Jeffrey D. Nicholls/Post-Tribune Mark Lazerus Post-Tribune sports editor
DUBLIN, Ireland — Manti Te’o had the perfect reaction to Notre Dame radio analyst Allen Pinkett’s comments about the Irish needing more “criminals” in order to be successful.
Said Te’o: “Who?”
Thing is, Te’o had no idea who Pinkett was. When told Thursday he was ND’s color commentator, Te’o said, “Where’s he from?” When told the United States, Te’o said, “Did he play football?” When told yes, he was a two-time All-American at Notre Dame, Te’o said, “Really?”
If Te’o hadn’t been serious — when isn’t Te’o serious? — then it would have been even funnier. And more appropriate.
Because, really, who is Allen Pinkett, and who cares what he has to say? He’s just one of the countless voices across the country chiming in on Notre Dame football. Rick Reilly of ESPN torched the place earlier in the month. Pat Forde of Yahoo praised the place in response. And on and on it goes, the never-ending debate about Notre Dame’s stubborn devotion to tradition and its perceived specialness in the college football landscape. Love them (many do), hate them (many more do), everybody’s got an opinion on them.
But the fact that Pinkett’s part of the family — and was even on the team’s charter plane to Dublin, before being pulled from the broadcast Thursday in favor of Jeff Jeffers — apparently has turned it into a firestorm back in the States. Here in Dublin? All anyone wants to talk about is what the boys think of Irish step dancing and the friendliness of the locals.
Heck, a local reporter asked defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore if he would sample some Guinness while he was here. And the big guy — who’s 22 years old, by the way — just laughed.
“No, I don’t think I’m going to drink,” Lewis-Moore said. “But I’ve heard from different sources that it tastes different here. I’ll have to trust them.”
That’s the kind of guy Notre Dame recruits. That’s the kind of guy Brian Kelly wants. When asked about Pinkett’s comments, Kelly said he wanted tough guys, guys who played hard. Then he said, “Off the field, we want gentlemen.”
Cheesy? Sure. Outdated — archaic, even? Maybe. But that’s Notre Dame. The standards are different. And let’s not pretend the Irish are unique in that regard. Northwestern, Stanford, Vanderbilt, Duke and Rice — just to name a handful — have standards that are every bit as high as Notre Dame’s.
The difference is, Notre Dame’s standards on the field are just as high. No matter how many consecutive mediocre seasons their team posts, Irish fans are always going to expect to party like it’s 1988. Northwestern might be tickled over a TicketCity Bowl bid, and Stanford might be happy to sniff the Top 10 once in a while, but Notre Dame wants more. “Play like a champion today” isn’t a slogan, it’s a frantic demand, echoing through the decades.
And the Irish haven’t been playing like champions much the past two decades. So the critics — even in-house — get louder every year as the diamonds on those 1988 championship rings lose a little more luster.
But since everyone’s all atwitter about Pinkett’s comments, let’s ask if they have any merit. Does Notre Dame need more thugs, more “criminals” to succeed?
The players, of course, don’t think so.
“More criminals? He said that?” Te’o said. “No, we just need more ballplayers and more guys that love to play the game. That’s all.”
“I don’t think we need to be criminals or nothing like that,” Lewis-Moore said. “I think we need to be stand-up Notre Dame people. And I’m not saying Ohio State has criminals or nothing like that. I don’t think being a ‘bad boy’ makes you a good team or not. I think we’re a good team, and I think we have really good people on our team.”
Ohio State was Pinkett’s example. And “criminals” isn’t the right word. What Pinkett was saying was Notre Dame needs to lower the bar for its players — it needs to let super-talented athletes come to Notre Dame, whether they fit the academic and character profile or not.
But really, let’s not pretend the Irish don’t already have a sliding scale for athletes. Does Notre Dame have higher academic and character standards than most? Sure. But does Notre Dame have some football players that might not have gained admission to the university if they weren’t football players? It’d be naive to think otherwise. Every school does.
Notre Dame currently has the eighth-best recruiting class for 2013, according to ESPN, ahead of Georgia, LSU and Florida State. The current freshman class was ranked ninth. As was the current sophomore class. Kelly’s getting national championship caliber recruits.
Talent doesn’t seem to be the issue. Maximizing that talent does.
Was it different back in the glory days that Pinkett and the fans pine for? Hard to say in hindsight. But Tony Rice quarterbacked ND to its last national title, at the height of the “Catholics vs. Convicts” rivalry with Miami. And while Rice wasn’t a convict, he did score a 690 on his SATs and had to sit a year due to brand-new NCAA regulations. Think John Q. Student can get even a whiff of Notre Dame with a 690 on his SATs?
The bar’s higher than most, but it’s always been lowered for those who can run 4.4 in the 40-yard dash, or those who are 6-5, 300 pounds.
Does Pinkett really want to lower it further? Do Notre Dame fans want that? To let anybody in? To be just another college football program? To lose that specialness, to lose their identity?
Doubt it. No, Notre Dame wants it both ways. That’s the trick. And as the Irish have found out in the modern TV age, in which every university is national, in which every program is big-time, in which every coach can reach every player in every state, it’s a tough one to pull off.