Notre Dame still matters? Ask local recruits and NBC

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: APR 22 Notre Dame Spring Game
Fighting Irish offensive lineman and Penn Charter grad Mike McGlinchey looks on during the Notre Dame Fighting Irish Blue-Gold Spring Game on April 22, 2017, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, IN.

Does Notre Dame still matter?

In this city? You can still find a middle-aged man in a tap room in Southwest Philadelphia who has watched every Irish football game for 25 years, tears up thinking about his late father, who hooked him on the whole enterprise, and has gotten his Notre Dame shirt blessed by his parish priest before the big game. (Yes, the priest planned to watch, too).

The Irish matter because they still get star players from here, the latest a starting tailback from Bucks County and a future NFL lineman from Penn Charter.

Notre Dame matters maybe most of all because NBC says it still matters. Practically every game in every league is on television these days, but no school has a deal like the Notre Dame-NBC deal. No deal spreads the gospel like that one.

Notre Dame also matters because if you don’t love the Irish, you probably hate them, which is almost as good as loving them. Would the NFL be as interesting without the Cowboys? Not around here.

Mike Mayock, who does Eagles preseason television analysis and is the best-in-class NFL draft expert, did Notre Dame games for NBC for a number of years.

“No matter where I was, going to an NFL game, anywhere, I’d get stopped in an airport and people wanted to talk about Notre Dame,’’ Mayock said.

Might be the current team, whatever the year was; or a story from a distant decade, a chance to remember the great Ara; or debate why Jeff Samardziia chose baseball over football. (Hint: $90 million.)

That brings us to Notre Dame 2017. The 2016 Irish were loved only by the haters. Traditionally, coaches at Notre Dame are allowed one season like the 4-8 one that Brian Kelly’s squad just suffered through, but just one.

That makes Saturday’s Temple opener in South Bend a mammoth enterprise for the home team. Yes, it’s Geoff Collins’ first game and the Owls will have a new QB (or two). There should be maximum interest for Owls fans.

The pressure is all on the Irish. The Temple series wasn’t scheduled — two games at Notre Dame Stadium, one at the Linc — with Irish losses in mind. Temple famously almost pulled off an upset at home in 2015. But this is different. A win on Saturday afternoon would actually be a bigger stunner than Temple’s beating Penn State two years ago.

Throwing coordinators over the side of the boat is a sure sign that a school acknowledges it has problems. Temple fans should realize Notre Dame brought in a strong new defensive coordinator in Mike Elko, who  was at Wake Forest, and it doesn’t take a long memory to recall how Wake Forest took care of business last season, including against the Owls.

With new Temple coaches, Notre Dame coaches can’t know exactly what they’ll be scheming. That’s why it makes sense for Collins to say as little as possible right now, including how many quarterbacks he’ll play since he has quarterbacks with different styles, which is useful information for a defensive coordinator.

Kelly is an interesting coach since he has combined spells of extreme competence with periods of plain old mediocre football. He isn’t a lovable sort, doesn’t aspire to be one. Irish fans four decades from now won’t be waxing poetic about their beloved Kelly. His no-nonsense approach is in vogue, however. If his job is on the line, it’s because 8-5 has been his most popular record and that’s not the kind of record that made the Irish matter, even if he also played for a national title and has another 10-win record on the books.

Given those two upper-tier seasons, you’d have to place Kelly above Weis and Willingham and Davie and Faust, which puts him second  behind only Holtz over the last 35 years. That suggests Notre Dame still matters almost in spite of itself.

Maybe history will say Kelly did just fine, but remember that Holtz was persuaded to retire after an 8-3 season. That, you could argue, was back when Irish football really mattered. Even the day he was leaving, one game to go in the season, Holtz paid homage to the history.

“I have no desire to be the all-time winningest coach at Notre Dame,” said Holtz, who had been six wins away from tying the school record. “That record belongs to Knute Rockne. I didn’t come here to become a legend, but merely to coach Notre Dame.”

Holtz always could soft-sell things. In reality, it wasn’t for him to decide who becomes an Irish legend. That man on a stool in Southwest Philly gets a vote. Maybe his priest, too. That’s why Notre Dame still matters, at least around here.