One of the enduring tricks played on the American sports fan is the myth of Notre Dame as college football royalty. The program has been competitively insignificant for the better part of 30 years, yet we keep waiting to be captivated by its greatness.
And, finally, we are upon the moment of potential reward.
In a sport rife with corruption and greed, a mere three hours of extraordinary Fighting Irish football would provide at least a temporary if profoundly superficial respite.
It's as simple as Notre Dame beating Alabama in the BCS championship game Monday night in Miami.
The bigger the margin, the better it would be for college football and its fans -- even those who follow the Fighting Irish. And we all know a Notre Dame fan or three who is insufferably pompous enough to deserve, wink, being gagged and locked in a closet.
For all the rich history of Alabama football, steeped with the legend of Bear Bryant, Notre Dame resonates with a much broader base. That this program has managed, even when utterly unwatchable, to negotiate its very own TV contracts is in no small part because of its ancient mystique. N.D. has been dramatized, serialized and novelized. It is adored and detested, exalted and envied, perhaps because it has dared to so brazenly marry sports and religion.
Touchdown Jesus? Seriously?
If Notre Dame truly is relevant, a force to be reckoned with, college football is a lot more interesting. It
College football needs a standard bearer, an admired program that sells easily, wins frequently and is impossible to ignore. Though Stanford would very much like to be that model, the Cardinal would require years of sustained excellence to generate the necessary tradition, much less find a way to cross the many geographical borders between Palo Alto and the Atlantic Ocean.
Notre Dame, sitting in the country's midsection, merely needs to wipe the dust of its past. All it needs, really, is to update itself -- to usher its typewriter-era greatness into the age of technology.
That's the allure. A Fighting Irish victory over the Crimson Tide and its coolly condescending coach, Nick Saban, would give college football a much-needed facelift. It would provide that vibe the Duke men bring to college hoops. Nearly everybody who knows what a free throw looks like has an opinion about the Blue Devils.
It's much the same kind of marquee polarization the Los Angeles Lakers provide for the NBA, the Dallas Cowboys for the NFL and the New York Yankees for MLB. There are 15 or so regional teams and maybe 10 others that claim national fan interest. Only a select few, however, can be considered national or international brands.
Notre Dame once was a national brand. But it remains so only if you're an alumnus or a senior citizen or have memories of the 1970s.
The average record for Fighting Irish since 1996 is 7-5, and that was pretty much maintained through three coaches, from Bob Davie (35-25 over five seasons) to Tyrone Willingham (21-15 over not quite three) through Charlie Weis (35-27 over five).
The storied football program that once dominated the polls has failed to rank among the Top 25 for 18 of the past 32 years.
The program that experienced only two losing seasons between 1899 and 1960 has endured seven since 1980.
The program that won 10 of its first 15 bowl games has lost 11 of its past 16.
One win on Monday night would do so much to put Notre Dame back in the hearts of those who love it and back in the cross hairs of those who root for it to lose every game by 40. The nation would have a college football team to celebrate or ridicule. What program could possibly offer more good clean fun than Notre Dame?
Understand, though, I am no fan of Brian Kelly. Not given his role in the death of Declan Sullivan, the 20-year-old student-manager whose death resulted when gale-force winds sent him tumbling from a 50-foot hydraulic lift overlooking practice. He was terrified up there that day, sensed the danger and wanted to come down. The coach wanted him to continue recording practice video.
This young man's death was entirely preventable, and Kelly will have to carry that burden as long as he lives.
It's commonly believed that Kelly, in his third year at Notre Dame, is likely to find his way to the NFL. Let's hope he sticks around long enough to return the Fighting Irish to its previously elite status -- long enough to conquer Alabama and Saban on Monday.
Long enough to make Notre Dame actually be, by some measure, what it wants everyone to believe it is.