CHICAGO- Another lost weekend complete, a somber bunch of University of Tennessee football fans wearily waited in an airport line Sunday afternoon, discussing the previous days 41-21 defeat at Notre Dame.
“Did you see those fighter jets flying overhead before the game?” asked one woman from Nashville. “And those fans, the way they were always cheering as one and moving as one. If youre objective about it, what recruit wouldnt want to play in a place like that?” The good news is that the Fighting Irish can only have 85 of Americas finest amateur players under scholarship at one time. The better news for the rest of the Top 25 is that many of those players will not academically qualify under NDs strict standards, leaving most Southeastern Conference schoolsUT among themto continue their usual preference for brawn over brains.
But to see the Big Orange Nation fawn over the Notre Dame program for the second time in four yearsoohing and ahhhing over everything from Touchdown Jesus to the stadium-wide chants of “Weis, Weis, Weis,” in tribute to first-year coach Charlie Weisis to make one wonder why UT supporters and so many other fan bases dont push their programs to be more like the Irish.
No, not every campus can erect a golden dome, and if they did, what fun would it be? Nor can every university magically hang seven Heisman Trophy banners, multiple national championships and throw around the names of such legendary former coaches as Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy and Ara Parseghian.
Beyond that, not every school should demand the same academic performance from its athletes that ND does, though it would be nice if all schools demanded that their athletes at least mirrored the average academic efforts of their overall student bodies.
Mostly, however, beneath the pomp and circumstance and century-long run of success, there is a civility and sensibility to Notre Dame football that should be studied by a lot of programs, including Tennessee.
A single moment in this UT season to show what may be wrong with these 3-5 Vols: A few weeks ago, before Tennessees game against South Carolina, one of the teams more prominent players was about to do a television interview during the teams weekly media day.
Having arrived for the event in a kind of woolen cap, black rock nroll T-shirt and sweatpants, the player was asked by an athletic department employee to get rid of his cap and place a pale orange UT windbreaker over his T-shirt.
The player said he wanted to wear a UT ball cap if he was going to have to wear the windbreaker. The employee said that would be OK as long as the player didnt wear the cap sideways.
“Ill only wear the cap,” said the player, “if I can wear it backward.”
You can say this is a kid being a kid and perhaps it is only that. But there is a sense throughout much of college athletics today that you cant force the athletes to do anything away from the playing field that they dont want to do or youll risk losing them for the actual game.
Yet here were Notre Dames players wearing coats and ties after a home gamethe Vols sometimes wear them on the roadand gushing about the UT defense they had just trashed for 20 straight points in the fourth period.
“They have a lot of talent over there,” Notre Dame running back Darius Walker said. “Thats the most talented defense weve played in a long time.”
Sincere or not, it certainly beats whining to the media, as UT quarterback Rick Clausen so often has this season: “They didnt beat us. We beat ourselves, period.”
To borrow a line from Weis -“Weve really sold our team on the idea that the only thing thats important is the team.”
What is most important is that more athletic directors and coaches use the Notre Dame blueprint to remake their own programs in the image of what college athletics were always supposed to be, but so rarely had been over the past 25 years of Me-First-Me-Last-Me-Always athletics.
Because when the only important thing is the team, that team and its fans usually fly home happy.