When Notre Dame comes to town, it brings more than just a football team.
It brings history, an aura of greatness, its own network television contract and a program so big it doesn’t need to belong to a conference for football.
When a team plays Notre Dame, it’s playing the mystique associated with the uniforms as well as the players wearing those uniforms. It’s playing perhaps the most famous program in college football history. It’s playing the legend of George Gipp, who was portrayed by Ronald Reagan, who later served two terms as president of the United States, in the movie “Knute Rockne: All American.”
Some might say serving as president of the United States was a step down after getting to pretend to be Gipp.
Notre Dame football is Rockne giving a fiery pregame speech. It’s the Four Horsemen of Rockne’s 1924 backfield.
It’s “Rudy” persevering as an undersized backup buried so deep, deep on the depth chart, until teammates entered the coach’s office, each offering to give up his jersey for the game that week so that Rudy finally will have a uniform to wear. Apparently that’s mythology, but it’s not unusual for mythology to surround legendary football programs, especially when Hollywood gets involved.
Does all this make beating Notre Dame just a bit harder? Does a coach need to remind his players that Notre Dame is not invincible, that talent and effort are not unique to the team from South Bend, Ind.?
“I would say yes,” Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “Not only your team, but possibly your staff. It’s easy to have Notre Dame defined by the coverage they receive, their history, the media reports. That can influence your mindset before you go play.”
At his previous coaching stop, Brigham Young, Mendenhall and his teams faced Notre Dame five times.
“If I remember right, we won only one of those five games, and it was when they came to BYU,” Mendenhall said.
He remembers correctly. And he remembers the expectations around the program during Notre Dame week.
“People are asking our team who we’re playing, and when we’d say Notre Dame, the response from fans or others would be, ‘Oh,’ like there’s this expected possible defeat,” Mendenhall said. “And so you have to take that head on … simply frame that whoever wins the game will be the best football team on that day. Not in their past, not in their recent history, not based on television coverage, reputation or anything else.”
The aura and ability of Notre Dame’s football team is relevant for Virginia Tech, ranked No. 24, this week. The No. 6-ranked Fighting Irish play in Blacksburg on Saturday night.
And Virginia Tech coach Justin Fuente does not exactly share Mendenhall’s thoughts about preparing for the Notre Dame “mystique.”
“I don’t know that I’ve ever felt like that,” Fuente said. “I felt like my one experience playing against them, I knew we were playing a very talented, well-coached football team. This time around, I think we’re playing an even more talented, well-coached football team, and it’s going to provide us a lot of challenges.”
Two years ago, in Fuente’s first year as Virginia Tech’s coach, the Hokies not only beat Notre Dame, they beat the Fighting Irish 34-31 in South Bend, Ind., a significant accomplishment.
That was then. Two weeks ago, Virginia Tech played at Old Dominion, a team not quite as legendary as Notre Dame, and lost 49-35 in one of college football’s most stunning upsets in recent times.
Taking on Notre Dame when it’s 5-0, has beaten its past two opponents — Wake Forest and Stanford — by a combined score of 94-44, and already is being touted as a favorite to be one of the four teams in the College Football Playoffs would seem to be a big deal, an almost overwhelming assignment.
“I don’t think so,” Fuente said. “That’s not really a discussion that’s come up. The fact that we need to prepare in order to give ourselves a chance against a very talented team, that’s come up multiple times.
“We’ve played some pretty good people in our time.”
Playing Notre Dame, though, sometimes can feel as if you’re going against more than just people.