Published 8:41 pm Monday, September 4, 2017
There is nothing quite like being hated and also envied in the sports arena. Some examples are the Yankees in baseball, the Patriots in football, Tiger Woods in golf, the Celtics and the Lakers, once upon a time, in the NBA and Notre Dame in football.
While the institution has not dominated college football as it did in the heyday of yesteryear, there remains an allure and a mystique about the Irish who have often experienced a love, hate image. When there was talk about Notre Dame joining the Big Ten, there were a few member schools which rejected the idea. It had to do with some detractors yielding to the notion that Notre Dame looked down its nose academically at others.
Some antipathy for Notre Dame was the fact that, in some circles, it was easy to find anti-Catholic sentiment. More than likely, it was mostly a case of old fashioned jealously. Religion, however, became a decided asset for the football program which got underway in 1887 and gained extraordinary traction when Knute Rockne became the football coach in 1918. If football ever put an institution of higher learning on the map, it was Notre Dame. Every Catholic kid, coast to coast, wanted to play football for the school once Rockne made Notre Dame a household word. Many of them did as the Irish became a dominant collegiate power.
There was a time in the Bible Belt when many schools (whose leadership was predominately non-Catholic) were bent on hiring a Note Dame player to coach their team. Everybody wanted to employ the Notre Dame Box which was the rage of college football at that time. That is how Harry Mehre wound up at Georgia. There were others including Frank Thomas at Alabama, Jack Meagher at Auburn and Rex Enright at South Carolina. Coaches with Notre Dame ties were scattered across the country.
It should not go unnoticed that the recruiting of so many players from north of the Mason-Dixon line would likely not have come about if there had not been faculty members who influenced the establishment of Catholic churches in small-town, America where so many universities flourished.
The parents of players like Sinkwich and Trippi and countless others were not going to allow their sons to go to any community where they could not attend mass.
Georgia’s Wallace Butts and Notre Dame’s ultra successful coach, Frank Leahy, became close friends and traded campus visits.
Like Butts, Leahy was highly quotable with his affection for humor. Leahy once advised an assistant, anxious for a head coaching job, to apply “…at Sing Sing Prison.” When the chagrined assistant asked, “Why?” Leahy said: “You will have every cop in America recruiting for you, your players usually stay more than four years, and all of your games will be played at home.”