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The Making Of Champions

“I've missed over 9,000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I've been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life.
 And that is why I succeed.”

Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and the 2013 Notre Dame team use the BCS Championship loss as a reference point to achieve excellence.

Back in the late 1990s, this was a popular Nike commercial with Chicago Bulls basketball megastar Michael Jordan doing the dramatic narrative.

The theme centered on how the rise to the top also involves experiencing failure along the way — as the current version of Jordan, LeBron James, has likewise experienced. Those who “never fail” also never dare to achieve.

The devastation Notre Dame felt walking off the field Jan. 7 at Miami’s Sun Life Stadium following a 42-14 drubbing from Alabama in the national title showdown resonated for a while. All the elation built during a 12-0 regular season that elevated the Fighting Irish to No. 1 for the first time in 19 years crumbled. It can take years to construct a building, but it takes only minutes to have it razed.

“You lose that one game and it’s almost like — at least to us — that the season was a waste,” reflected senior cornerback Bennett Jackson last week after a spring practice. “We didn’t get a ring. We’re not in a conference, we didn’t win a conference championship.”

Even if No. 1 seed Notre Dame hockey or No. 1 seed Notre Dame women’s basketball does not win a national title in the coming weeks, they still felt and forever can share the elation and spoils of winning the CCHA and Big East titles earlier this month in their final year in those leagues. For football, it’s different.

The passage of time has helped alter the perspective of the magical 2012 regular season. However, the far more important theme this spring is the program cannot afford to lose its edge.

“I’m not saying it was a waste,” Jackson added. “I think we grew as a team tremendously. … We evolved as a team at a much higher level than we have in the past. We’re going to use that game as motivation to drive us through the entire next season.

“Once you feel that feeling of ultimate loss, ultimate failure, everything you put into something and just hitting bottom, you use that as motivation to work harder … We’re going to use it as motivation for more.”

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco is in his wheelhouse when it comes to presenting everyday challenges and rebounding from crushing setbacks. In Diaco’s first season with the Irish in 2010, there were occasions when one wondered if he was in over his head. Two years later, Diaco was the recipient of the Frank Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant coach.

“You walk out of the game and you’re just absolutely defeated, demoralized, dejected, just like I’m sure everybody in the world that is a Notre Dame person felt,” said Diaco of the Alabama defeat. “We felt the same — 100 times [more].”

Upon further review, Diaco and the Irish detected that the problems often were more mental than physical, and being on the grandest stage perhaps led to some pressing that was out of character.

“We had a misfit here or there, a miscommunication here and there, a misalignment here or there — then we were faced defensively with a challenge that we really hadn’t been faced with: That’s a bang-bang-bang score,” Diaco said. “So now there’s a feeling of … you’re exacerbated and you want to make the play, and it’s all out of great intentions. But now all of a sudden your eyes are wandering, your feet are happy, you’re misaligned, and it just starts to snowball from there and it’s hard to get back on track.

“So it’s lessons learned but it’s good to watch and be able to show the players and the staff on each particular play, ‘Hey, if this changes, this is what will be the result.’”

This winter, part of the mental exercises with Notre Dame’s players was and is relaying to them how the greatest warriors and champions in life are the ones who overcome and build from personal devastation. It would be easy to point to Notre Dame’s 1973 and 1988 national champs. The 1973 team lost its last two games the previous year by 56 points, including 40-6 to Nebraska in the Orange Bowl. The 1988 champs finished the previous year with three straight defeats, including 24-0 at Miami and 35-10 to Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl.

Instead, Diaco imparted the examples of leaders such as South Africa’s Nelson Mandela; Notre Dame president emeritus Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, who was president of the school from 1952-87; Carl Brashear, whose story was dramatized in the 2000 movie “Men of Honor”; and Iowa champion wrestler Dan Gable, who coached the Hawkeyes’ dynasty while Diaco was an All-Big Ten linebacker there in the 1990s.

“Dan Gable’s greatest, most defining moment was also his worst moment, where he lost his final match of his life up to that point, where he was ahead,” Diaco said. “The lessons learned in that propelled him to go on and win Olympic gold.

“We have to make sure we understand that [the Alabama loss] right there is really our greatest moment, we have to turn it into our greatest strength … an energy that gets created moving forward, understanding what we need to do, an opportunity for everyone to sharpen the blade, so to speak, on their knife. It has to be viewed that way.”

Of course, the task becomes much more difficult now, too. When Notre Dame went from 2-7 to 9-1 in 1964 under first-year head coach Ara Parseghian, some popular perception held, “if you went from 2-7 to 9-1, it should be easier to go from 9-1 to 10-0.”

Nothing can be further from the truth. The loftier the perch, the greater the will to knock you off it. (The Irish went 7-2-1 in 1965 and suddenly the season was a “disappointment.”)

“I feel like everyone plays their best game against us,” Jackson said. “If you play football at another school, you don’t like Notre Dame. Everybody we play, they hate Notre Dame. I feel like we already had a big target on our back, but I would say for sure that target is bigger.”

All the more reason why setbacks along the way can help hone a future champion.

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