I’m a hypocrite. Yup, there I said it. When it comes to That Team From South Bend (TTFSB) yours truly has been promoting a double standard and I don’t think I’m alone.
On one hand I spend time discussing Notre Dame’s relative fall from true national relevance over the past 20 years yet there I am staring at November 15 date in South Bend and the renewal of our series with TTFSB as a pretty big deal. Or is it?
It’s common knowledge in this community that the rebirth of modern day Northwestern football is directly associated with our last trip to South Bend – a 17-15 monumental upset win on September 2, 1995. It marked the national coming out party for the Wildcats who promptly proceeded to win the Big Ten Championship and make it to the Rose Bowl in what I still argue is the most improbable college sports run of all time – in any sport. I usually go to great lengths to talk about how the luster has faded from the golden domers, yet, I know myself well enough that come November, I’ll be chalking up blog posts that discuss the marketing importance of a win over Notre Dame on NBC. I’ll be attempting to wax poetic about the image shaping of media and fans outside of Chicago and the potential spike in perception that a win like that could have.
It’s time to ditch the “TTFSB” business. I laugh every time I read about Illini head coach Tim Beckman refusing to acknowledge Northwestern and the efforts he makes to try to demonize the ‘Cats. All it does is continue to prop Northwestern up as a team that Illinois strives to be. In Michigan, they call it the big brother complex between Sparty and the Wolverines.
Northwestern fans, if we’re honest, are envious in many ways of Notre Dame, when it comes to football. It’s a very good academic school whose academic reputation gets elevated because of what Jim Phillips always refers to as “the front porch to the university”- football. The marketing impact of a stand-alone TV contract with NBC provides a 3-hour infomercial for the school every Saturday. This used to hurt a lot more, but at the core of this envy is the fact Northwestern alumni believe NU is a better school than Notre Dame. Yes, the relative worth of the degree is one of those deep-seeded jealousy triggers. As an NU graduate, you want your degree to have the highest perception of value it can have. It sounds downright snobby to talk about, but I also believe this is one of the unspoken byproducts that goes along with fandom in general. Some people truly think if their team beats your team then at some level “I’m better than you are.” This is a psychological journey for a different time.
If you live in the Chicago area, the perception change of Notre Dame has diluted over the past 20-30 years rather significantly. Part of this has to do with Notre Dame’s relative drop in football success, but moreso it has to do with the proliferation of media outlets and coverage for the competition. A spot on NBC simply doesn’t mean as much as it used to. The emergence of BTN, online college football coverage and the fact on any given Saturday you can find about 12 different games going on at the same time all contribute a piece to a much more complicated puzzle.
When you compare Northwestern and Notre Dame from a marketing perspective, the ‘Cats have cleaned Notre Dame’s clock in Chicago. Mike Polisky and his team have leveraged media buys with the Chicago Tribune, the Sun-Times, ESPN and blown our their WGN partnership in ways that I have to believe are part of the reason the frequency and length of daily coverage on NU has surpassed Notre Dame. OK, in print, it is perhaps equal, but on other platforms, NU has outperformed Notre Dame. Granted, NU still has issues filling seats and needs to advertise more than Notre Dame does, but if you were an Iowa fan, you’d likely agree that NU is more in the mainstream here than Notre Dame is. That was unfathomable heading in to 1995.
All this being said, even I’m surprised at the lack of buzz for this game. Sure, Northwestern is coming off of a horrible 5-7 season and Notre Dame posted yet another 5-loss season, but still. I actually had to go and double-check to see which year Notre Dame got smoked by Alabama in the national championship game only to find out we’re just one season removed (it was the 2012 season) from what I thought was the rebirth of Notre Dame. Considering they were in the national title game 14 games ago, I’m just stunned perception-wise at how quickly the Irish have vanished from Chicago media conversations (that is except for days like today when news surfaces about Charlie Weiss’ annual payout from Notre Dame being nearly the same as Brian Kelly’s current salary).
Obviously, the number one influence for on-field brand respect is the W-L record. Again, Notre Dame has outperformed Northwestern during the Pat Fitzgerald (and since 1995 – but not by much) in this regard, but relative to historic expectations, the Irish have slid – big time. Since 2006 the Irish have finished in the AP Top 25 just once (#4 in 2012). They’ve been ranked at season’s end only five times this century and have had a grand total of two top ten finishes since we last visited South Bend.
Brian Kelly enters his fifth season at Notre Dame with his biggest postseason trophy case addition being a Sun Bowl win in 2010. The Irish have also played in the Champs Sports Bowl (lost) and Pinstripe Bowl (won in 2013). It’s not the kind of cache Golden Domers are used to. To Kelly’s credit, he did just have eight players selected in the NFL Draft. However, for every guy playing on Sunday, there is a loss that makes the faithful wince. The red-faced screamer of a coach has gone 37-15, which is obviously more than respectable and considerably better than Fitz’s winning percentage in Evanston (slightly over .500 at 55-46).
By November 15 both teams will likely have several losses entering the 3:30 pm et game on NBC. The odds of both teams being ranked at that point I’d put on the south side of a 50% chance. It will indeed be a very tough ticket for Wildcat fans based on the simple lack of supply, but the question remains how big will this game actually be? The Irish return the favor in 2018 with a game at Ryan Field which I believe could make everything above become a moot point. The Chicago-area ND alums are already eyeing that game, which I believe, barring both programs going sub-.500 every season between now and then, will be the biggest game at Ryan Field since last year’s Ohio State game. But, there I go again, being a hypocrite when it comes to TTFSB.