1. Graduation Day: The Payoff
Four years ago, Notre Dame reeled in what, on paper, was considered its greatest football recruiting class since 1990, the year it signed five first-round picks (Jerome Bettis, Tom Carter, Bryant Young, Aaron Taylor and Jeff Burris).
Notre Dame can't always promise on-field success, but graduation is a must.
There were several others in the ensuing years that were ranked in the top 5, and the 1995 haul was even No. 1 — but that was before receiver Randy Moss and running back James Jackson were not admitted into school.
The 23-man Irish class in 2008 was ranked No. 2 only behind Alabama by almost all the five major recruiting services (ESPN did have it as low as 9th). More amazing was the way it held together after a 3-9 season by the 2007 team. More than a dozen members played in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, easily the most ever by one school.
“It’s probably the biggest story in recruiting,” marveled SuperPrep publisher Allen Wallace of how the Irish still blazed the recruiting trail during a 3-9 campaign. “… You’re talking about one of the Notre Dame classes of old.”
Visions of future Notre Dame-Alabama BCS showdowns from days of yore might have danced in the heads of Irish faithful. Alabama did its part. Over the last four years, it was 48-6 with two national titles. Notre Dame, on the other hand, was 29-22, recording a minimum of five losses each season.
Yes, five-star recruits such as Kyle Rudolph and Michael Floyd did indeed become top picks at their respective positions, and others had their moments on the gridiron, and will continue to do so (including fifth-year seniors such as Braxston Cave, Mike Golic Jr., Kapron Lewis-Moore, Jamoris Slaughter and Dan McCarthy). Overall, though, football dreams went unfulfilled.
Today is officially Graduation Day at Notre Dame for almost all of them. The only one of the 23 that didn’t stay was tight end Joseph Fauria, now a 2013 first-round prospect at UCLA after he disagreed with a decision by Notre Dame’s Office of Residence Life on a suspension he was handed down late in his freshman year.
This class has seen the ouster of the man who recruited them, Charlie Weis, the tragic death during practice of classmate and videographer Declan Sullivan, numerous injuries and setbacks on the field of play and off … and even some changes in Residence Life.
Amidst it all, they persevered, remained dedicated and earned their degree, the foremost objective for every student-athlete. From quarterback Dayne Crist returning from Lawrence, Kansas so he could walk with his class, to outside linebacker Darius Fleming, who recently tore his ACL in the San Francisco 49ers mini-camp, to defensive lineman Sean Cwynar picking up his master’s in an accelerated MBA program, they should be well armed to take on even far greater challenges in the decades to come.
In last year’s Graduation Success Rate (GSR) figures released by the NCAA, 18 of Notre Dame's 22 sports finished with 100 percent scores. The .818 percentage was top among FBS institutions, something Notre Dame has now accomplished in six of the past seven years. The Irish's 97 GSR ranking for football led FBS schools.
The 2008 Notre Dame football recruiting harvest didn’t collectively live up to the hype on the field, but today its members reap their greatest reward.
2. We’ll Have Another
While the football program is trying to go beyond treading water the way it has for the past couple of decades, you look for anything that can be a positive omen prior to a season. For me, it includes the Triple Crown in horse racing.
With I’ll Have Another now winning both the Kentucky Derby and yesterday the Preakness in a thrilling comeback finish at the wire, he is one win away from becoming the sport’s first Triple Crown winner in 34 years, at the June 9 Belmont Stakes.
There have been 11 Triple Crown winners in history, and the Notre Dame football program is an amazing 97-8-5 in those years, and never finished outside the AP Top 10 too. Five of the last six winners since 1943 resulted in unbeaten seasons or national titles, if not both, most recently Seattle Slew in 1977 and Secretariat in 1973.
There have been several near misses in recent years, including Big Brown in 2008. I’ll Have Another provides new hope … at least for the desperate.
3. Hoops Dreams
With the recent announcement that 2011-12 Irish basketball MVP Scott Martin was approved by NCAA to play a sixth season in 2012-13, Notre Dame men’s basketball head coach Mike Brey’s Irish return all five starters next season, a rare achievement for any major conference school. It’s not been done at Notre Dame in more than 25 years.
The quintet of wing Martin, guards Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant, wing Pat Connaughton and post player Jack Cooley scored 78.4 percent of the points last year, grabbed 72.8 percent of the rebounds and handed out 82.3 percent of the assists.
Digger Phelps coached for 20 years at the program from 1971-91, and Brey appears to be energized to follow suit as he enters his 13th campaign. The difference might be that Phelps peaked during the first 10 years, and then never was quite the same again the last 10. Under Brey, the program just now seems to be hitting its stride as a consistent, top-20 or even higher ranked outfit.
Eventually, much better tournament success will be the litmus test that needs to complement the regular season consistency.