Winners and Losers - November 26, 2012

Many years ago, I came to South Bend to go to grad school at Notre Dame (you thought maybe it was for the weather?). I already had my Masters, but the real awakening took place at the first class of the first day at Notre Dame, when I came in late and quietly slid my way into Gerhart Niemeyer’s class on the Concept of Nature and Political Order. The students were discussing Aristotle’s Physics, and it might just as well have been in Greek for all I understood of it that day. I sat there, an A student, completely baffled, and I realized that all my “academic” education heretofore had served but one purpose . . . to get me into that classroom. From then on, I had to start anew. It was revelatory and invigorating at the same time, sort of like what Descartes must have felt (or, at least, gave us to believe he must have felt) when he said he was starting all over with methodical doubt and owed nothing to all the work that had been done before. (That, of course, was bullshit, but I have to admit it was heady and exciting bullshit.)

I owe a lot to Notre Dame, to the people I met there and the work that was done there and to the very aura of the place. I was an agnostic of the worst sort when I came there . . . not someone who is searching but someone so indifferent and secure in his insecurity that I knew I didn’t have enough faith to be an atheist. Much has changed in my life since then, and all that is good in my growth has come from my wife and the people and ideas and authors I “met” at Notre Dame. It’s true that some of the worst people I ever knew were at Notre Dame, but it’s also true that almost all of the best people I ever knew were there too. And Gresham is quite wrong when his theory is applied to more than money: the good will drive out the bad if you have but a little hope or faith or love.

You may not believe it after reading what I’m about to write, but I am not a big football fan, probably the least in my family, save for a completely indifferent daughter-in-law. But I have to admit that I like the way Notre Dame is playing this year. Perhaps it comes from my coaching soccer for so long. I was picked by the league president because my eight-year-old son’s team lacked a coach and my name, beginning with an F, came early on the list he was calling to find someone who would take over. I had played one hour (yes, one hour) in organized soccer in my entire life. All I remembered was that, since I was slow, they placed me as a fullback. When years later, I was faced with coaching a team and did the usual thing of reading up on the game that, in this country, fathers learn from their sons and daughters, I realized that soccer was a defensive game, and you shouldn’t put your slowest and worst players in defense bur rather your most talented.

Notre Dame is playing football like a soccer team this year, with the greatest hero, among many, being their center linebacker, Manti Te’o, a Hawaiian Mormon leading the Fighting Irish. He is backed up by wonderful defensive players, and the spirit of the defense, where players must expend  much more energy and thinking to succeed than those on offense, is manifest.

Notre Dame has allowed a touchdown on 24.1 percent of their opponents’ red zone drives this season, the lowest percentage of any FBS team in the last eight seasons. Notre Dame's opponents have but seven touchdowns and yielded five turnovers in 29 red-zone possessions this year. The fact that they have given up but seven touchdowns but 13 field goals in the red zone indicates that they have learned the lesson of manhood, to bend but not to break.

It is a lesson that I am used to championing in publishing, a business that is difficult in good times and can be devastating in bad (the same, it should be noted, exists for the author of the next Discourse on the Method). Bend, don’t break. In football and publishing and in most of life, the winning or losing team is easy to spot after the event takes place, but the winners and losers among the players themselves are not always so easy to spot, since that comes from something within, and the greatest winner may be on a team with an 0-12 record.

One last point: Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine, and Lou Holtz all won the National Championship on their third year of coaching at Notre Dame. Brian Kelly is now in his third year.