Where Have We Been?

I remain endlessly fascinated by the ongoing debate surrounding Notre Dame football — you know, THAT debate, the broad and unceasing internal drama about whether one should be satisfied with the current state and trajectory of the program. It’s maybe the most consistent source of division in the fanbase; camps are staked out according to your website of choice, your age, your online friend group (the list goes on) over whether winning ten or so games a year is Fun and Good or Uninspiring and Small Timey. Is the program nearing its ceiling in the modern era, or should it be more robustly gunning for titles? Every question about the team, the coaching staff, the administration — whatever facet you want to talk about — sort of gets boiled down to this.

To state my point of view bluntly: it seems silly to offer up much consternation over an extended stretch in which 85% of games played ended with the Irish scoring more points than their opponent (I’m also mad we lost to Michigan, but that doesn’t make me a brave-hearted truth-teller). For reference, a helpful rule of thumb is that anyone who worries about winning titles more than me is a miserable old grump, and anyone who worries less than me is a fair-weather fan. Easy! Admittedly, this standard *may* not stand up to academic scrutiny; anyways, I would like to assume that everyone falls somewhere a little different on that spectrum for mostly understandable reasons, and that a good faith back and forth is possible (I will surely come to disavow this assumption). It’s genuinely okay that there’s no right answer.

That Notre Dame is not as remarkably dominant as it once was will surprise no one, but I believe it helpful to sketch out some history in order to better understand the present situation. Linked here is a bit of data on the 32 schools crystallized in college football’s upper echelon — ones that have legitimate, if somewhat subjective, title claims (the NCAA can recognize multiple claims in a year, so I’m trusting the folks over at Banner Society to narrow it down to one per season). I began the analysis with the year 1920, conveniently giving us an even 100 data points to work with, somewhat arbitrarily broken down into three eras — 1920-1959, 1960-1989, and 1990-2019.

Bad news first: the trajectory of ND’s winning percentage across eras is…downward. As expected, considering that its initial 40 year run resulted in one of only four marks of 80% or higher. There was, seriously, nowhere to go but down, and I’d advise making your peace with that reality. But I also understand that 0 championships in 3 decades is a difficult pill to swallow. The graph below tells a story, and when taken at face value, it’s not really a welcome one for our target audience (please note that the data is compressed by each era noted above, not broken out by year).


Yep, we’re the outlier, but only in a “victim of our own meteoric rise” kind of way. By these metrics, Ohio State is on a hell of a run, with Alabama’s slight dip in winning % more than balanced out by their 6 recent titles. Oklahoma has been remarkably consistent over the years, and Georgia is of course pushing to the top of the queue despite only having one title belt to its name. Quite frankly, it makes sense that ND is part of a sort of second tier peer group with the rest of the schools notable enough to make the cut here.

I’d also like to take a moment to note some programs that were formerly part of college football’s elite, or something like it, but didn’t make the cut — Illinois, Cal, Georgia Tech, Minnesota (the Gophers picked up all of their 5 titles in one 8 year stretch; you have to admire the efficiency). Each of these schools has a claim to multiple early-era titles, and have not been anything all that consistently special for some time now. Please take at least one second to be grateful that you (presumably) root for a very good Notre Dame team and not one of these respectable but lessened programs. Thank you. Easy, right?

Understanding the full scope of college football’s evolution, or even a single program’s evolution, is light-years beyond our purview, but the intersection of recruiting and geography is, in my view, a cornerstone of this type of thought experiment. I was ecstatic to stumble across a very cool visualization of this phenomenon, in which the geographic origin of players who would eventually go pro was laid out year by year.


This is awfully on the nose, but according to their data, the geographic mean of college players in 1920 who landed on a professional roster was, I kid you not, northern Indiana. Recruiting basically boiled down to if you could get a foothold in Chicago, and Notre Dame was literally the center of the college football world. Pretty conducive to building a winner, if you ask me.


Fast forward to 1960 and our geographic mean has drifted down to somewhere in Missouri. Los Angeles and the South are now very much in play; western Pennsylvania is another hotbed. Guess who was winning titles in this era? Southern Cal ties ND for the lead, with 4 during this three-decade stretch. Alabama and Oklahoma grab 3 each. Nebraska, Texas, and Penn State each win 2, accounting for more than half of their combined claims. Miami also notches 3 at the end of the ‘80s, as the Sunshine State somewhat belatedly storms onto the scene. It all tracks, and even neater than I might have guessed it would. Location, location, location.


Come 1990 and these trends have only intensified. The Southwest is a focal point for any program with serious title aspirations, and talent in the South is being mined from more counties than ever — Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas keep growing in stature. Florida State, Florida, and LSU back this up by claiming 3 titles each. So does Nebraska, in a relatively brief spurt of mid-’90s dominance, capitalizing after ND could not (should we claim 1993? Yes.)


This final map is from 2014, when the data was published, and is more or less in line with the one prior. This is the new normal — talent is all over, sure, but generally concentrated in certain predictable regions. Geography and demographics aren’t destiny, but schools that can pull from their backyard have obvious inherent advantages, even as they fully nationalize their recruiting operations. The article does a good job measuring how different conferences have stretched their reach, and concludes:

…while the ACC, SEC, and Big-12—and to some extent, Big Ten—are moving closer together, they’re also all attracting players from farther away. This suggests that these three conferences are becoming increasingly more national and less representative of their home regions.

Interestingly, while the other four major conferences have widened and moved closer together, the opposite is true for the Pac-12. Not only has the center of the Pac-12 moved about 250 miles away from the centers of other conferences, but the conference is also the only one that hasn’t become less concentrated. It seems that the Pac-12 is content to let other schools fight for players on the East coast and focus their efforts—successfully, it appears—on West coast talent.


That combination of homegrown talent and national recruiting reach is crucial — not just one part or the other, but the synthesis of the two. Occasionally Southern Cal or Oregon or Washington will really flash, but the conference has been somewhat of a running joke for some time now, and for good reason. There’s simply no choice but to recruit everywhere, all of the time, but especially in Texas, California, Florida, and Georgia, all of the time, seeing as those four states produced a full 50% of all blue-chip recruits from 2015-2019.

Notre Dame’s clout in the greater Chicago area is a decently important base to work from, but its national recruiting operation has never been more crucial or faced more of a sustained challenge than the Bama/LSU/OSU/Georgia/Clemson cabal. The program’s brand still carries weight, sure, but luring enough talent away from those NFL factories to a small, academically rigorous school in the middle of nowhere is a monumental task. The air is thin at the top of the mountain.

I obviously don’t have a definitive answer that will stop people from arguing about if Notre Dame is doing better or worse than they “should” be doing. But what should be understood is that Notre Dame didn’t stop winning championships for some perverse lack of trying or because the game has passed it by. For the millionth time, building a sustainable program and then winning football games and then maintaining that program and winning more football games is HARD. It’s a bit incredible that a private, independent, Catholic school just south of the Michigan border has maintained a (relatively) steady course through so many ebbs and flows. Let’s just hope that Brian Kelly is serious about actually pushing for top five recruiting classes, because without one or two of those, it’s what it is.

Long story short, it’s cool that Notre Dame was historically good *ages* ago when playing what was essentially a different sport, back when its peers were schools like Army and Carnegie Mellon and Princeton. But it’s probably cooler that they adapted and survived until now, remaining a very competitive and popular program that still owns plenty of prestige and still has plenty of games left to win. The odds of that happening weren’t great; they were actually pretty damn small. Whether she reaches the pinnacle of the sport again remains to be seen, but at least old Notre Dame can still win over most.

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