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Irish win doing it in their own style

– Lou Holtz, you say?

Why, shoot, the man’s 76 years old now. He hasn’t coached in eight years. And he hasn’t coached at Notre Dame since 1996, when Bill Clinton was president and LeBron James was in grade school and no one had ever heard of Facebook or YouTube or Snooki or even, well, Manti Te’o.

In other words: It’s been a long old time since Notre Dame is where it will be tonight, which is playing for a national title as opposed to playing to keep from losing to Navy and Air Force in the same year.

Twenty-four years have flown since Notre Dame last did this out in the Arizona desert, and the players who made it happen that night – the Tony Rices, the Rocket Ismails – are middle-aged men now. And the scribblers among us who were there to watch the Irish clock West Virginia 34-21 and hoist Sweet Lou aloft are getting mail these days from AARP.

So what does it mean that now, finally, the Irish are sitting at the big people’s table again?

First and foremost it means all us wise guys who said you couldn’t do it the way Notre Dame does it anymore – a brief pause here while I raise my hand – were wrong, wrong, wrong. Who knew you could require your hired mercenaries to go to class and live in regular dorms and be, you know, actual students, and still beat someone besides Mapquest State? Who knew you could go 12-0 as an independent and play for a BCS championship and simultaneously have the top graduation rate in the NCAA?

“I think that says a lot,” former Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn said last month. “You can accomplish that, both academically and athletically, to be at the top. That’s how it should be. That’s why everyone’s called a student-athlete. I think that’s what separates Notre Dame apart from the rest.”

And, yeah, OK, he’s a Domer, so of course he’s going to throw that bit in there at the end. It’s not true, of course – there are a lot of places where academic achievement and athletic success aren’t mutually exclusive – but the point pertains: Notre Dame has successfully followed a path no one thought it could successfully follow anymore.

“I had 19 years of head coaching experience when I got here,” Brian Kelly says, addressing that very thing. “I thought that would prepare me. I think it did in a lot of areas, but not in all the areas necessary to be the head coach at Notre Dame.

“After winning this year and showing we can win nationally against perennially great programs, I think it just secured our philosophy of being an independent and being part of the national landscape.”

Whether they can hold onto that independence remains problematical, of course, considering the way the tectonic plates keep shifting in the college football landscape. And whether they’ll take out Alabama, which plays these national title gigs all the time, is even more problematical.

It says here they won’t, though of course the Irish have made a living this season out of blowing up such notions. So maybe it’ll happen. Maybe all those weird portents everyone’s talking about – the last time Notre Dame won a national title, its quarterback (Rice) was a black kid from South Carolina, just like Everett Golson, and one of its key players (placekicker Reggie Ho) was from Hawaii, just like Te’o – will prove more than just coincidence.

“I remember sitting at home when I was 6 years old watching Ohio State and Miami going at it (for the 2002 national title),” Te’o said last month. “I remember (Ken) Dorsey and all those guys. For me to actually be playing in one of those; … I haven’t really grasped what it means to that 6-year-old Manti, but it’s going to be something big.”

Big as it gets.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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