Notre Dame-Alabama playing for the national title in football. Notre Dame defeating the No. 1-ranked basketball team, the dynasty of its era. Notre Dame hockey priming itself to play the No. 1 hockey team within the same span.
This happened to the Fighting Irish during maybe the most extraordinary 20 days for an athletics program in NCAA history … and history might repeat 39 years later.
In the 20 days from Dec. 31, 1973 through January 19, 1974, the following was achieved:
• On Dec. 31, head coach Ara Parseghian’s Notre Dame football team defeated No. 1 Alabama in the Sugar Bowl, 24-23, to capture the consensus national title. It was the school’s first unbeaten and untied season in 24 years (more on that later).
• On Jan. 18, 1974, head coach Lefty Smith’s Fighting Irish hockey team found itself in the proverbial “zone” with a 7-1 defeat of No. 1 Michigan Tech in the north dome of what was then known as the Athletic and Convocation Center (ACC).
• One day later, Jan. 19, the south dome of the ACC became the epicenter of sports when Notre Dame third-year head coach Digger Phelps Irish ended No. 1 UCLA’s NCAA record 88-game winning streak with a miraculous 71-70 triumph. The Irish scored the game’s last 12 points starting at the 3:22 mark to take their lone lead — and in the process moved up to No. 1 in the AP for the first time in the program’s history.
Three No. 1 teams in three different sports vanquished by the same school in a span of 20 days, an unprecedented feat in collegiate athletics.
Thirty-nine years later, the Irish won’t quite be able to match that accomplishment because Alabama is No. 2, but an energy and spirit have created a special renaissance on the campus — one that goes beyond just the playing fields, courts or rinks.
Women were only in their second school year at Notre Dame in 1973-74, so there weren’t even any varsity sports for them. Yet when the No. 5 Fighting Irish women rallied to defeat No. 1 Connecticut this weekend, 73-72, it helped evoke images of that nearly identical 71-70 score by the men nearly four decades ago.
That’s mainly because Notre Dame and Alabama are once again meeting on the gridiron for the national title, with the Fighting Irish as the underdog despite their No. 1 ranking. And just like in 1973, should the Irish win, it would be the program’s first unblemished campaign in 24 years … with Alabama once again the final hurdle.
Such symmetry almost seems to be aligned in the stars at Notre Dame — including the 24-year magic of the dramatic turnaround seasons in 1964, 1988 and 2012 — but then believing that such “magic” exists marginalizes the extraordinary effort, discipline and consistent execution and concentration required of champions.
Of course it’s just coincidence that Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian, Lou Holtz all went either unbeaten or won consensus national titles, if not both … but now that Brian Kelly has spearheaded the Irish to the threshold of another championship, one can’t help but wonder at times if some special forces are at work.
Head coach Jeff Jackson’s No. 3-ranked hockey team will play No. 1 Minnesota the day after the football showdown. The Golden Gophers also happen to be coached by Notre Dame grad Don Lucia, who has led the program to a couple of national titles.
Eight years ago, the Notre Dame hockey program sported the worst record in the nation (5-27-6), yet three years later (there’s that number again) it was playing for the national title despite competing in one of the most laughable facilities in the country. It was their own version of “Miracle on Ice” that has now allowed them to become one of the pre-eminent programs in the country in shining new digs.
Meanwhile, men’s basketball — a wasteland in the 1990s that needed to start over in the most powerful league in the country — has become a top-3 program in the Big East in recent years and top-20 overall, with the ability and experience to achieve much higher.
A confluence of events has made this one of the more special times in the school’s athletic heritage, but it has been woven through the spirit manifested by its founder, Rev. Edward Sorin, whose life’s work of building Notre Dame was shattered when the University was destroyed by fire (fortunately with no loss of life) on April 23, 1879.
Timothy Howard, a professor at the school at the time, recorded Sorin’s actions when he walked among the rubble and then assembled his followers and the school’s leaders in church.
Said Sorin: “This fire has been my fault. I came here with the vision of a great university and named it after the Mother of God. Then we built a great building, or so I thought. But She had to burn it the ground to show me that my vision was too narrow and that I had dreamed too small a dream.
“Tomorrow, when the bricks are cooled, we will clean them and begin again. But this time we will build a really large building: and when it is built we will put a gold dome on top with a golden statue of the Mother of God so that everyone who comes this way will know to whom we owe whatever great future this place has.
“If it were all gone, I should not give up.”
Howard added his own thoughts of what was the greatest motivational speech in school history: “The effect was electric. It was the crowning moment in his life. A sad company had gone into the church that day. They were all simple Christian heroes as they came out. There was never more of a shadow of a doubt as to the future of Notre Dame.”
No matter how many times one might be in the rubble — personally, professionally or even athletically — the purpose of Notre Dame’s spirit is to transcend and continue, in victory or amidst defeat.
That mission has continued at Notre Dame — and should continue to leave no doubts about its future in all realms.