MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — Supporting your school takes many forms.
By BLAIR KERKHOFF
The Kansas City Star
Bill Biggins Jr., of Overland Park will be at Sun Life Stadium with his son Matthew on Monday night to cheer for his alma mater, Notre Dame, in the BCS National Championship Game against Alabama. It’s Biggins’ first bowl game. When the Irish won the national championship after the 1988 season, the program’s fourth in 23 seasons, he thought another opportunity to see Notre Dame on a big stage would arrive soon.
“This was back in the Lou Holtz era, and I thought it would be the first of many trips,” said Biggins, 52. “I’d get to the next one. That was 24 years ago. If it’s going to be another 24 years I could be dead.”
Sometimes support isn’t cheering but imploring change.
In 2004, Biggins helped craft a letter to the university, decrying the state of affairs in athletics in general and the football team in particular after it had posted its second losing record in three years.
The Irish had followed the successful Holtz regime with slippage under Bob Davie and Tyrone Willingham, plus botched the hiring of George O’Leary, who was found to have falsified his resume. Biggins’ letter was critical of then-athletic director Kevin White, and it insisted the school could return to football glory without compromising academic standards.
Some 50 alumni signed the letter, which joined a file of protests and petitions by unhappy Irish supporters. The missive made national news, defining an era of disenchantment by the Notre Dame faithful.
They were happy at the end of 2004, when Charlie Weis became the first Notre Dame graduate in 42 years to become the head coach. Five years and a fired coach later, the mood again turned sour.
Now, the highways and airports are packed with Notre Dame fans making their way to South Florida to celebrate the return of the Irish.
Monday’s title game matches college football royalty. The Irish and Crimson Tide are magical names, and they’re tied at the top of the list of final No. 1 finishes in the Associated Press poll with eight apiece since 1936.
Alabama, the defending BCS champion seeking its third national title in four years, was expected to be here. The Crimson Tide opened the season ranked second.
Notre Dame is a surprise entry. The Irish started as the top vote-getting team just outside the AP poll (No. 24 in the preseason coaches’ poll), and worked their way up throughout the season. The defense, led by linebacker Manti Te’o, was a proven strength. But quarterback was a question mark.
But the position became an exclamation point as redshirt freshman Everett Golson grew into a weapon. Still, nobody was projecting the team’s first 12-0 record since that 1988 title season.
“It wasn’t a moment like we were, ‘Man, we’re going to make it to the national championship,’ ” Te’o said. “But we thought we had a chance here.”
In coach Brian Kelly, hired from Cincinnati to replace Weis after the 2009 season, Notre Dame got a dues-paying veteran who had spent the bulk of his career at Division II Grand Valley State.
Two seasons at Notre Dame produced identical 8-5 records, and the first year included losses on successive weekends to Navy and Tulsa. Did Notre Dame have the right guy?
Biggins remembers wondering if the Bob Stoops rumors were true. Could Notre Dame land the home run hire?
“Once a name like that gets floated out, anything else who comes in would be a disappointment,” Biggins said. “(Kelly) had been at second- and third-tier schools. There was no big conference background. So there was a little bit of wait and see about it.”
Now, seeing is believing, and fans have to love what they hear from Kelly.
“There are no tricks,” Kelly said after the Irish officially landed in the title game. “There are no gimmicks. It’s got to be basic fundamental football at this level. I think it was just a maturation and a development of our football team to get bigger, faster and stronger, and then have a will.”
It’s an idea Biggins and all Notre Dame fans can support.
To reach Blair Kerkhoff, call 816-234-4730 or send email to email@example.com. Follow him at twitter.com/BlairKerkhoff.