd better haul it to South Bend...."
Field Scovell remembers, "When you hear you've got a real chance to get Notre Dame for the first time in 45 years, you don't care about anything else."
Scovell and Evans hauled it. They left Penn State at 6 p.m. Sunday, still not knowing—indeed, not caring—how the Nittany Lions voted. They drove in a blizzard to Pittsburgh, got lost once, flew to Chicago, slept three hours, flew to South Bend, couldn't land, circled and held, finally landed, whereupon Scovell rushed to a phone to call Father Edmund Joyce, the executive vice-president of Notre Dame, who had been much in favor of the game.
"The ring bearer is here," Scovell said to Father Joyce, "and I sure do need a finger to put it on."
The happiest words Scovell had heard in weeks came from Father Joyce.
"You have nothing to worry about," he said.
The Cotton Bowl probably would have wound up with LSU, a 9-1 team that is going nowhere, had it guessed wrong on Notre Dame. And it would then have had perhaps the least attractive game of all. Tough, but dull. Meanwhile, the other bowls didn't do half bad. The Orange has a splendid game between Penn State (10-0) and Missouri (9-1); the Gator lucked into Tennessee (9-1) and Florida (8-1-1); and even the Sugar can look forward to a great deal of excitement from Arkansas (9-1) and Ole Miss (7-3), which exhibits Elisha Archie Manning III. The Rose was set all along with the Pacific Eight winner against the Big Ten runner-up, but Pasadena suddenly got charmed when Michigan (8-2) became a co-champion instead of a runner-up by shocking the Buckeyes. Now USC (9-0-1) has somebody to get emotionally up for.
Above all, however, Texas-Notre Dame is the glamour game. If there is any suspense left in the fight for No. 1—Texas has already received the UPI and Hall of Fame awards—it will be in Dallas before the revved-up 73,000 who crowd into the Cotton Bowl.
This is not Ara Parseghian's best team from South Bend, but it is a solid one, big and rugged, with Mike McCoy and other beasts up front, with better running than any of Ara's teams except 1966. Quarterback Joe Theismann, who is a little on the order of Texas' James Street, is good enough to have tied USC twice and, with the exception of losing early to Purdue, he is good enough to have thrashed every other foe this season. Notre Dame will not have the quickness or dazzle that Texas found against Arkansas, but it will have the same rage and determination. The two teams had a common foe in Navy. Texas won by 56-17, but Notre Dame won by 47-0.
A Notre Dame victory is never surprising, yet Texas is better than many believe who have only the Arkansas television game on which to judge Darrell Royal's Longhorns. Texas should have a quickness overall that the Irish are unaccustomed to—a quickness that could not be detected in the Arkansas game because the Porkers were just as alert and agile. A bowl veteran, Texas should perform like the deserving No. 1 team that it is. James Street, after all, with the help of Steve Worster, Cotton Speyrer and others, has never lost a game.
Should Notre Dame win, however, and should this victory be accompanied by, say, a Missouri win over Penn State and a Michigan win over USC, no No. 1 pretender would remain unbeaten. The postbowl vote would, in such case, become veeerrry in-ter-est-ing, and Ohio State, sitting by the fire, would become a contender all over again.
It would be messy, in brief. And mostly thanks to Notre Dame, which, in any event, has already given the bowls a glow they don't always have.