Notebook: Merging nostalgia and present-day priorities a tough task for Notre Dame

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — They heard abridged versions of the stories this week, snippets of the 1977 Notre Dame football team’s magical national title run.

Saturday night at Notre Dame Stadium, when the 13th-ranked Irish smashed No. 11 USC, 49-14, the two worlds were close enough to touch — the reunioning bunch of roughly former 80 members sans quarterback Joe Montana, and the current squad. And barely did.

Logistics don’t allow for much integration in a game week.

“It’s so difficult,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Thursday night. “We wanted to make sure our team was aware. I think it’s important to be aware of the game, the tradition of this game, what’s going on around it with the ‘77 team.

“And I think that’s important when you’re at Notre Dame, to understand all the great traditions about it. And we talked about it when we had our Monday meeting. Other than that we had to kind of get back and focus on the things that are important right now."

Their focus produced a score eerily reminiscent of the 1977's squad's 49-19 romp over the Trojans 40 years ago.

“For us, as coaches, we’d love to spend more time with it, but this is arguably one of our biggest recruiting weekends," Kelly continues. "We have 250 guests, I think 82 total recruits, I think 13 official visits. I’d love to say I could hang out with some of the ‘77 guys on Friday night in the Schivarelli Lounge, but it’s just not feasible.”

Good byes and so-so byes

Brian Kelly came into Saturday night’s matchup with USC as the most successful coach in school history coming out of a bye week (8-1, .889) among those with a sample size of four games or more and improved that to 9-1.

Terry Brennan, among those with three bye weeks or fewer, was actually undefeated (3-0). The others with no post-bye losses — Joe Kuharich, and interim coaches Ed McKeever and Hugh Devore — never experienced a bye week.

At the other end of the spectrum is Charlie Weis, at 3-3 (.500) the biggest post-bye-week struggler among Irish head coaches in the larger sample size. If there’s a bit of solace, in the smaller sample size, Knute Rockne was also at the break-even mark (1-1), and Hunk Anderson lost his only try.

Weis’ first stab at it happened in his first season, 2005, and against an incredibly formidable opponent, No. 1 USC, in the “Bush Push Game.” The ninth-ranked Irish actually stayed at No. 9 in the AP poll after the 34-31 loss at Notre Dame Stadium.

Weis didn’t face another ranked team in the post-bye week until his sixth and final one in 2009. Again it was USC, with the 25th-ranked Irish falling to the No. 6 Trojans, 34-27.

That also happened to be the last time the Irish faced a top 10 opponent in Notre Dame Stadium.

Probably the most enduring bit of Weis’ bye week lore is a quote he made during another team’s bye week, specifically during the 2006 season.

Notre Dame after six games that season was 5-1 and ranked eighth in the coaches poll. On Oct. 21, they edged UCLA 20-17 for their sixth win but dropped two spots. A team with a bye, that had been ranked No. 10, jumped up into ND’s formerly occupied No. 8 spot.

“(A) team that jumped us wasn’t even playing,” he said without actually naming the team. “They’re sitting at home eating cheeseburgers. Tell me how it works. Maybe I’m just stupid.”

That team was Urban Meyer’s Florida Gators, who continued to climb and won the 2006 national title.

Rank and file

Saturday night’s clash with the No. 11 Trojans was Kelly’s eighth as ND’s head coach, with a 4-3 mark in the previous seven.

His first six came against USC teams that went into the game unranked. But three of those six Trojan teams finished the season in the top 25.

That group comprises the 2011 Trojans, 31-17 winners in South Bend, who finished No. 6 in the final AP poll; the 2013 USC team that lost 14-10 at ND Stadium but finished 19th; and the 2014 team, that waxed the Irish 49-14 in L.A., and finished 24th.

In last year’s meeting at USC, a 12th-ranked Trojan squad prevailed, 45-27. That team finished the 2016 season No. 3.

Pro potential

The NFL-caliber talent on both teams drew reps from 14 teams to the ND-USC game Saturday night, including five general managers.

Here’s a rundown of who took in the game:

• Buffalo Bills: Brandon Beane, general manager; Joe Schoen, assistant GM.

• Tennessee Titans: Jon Robinson, general manager; Ryan Cowden, director of player personnel.

• Pittsburgh Steelers: Kevin Colbert, general manager; Phil Kreidler, college scouting coordinator.

• Indianapolis Colts: Chris Ballard, general manager; Monte Poe, director of special projects; Rex Hogan, vice president of player personnel.

• Chicago Bears: Ryan Pace, general manager; Champ Kelly, assistant director of player personnel.

• Jacksonville Jaguars: Chris Polian, director of player personnel.

• Philadelphia Eagles: Joe Douglas, vice president of player personnel; Tom Donahoe, senior football advisor.

• Cleveland Browns: Bobby Vega, director of college scouting; Chisom Opara, director of player personnel.

• Kansas City Chiefs: Ryan Poles, director of college scouting.

• New York Jets: Matt Bazirgan, director of college scouting.

• Los Angeles Rams: John Jordan, director of draft management

• New Orleans Saints: Michael Parenton, pro scout.

• Denver Broncos Bryan Chesin, Midwest area scout.

• Detroit Lions: Eloy Ledesma, BLESTO scout.

Members of the 1977 Notre Dame national championship football team pose for a photo on the field during a timeout during ND's 49-14 demolition of USC, Saturday night at Notre Dame Stadium. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)