That Elusive Championship Year

Evidence of how challenging it is to capture a national title was once again demonstrated this past week.

Brian Kelly and the Notre Dame program has progressed well, but they recognize the ultimate objective is raising the crystal football.

Head coach Muffet McGraw’s Fighting Irish women’s basketball team made its third consecutive Final Four appearance sporting a school-record 30-game winning streak, including 3-0 against Connecticut.

Yet, because the Huskies won the fourth matchup in this year’s national semifinals, the ultimate prize eluded Notre Dame again. The Irish were 5-1 this season against the champion (UConn) and runner-up (Louisville), but all it takes is that proverbial “given day” to exacerbate the agony of defeat.

The same happened to the Fighting Irish hockey team in 2008. Just to get to the championship tilt, head coach Jeff Jackson’s Irish upended the No. 1 seed in the West Regional (New Hampshire), got by the defending national champion (Michigan State) and then stunned the No. 1-ranked Michigan Wolverines. Yet it wasn’t quite enough when Boston College posted a 4-1 victory in the title game.

Notre Dame head coach Kevin Corrigan’s men’s lacrosse team had a similar dramatic run during the spring of 2010. The unranked and unseeded Irish topped three seeded teams — No. 6 Princeton, No. 3 Maryland and No. 7 Cornell — before losing 6-5 in overtime to No. 5 Duke in the championship game.

The Notre Dame athletic department has never been deeper and stronger in so many sports collectively, but “finishing” in the postseason is the most difficult task of all. It reminds one of the lyrics of William “Smokey” Robinson, who noted that maybe “a taste of honey is worse than none at all.”

So far during this academic year, the fall saw Notre Dame football ranked No. 1 at the end of the regular season, while men’s soccer was the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. This winter, hockey and women’s basketball both won conference championships and earned No. 1 seeds. Meanwhile, fencing finished as the team national runner-up for the 13th time in its history.

Because Brian Kelly and Co. provided that “taste of honey” in 2012, the bar now becomes onerous for the rest of their Notre Dame careers. There are still incremental steps to achieve — a victory in a BCS bowl for the first time, two conquests in a row of USC and/or Michigan, consecutive top-10 placements, etc. — but everyone recognizes there is only one ultimate fulfillment.

Unofficially, Wikipedia has 17 schools with more NCAA team championships than Notre Dame. UCLA’s 108 set the pace, followed by 103 by Stanford and 96 by USC. A distant fourth is Oklahoma State with 51.

Seven different sports at Notre Dame have unofficially achieved 27 national titles. Some might not be recognized as much by the NCAA. For example, the Associated Press football poll didn’t start until 1936, so head coach Knute Rockne’s football championships in 1924, 1929 and 1930 might not be noted.

Surprisingly, none of Notre Dame's exclusively men's sports has won a national title since the football team in 1988. Here’s a breakdown of the other sports and years where the Irish athletic department, if not the NCAA, recognizes it as the national champs:

Football (11): 1924, 1929, 1930, 1943, 1946, 1947, 1949, 1966, 1973, 1977 and 1988 

Note:
These are the consensus national titles as recognized by the NCAA. In 10 other seasons, Notre Dame received some mention, i.e. winning the 1964 MacArthur Bowl, presented by the National Football Foundation and Hall of Fame. However, Notre Dame does not count that to the total because it is not “consensus.”

The Irish were No. 1 or legitimately in the running for it on nine other occasions before losing or tying on the last day of the regular season or in the bowl game: 1938 (13-0 at USC), 1948 (14-14 at USC), 1964 (20-17 at USC), 1970 (38-28 at USC), 1974 (55-24 at USC), 1980 (20-3 at USC), 1989 (27-10 at Miami), 1993 (41-39 at home to Boston College) and 2012 (42-14 in BCS National Championship). It demonstrates just how challenging it is to finish the job.

Lou Holtz said he wanted to be remembered as the luckiest man to ever win three national titles at Notre Dame. He did win it in 1988, but was barely edged out in 1989 and 1993 — and then referred to himself as the unluckiest not to win three.

Fencing (8): 1977, 1978, 1986, 1987, 1994, 2003, 2005 and 2011 

Note:
Since 1979, the fencers also have finished second in the country 13 times, including five years in a row from 1996-2000, and this year as well, behind Princeton. Since 1990, the sport has had a combined title for the men and women.

Women’s Soccer (3): 1995, 2004 and 2010 

Note:
Besides the three national titles, Notre Dame’s 20-year history in this sport also has had runner-up finishes five times: 1994, 1996, 1999, 2006 and 2008.

In both 2006 and 2008, the Irish lost 2-1 to its archrival North Carolina. In 2008, the Irish were 26-0 before losing to the Tar Heels in the title match — more evidence of how difficult it is to finish.

Men’s Tennis (2) 1944 and 1959 

Note:
The Irish were co-national champs both times, 9-0 under coach Walter Langford in ’44 and 14-0 with coach Tom Fallon in ’59. The NCAA didn’t start officially recognizing team titles until 1946.

In 1992, head coach Bob Bayliss’ 23-4 Notre Dame team upset No. 1 USC in the FInal Four but lost to Stanford in the NCAA championship match to finish No. 2.

The women’s program under head coach Jay Louderback reached the Final Four in 2009 and 2010.

Women’s Basketball (1): 2001 

Note:
The Irish defeated No. 1 Connecticut in the NCAA Tournament semifinals (90-75) and hung on to defeat Purdue (68-66) for the title. They were the runner-up in 2011 (Texas A&M) and 2012 (Baylor), and advanced to the Final Four in 1997 and 2013.

Men’s Cross Country (1): 1957
Note:
Coach Alex Wilson’s squad won the title, held in East Lansing, Mich. Since 1987, Coach Joe Piane has helped lead the squad to nine top-10 finishes, including No. 3 in 1990 and 2005.

Men’s Golf: (1): 1944
Note:
The 1943-44 school year marked the only time Notre Dame won three national titles — football in the fall, plus tennis and golf in the spring —in the same academic year.

It should be also noted that the men’s basketball program was awarded retroactively the Helms Foundation national titles in 1927 and 1936, but that the NCAA does not recognize that association.

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