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Irish Don't Sing Blues (Or Gold)

When Notre Dame had its 10-game home winning streak — tied for third longest in the 84-year history of Notre Dame Stadium — snapped last weekend by Oklahoma, some confusion reigned.

Notre Dame players sing the Alma Mater after the opening-game win over Temple.

No, it didn’t necessarily involve what coverage to be in or making the right checks at the line of scrimmage. Rather, it was the Notre Dame players wondering whether or not to stand in front of the student body afterwards to sing the Alma Mater.

To say this is one of Notre Dame’s great “traditions” is not quite accurate. Under head coach Lou Holtz, the team after a win would walk toward the student section and lift its helmets in salute. Eventually, it morphed in recent years into singing and swaying to the Alma Mater, win or lose, This has become as much a part of the NBC coverage staple at the end of the game as hitting the “Play Like A Champion Today” sign coming out of the dressing room.

After the 35-21 loss to Oklahoma, though, many of the players were immediately dispersing to the dressing room, while others lingered around the field to sing the Alma Mater, which they did. There was some booing from the student body when some of the players were departing before singing.

In his Sunday teleconference, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said that he made the change two years ago that the players can sing with the student body after a win, but not after a defeat. Because the Irish did not lose at home last season, or the last two games at home in 2011 and the first two this year, the protocol was forgotten by many.

“A lot of them had never lost at home and they weren't sure what to do — I didn't communicate it to them clearly what the protocol was,” Kelly said. “But we changed that protocol two years ago: After a loss, we do not stay on the field to sing the Alma Mater. We come in, and that wasn't communicated clearly. I wasn't thinking about losing a football game. It wasn't on my to do list to go over with our team.”

The sting of defeat can be powerful where the last thing a player might want to do is then engage in a ritual with others outside the team. In a 41-9 defeat in the 2001 Fiesta Bowl to Oregon State, less than a handful of players showed up afterwards at the Notre Dame section to sing the Alma Mater. Similar situations have occurred in other road defeats over the years.

“I just don't think it's appropriate to put your players after defeat in a situation where they are exposed,” Kelly said. “I want to get them in the locker room. It's important to be able to talk to them and I just felt like in those situations after a loss, there are a lot of emotions. It's important to get the team back into the locker room and get them under my guidance.”

A strong counterpoint was offered by Notre Dame senior Lily Banker in a letter to the digital version of the campus newspaper, The Observer. Her argument was that the Alma Mater is not about winning or losing. Rather, it’s about maintaining solidarity within the Notre Dame family at all times.

Wrote Banker: “If you are a player, don’t listen to him. Stay. It’s your choice.

“If you are a student, don’t support this decision. By all means, boo the players who turn their backs on you.

“If you are an alumnus, spread the word. You don’t want a coach who will sever his team’s connection to the fans.

“Finally, in the words of one of our very own football players: Win or lose, we play for each other. Win or lose, we cheer for each other. Win or lose, we sing with each other.”

My feeling on this topic over the years always has been is to not do it all, other than for the seniors in their last home game. This is not done at the men’s basketball games, other than for the seniors’ last home game, or in huge home victories, like the one versus No. 1 Syracuse a couple of years ago. Otherwise, the players leave the court after shaking hands with the opponent, and then the Alma Mater is played for those at the end who remained in the stands.

The opinion here is that it has become another "manufactured" or staged element to game day. Like the pep rally, which has also become much more staged over the years, it's become something more for others, not really for the team, and so that NBC can show it to the audience. I liked the days when, win or lose, you shook hands with the opponent and went straight to the dressing room. If the fans want to watch the band play after the game and listen to the Alma Mater, that is their prerogative. It is also good for the players to celebrate with the student body after victory if they want to.

I don't have a problem with the move. However, it might now be perceived as petulant, as in, "We'll only do it if we win." It's like telling players, "We will only talk to the media after a win. We won't after a loss." Many years ago, long-time Notre Dame sports information director Roger Valdiserri gave a lecture to some star players who refused to come to the interview room after a defeat. He indicated this is part of life’s learning experience, to “man up” and comport yourself with class in victory or after a setback.

If you enjoy the glory during the win, you have to also face the music (literally) when you lose. That's why maybe it’s best for the players not to engage in the singing at all, win or lose. However, old habits die hard.

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