College football: It’s America’s GAA

Updated: September 1, 2012

There is not a hotel bed to be had in Dublin as up to 40,000 Americans are making their way by air and indeed sea to Dublin for the opening weekend of this season’s college football championship, and don’t be fooled – it is massive news stateside.

The Notre Dame Fighting Irish take on the Navy Midshipmen for the 84th consecutive year – the longest running uninterrupted rivalry in US collegiate football. This is the second time this pairing has rocked up in Dublin, Croke Park back in 1996 being the other.

The game is being shown coast to coast by CBS in America and millions are expected to tune in. In some regards college football is even bigger in the US than NFL.

Out of 32 NFL teams, three are in California, but none in Los Angeles. New York and Florida also have three, Ohio, Texas and Pennsylvania have two – so six states possess half the NFL franchises. That leaves a lot of football hungry punters looking for an outlet.

And this is where college football comes in. College division 1 football, the top tier in which Notre Dame and Navy play, has 127 teams covering 42 states. Alaska, Montana, North and South Dakota, Rhode Island, Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire miss out.

For the past three seasons the national champions have come from Alabama – there is no NFL franchise there, yet if all five division 1 teams from Alabama played at home on the same weekend, they would shift nearly 350,000 tickets without thought.

College football is almost GAA-like in ethos. Having witnessed it at first hand through the University of Wisconsin Badgers, college football consumes its public. All the talk in the week running up to the game is about the college team. There is the scramble for tickets and beds, the arrangements for travel – and the fans do travel, many states are bigger than Ireland yet would fill out stadiums larger than Croke Park for each home game. Towns and cities rely economically on their college teams.

The similarity with the GAA does not end with the fans, the make-up of teams in both codes are similar. The majority of players on each college programme are from within the college’s state. Granted there are the scholarships whereby all the major colleges seek out the best players nationally, but in the main and mainly for economic reasons players play with the college from their native state. That’s what creates such a massive interest nationwide for college football – the true tribalism of it.

There are some exceptions to this rule and Notre Dame and Navy are two exceptions.

Some colleges in the US although now more non-denominational, have had very close ties to religion over the years. Notre Dame has its very catholic history and remains closely affiliated, just as Brigham-Young University in Utah has its links to the Church of Latter-day Saints (Mormon Church) and Texas Christian University (TCU) to the Protestant Disciples of Christ Church – these links have created their own unique support bases for these colleges.

Navy on the other hand, like Army and Air Force, have naturally built up their support through those who have served with the forces in the United States and patriotism.

But what is it about Notre Dame, a predominantly Catholic college nestled in the industrial city of South Bend, Indiana, about seventy miles east of Chicago, that gives it this national interest?

It is the team all the punters want to play against as it is possibly the most storied of all the football colleges in the US. This pedestal has been created through its rivalries with other major teams, the Fighting Irish’s history of success and its stance to remain an independent football entity outside of regional conferences.

Then there are the coaches – Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian; the players like NFL legend Joe Montana and the four horsemen; the unique religious motif on the library that overlooks the stadium known as touchdown Jesus (check that one out) and stories the like of Daniel ’Rudy’ Ruettiger.

All this means Notre Dame is the only team in college football that negotiates its own personal TV contract and is shown coast to coast each weekend. Although CBS are televising the match this weekend – it is actually a home game for Navy but they choose to play the Notre Dame game in a larger stadium than their 34,000 capacity home in Annapolis, Maryland due to the scale of interest and commercial benefits – Notre Dame has a national contract with NBC, the only college with that pulling power.

Navy are also an independent football team, (meaning they are not tied in with a conference) as are Army and starting this year Brigham Young University(BYU) who are following the Notre Dame blueprint and hope to become a Notre Dame for the west coast.

That will not be easy for BYU, as over the years Notre Dame have created great rivalries that are renewed each year. These built-up rivalries, although financially beneficial, do not help the Irish’s chances at having exceptional seasons.

Four of the eight teams they play annually (this only leaves them four other games) are habitually top ranked – the University of South California (USC Trojans), University of Michigan (Wolverines), Michigan State University (Spartans) and Stanford (Cardinals). USC, Michigan and Notre Dame are the programmes with the most wins in the history of college football.

This season they will also face annual rivals, Purdue, Boston College, and Pittsburgh, as well as top ranked Oklahoma and traditional powerhouses BYU and University of Miami. Wake Forest make up their schedule. Few if any team can say they have a schedule like that, this or any season.

In a way this could be why Notre Dame has struggled in recent years to be the force of old. For the past two decades Notre Dame has not been on the top rungs of the college football ladder, however  a couple of bowl wins in recent years suggest better times on the horizon.

The match with Navy is set in stone. No one would dare break the rivalry which came about through the financial strains of World War Two. Notre Dame, although an established university for a hundred years was struggling for students and financially, but for the navy using the college as a training base, Notre Dame may well have had to close. The renewal of this annual game is a formality as Notre Dame sees it as debt of gratitude to the Navy.

And while Notre Dame’s nationwide popularity remains – it shares the spotlight with Messi, Beckham, and basketball giants Dwight Howard and Derrick Rose in their sportswear sponsors ads – the popularity and significance of this fixture will remain. This game is an American tradition, heightened by Notre Dame’s fabled history.

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