Recently, Michael Bryan broke down the Top 10 “What Ifs” from the Brian Kelly era which got me thinking about the same for the larger history of Notre Dame and how things could’ve been different throughout the decades. In some ways this feels incredibly easy and yet insanely difficult. My one stipulation was not to include any single game performances. They’d either clutter up a Top 10 list or I’d have to artificially expand the list to a Top 30 or more. I think we know in most cases winning big football games would’ve been important. Also, some of the things on my list aren’t necessarily direct positives for Notre Dame. In other words, it’s not an automatic “if this did or didn’t happen it would’ve been better for Notre Dame” type of discussion.
Here are my Top 10 “What Ifs” for Notre Dame from 1887 to 2009.
#10 Irish Wait Even Longer to Play Bowl Games
There aren’t many better examples of Notre Dame being Notre Dame and harming its football team than refusing to play bowl games for years and years and years. Many know the history behind Knute Rockne facing Stanford in the Rose Bowl during the 1924 season and then passing up bowl games for the next 44 seasons.
One could argue this didn’t have too much of an impact on Notre Dame as 7 out of the school’s 11 claimed National Championships came during the non-bowl seasons. Plus, it took until 1968 for the AP Poll to begin awarding its champion after the bowl games were played so it’s not like the Irish were shut out for very long.
Still, it’s interesting to ponder if the school waited just 4 or 5 years longer to jump back into the bowl mania. For one, Ara would’ve lost his second championship and we would’ve missed several all-time classics from the early 1970’s.
#9 Father Hesburgh Never Leaves D.C.
It’s difficult to pinpoint direct reasons why Father Ted Hesburgh was great for the football team, and many believed he was far too antagonistic towards the program especially early in his career as Notre Dame President. Still, it’s even more difficult to envision modern Notre Dame without his presence.
From 1952 until 1987 Hesburgh oversaw one of the great Presidency’s in American university leadership, transforming Notre Dame from a small private school into a nationally recognized institution. A Civil Rights pioneer he, among many other things, led the switch to a co-ed institution, dramatically increased the academic profile, and helped to balloon Notre Dame’s endowment so that it remains a wealthy private school in relatively tiny South Bend.
When the football coaching staff goes on the recruiting trail to sell the “4 for 40” pitch they largely have Hesburgh to thank for that strength.
#8 World War II Never Disrupts Leahy
This is one of the more interesting “what ifs” because it could’ve been like Frank Leahy used HGH on his resume. That may not seem like much but it’s possible that without WWII we’d now consider Leahy the greatest college football coach of all-time. Would that truly have been possible?
He left for the Pacific theater while head coach in South Bend at the tender age of 36 years old leaving behind what would’ve been his 4th and 5th seasons at Notre Dame. In his absence, the school went a very respectful 15-4-1 during 1944-45 but those lost 2 years for Leahy could’ve been even more legendary. It’s a very big if, but assuming he’s not disrupted by WWII there was a possibility of 5 straight National Championships. There was a possibility to go 6 full seasons without a loss.
To be fair, the war effort realistically made Notre Dame even stronger when Leahy returned while welcoming a swarm of grizzled vets ready to play football long past their late teens. However, it wasn’t like he was the only one to benefit from this and for someone who we know with hindsight would retire at 45 years old and just 11 seasons with the Irish, it’s salivating to think how he could’ve carved out 2 more of the best seasons in history.
#7 Notre Dame Embraces Its Role as a Villain, Circa 1991
This has always been one of my favorite subjects. At the dawn of the 1990’s decade you couldn’t have imagined Notre Dame slowing down at all. Within a year they’d sign a lucrative television deal with NBC, followed up by an announcement of a stadium expansion all while the indoor practice facility was only a few years old.
Then the school just stopped. Ace recruiter Vinny Cerrato was nudged out and with him an incredible run of 4 straight No. 1 classes. What looked like could become a multi-decade run quickly ran dry as the modern college football machine truly took off in the late 90’s with Notre Dame deciding to rest on its laurels.
The school that worried so much about image learned a harsh lesson that the rest of the country arguably hated Notre Dame more when they weren’t that good and constantly overrated. Instead, the school should’ve pushed forward even harder, defined its traditions and core values, and cranked everything else (facilities, coaches pay, recruiting budgets) up to 11 and do the absolute best it could to win on the field.
#6 Jesse Harper Creates a Wabash Dynasty Instead
Harper has been in the college football Hall of Fame for nearly 50 years but has never been much of a household name for many Irish fans. He came to Notre Dame from Wabash as head coach and AD (plus baseball and basketball coach) in 1913 and left a massive mark on the school.
He coached Knute Rockne, was the first AD to create a truly national schedule (which he did right away), and was on the sidelines for the school’s first memorable victory at Army.
He’d later groom Rockne to be his successor and eventually returned to Notre Dame following Rockne’s tragic death to provide stability to a shaken community.
#5 Randy Moss Actually Plays at Notre Dame
Our list is a little 90’s heavy (with plenty of reason, mind you) and there was no greater “what if” recruit than The Freak. After signing a Letter of Intent to attend Notre Dame, Moss was the crown jewel of a loaded 1995 class that was much needed following perhaps the worst to-date haul in Irish history the year before.
It’s fair to say he was good enough to turn some games in the ’95-97 time frame. That era saw a 24-12 record–could Moss have flipped 4 or 5 games? Is there one great season in there? Does this extend Holtz’ career in South Bend by 2 or 3 years or more?
Moss could’ve been such a transformative athlete for Notre Dame and at worst, he’d be the 4th best Irish player in NFL history and certainly the best since Joe Montana.
#4 Rockne Never Dies in a Plane Crash
This is probably the betting favorite as the biggest “what if” in Notre Dame history for obvious reasons. Perhaps the best coach in college history was cut down at the tender age of 43 years old and left behind one of the biggest legacies in sports history. If he never dies tragically who knows much more winning he achieves at Notre Dame?
However, placing this at #4 on the countdown means I have to explain why it’s not in the top spot.
For one, there’s plenty of evidence that Rockne probably wasn’t long for Notre Dame. He held extraordinary power but likely might have pushed things too far or eventually chased a huge deal at another school. He also had health problems and odds are he could’ve retired sometime in the early 1930’s.
Although the football team went into a little bit of a funk for over a decade we know the history afterward and things turned out pretty well anyway. As sacrilegious as this may sound, by 1930 Rockne had already built a foundation that would last a very, very long time.
#3 Notre Dame & Lou Holtz Find Harmony
Lou Holtz has always looked old. He retired from Notre Dame a couple month’s short of his 60th birthday which didn’t make him a young man like some of the other Irish coaches of past who hung it up early. Still, it’s easy to imagine a world in which Holtz recovers from his neck surgery, finds a second wind, and stays in South Bend for another 4-5 years into the early 2000’s.
Why couldn’t the school work things out better?
Even if it was unrealistic for Holtz to stick around much longer some sort of peaceful, smart, and collaborative effort to carve out a successful succession plan would have done wonders for Notre Dame football.
#2 Urban Meyer Says Yes
You’ve probably read numerous stories about Urban Meyer coming this close to signing as head coach with Notre Dame in late 2004. You’ve probably read plenty of other stories about Meyer wanting to come to South Bend in many other years once he started his career at Florida. While most of the stories never amounted to much or made sense the attempt in 2004 really was the one absolutely massive missed opportunity in modern Notre Dame history.
I honestly believe it could reverberate for decades in Notre Dame’s storied history. The Irish could be entering Meyer’s 14th season in South Bend with maybe a title or two in the trophy case. Imagine that.
#1 The Western Conference Never Blackballs Notre Dame
In the early years of the 20th Century the Western Conference–then comprised of Illinois, Minnesota, Northwestern, Purdue, Wisconsin, Michigan, Chicago, Indiana, Iowa, and later Ohio State–discovered they weren’t too fond of Notre Dame. Led by perhaps the game’s biggest prig in Fielding Yost, the poor relationship eroded even further once Notre Dame defeated Michigan for the first time on the football field.
This so-called “blackballing” of Notre Dame by the game’s oldest conference totally recast the college football landscape. Without it, the Irish could be Northwestern. Or worse, like Chicago and just gave up football. It potentially could’ve changed the University as a whole–and maybe not in many positive ways–while we could be sitting here talking about Notre Dame’s annual rivalry with Illinois instead of USC.
The Big Ten chose, poorly.