While I was trying to write about an event in Whiting, Indiana earlier this week, it seems the rest of Chicago’s Catholics were focused on South Bend, Indiana instead. Why is that? It was the college football champion game. After an undefeated year, Notre Dame's Fighting Irish lost the BCS National Championship to Alabama with a score of 42-14. Local papers like the Chicago Sun-Times produced headlines like “Irish eyes aren't smiling, as Notre Dame gets pounded in football championship". Other articles noted "Notre Dame's reality check in Monday night's national title game was tough to swallow for local Fighting Irish fans, and those watching on TV didn't take long to look away”. In short, it was a grave disappointment for fans of the Fightin’ Irish. Perhaps of the reasons for the heartache was that many Notre Dame students and players are from the Chicago area. For example, Notre Dame players Chris Salvi (#24) and Will Salvi (#36) are sons of Lake Forest residents Patrick and Lindy Salvi, and nephews of the famous Illinois political couple, attorneys Al and Kathy Salvi, as well as State Rep-elect Barbara Salvi Wheeler (R-Crystal Lake). The brothers' stories were featured in the New York Times Monday. Chris Salvi is co-captain of Notre Dame's 12-0 championship football team, and he and his younger brother Will played in the BCS Championship Bowl.
As for me, my dear readers, I don't get why sports in general is such a big deal. When it comes to professional athletes playing football, we’re supposed to stay glued to the Superbowl every year awaiting the results on pins and needles; even if it’s two teams playing that are nowhere near Chicago and that we have no vested interest in. College sports makes even less sense to me. Why does the BCS National Football Championship get so much hoopla and constant coverage in Chicago? I don’t remember anyone even discussing the results of the latest college baseball championship (after googling it, I found that the University of Arizona Wildcats were the winners of the 2012 NCAA Division I baseball season). Perhaps that’s because we have minor league baseball teams so we don’t need to pay attention to college baseball, you might tell me. Fair enough. How about college basketball? There’s no “minor league” professional basketball team, but I don’t remember anyone covering the latest college basketball championship, either. (in this case, the 2012 winners were the University of Kentucky Wildcats)
A friend of mine was likewise baffled by the nonstop tweets and media coverage all week. On Facebook, he posed an interesting question: “Why do many Chicago-area residents care about Notre Dame sports teams? ND isn't in the Chicago area, Illinois, or the Big 10.”
His point is a valid one: the Sound Bend, Indiana region where the team hails from is not traditionally considered part of the “Chicago area”, as it’s too far away. In college football, Notre Dame is not part of the “Big 10” Leaders Division of college football. Those teams are the Fighting Illini, Indiana Hoosiers, Iowa Hawkeyes, Michigan State Spartans, Michigan Wolverines, Minnesota Golden Gophers, Nebraska Cornhuskers, Northwestern Wildcats, Ohio State Buckeyes, Penn State Nittany Lions, Purdue Boilermakers, and Wisconsin Badgers. It’s not even one of the “Catholic 7” universities with multiple sports team traditions. The “Catholic 7” is DePaul, Georgetown, Marquette, Providence, Seton Hall, St. John's and Villanova. So what is it about Notre Dame?
Notre Dame is in the NCAA Football League as an Independent school. They are one of the few NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision independent schools, along with the Army and Navy teams, and the University of Brigham Young in Utah. The reasons given for their huge popularity in the Chicago area is that the University is Catholic, its close enough for Chicagoans to commute to thanks to the South Shore Line, “it's an Irish thing”, and most importantly – that they have winning history. Some people wrote back on Facebook saying the team is so famous because it’s “the nation's largest Catholic university” and that, for Chicago Catholics, it’s "our" school. Every Chicago Catholic either attended or has family or colleagues who attended Notre Dame, I’m told.
Notre Dame does indeed having a “winning history”, and is ranked #4 overall in all-time college football wins. (behind the Michigan Wolverines, the Yale Bulldogs, and the Texas Longhorns). I do have to dispute some of the other claims, though. For starters, it’s hard to rank the “best” Catholic college because some of the Catholic schools are very good in some fields while lacking in others. When they were ranked overall, Boston College, a Jesuit University in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, was ranked highest among all Catholic universities in the United States. Notre Dame had some impressive ratings as well – their football team is obviously legendary, and they are rated as the leading private Catholic research university in the nation. The University is ranked 219th globally in the QS World University Rankings 2010. However, they are far from the nation’s largest Catholic University. Chicago’s own DePaul University (23,401 students) and Loyola University (15,545 students) are considerably ahead of the University of Notre Dame (11,733 students), with DePaul taking the prize as the “largest Catholic university” in the United States. As a lifelong Chicago area Catholic from the south side, and one with considerable Irish ancestry, I would also dispute that Notre Dame is “our school” for Chicago’s Irish Catholics. In addition to DePaul and Loyola, most of the south side Irish Catholics I know attended St. Xavier University, not Notre Dame. My mother and sister are both St. Xavier graduates. Geography might be a simple reason why: located at 103rd Street & Central Park Avenue in Chicago, St. Xavier’s is about 15 minutes away for most of us, compared to a two hour commute to Notre Dame.
For those of us in the Chicago area who are Catholic, there actually a great deal of “local” Catholic universities with winning sport teams. I’ve already mentioned DePaul University in Chicago, Loyola University in Chicago, and Saint Xavier University in Chicago. In addition, there’s Benedictine University in Lisle, Lewis University in Romeoville, Dominican University in River Forest, University of St. Francis in Joliet, University of Saint Mary of the Lake in Mundelein, and so on. Do any of their sports teams compare to Notre Dame? Not in media hype, certainly. Nevertheless, they do have some impressive records.
St. Xavier's is the oldest Catholic university in the Chicago area, and was founded in 1846. It went co-ed in 1970. They have campuses in Chicago and Orland Park. They currently have over 5000 students. Its football team, the St. Xavier Cougars, competes in the Mid-States Football Association, under head coach Mike Feminis. In 2011, St. Xavier won the NAIA Football National Championship. Did you hear about it? Me neither. However, this was a considerable coup for Chicago sports. When St. Xavier beat Carroll College for the NAIA national championship title, they became the first college football team from Chicago proper to be able to make such a claim in 99 years. Apparently only the University of Chicago (back in the days when they were a member of the Big 10) can make a claim of sharing a title with Harvard University for 1913. It was certainly a boost to the morale of Chicago Catholic students, given that the players on St. Xavier’s team are by-and-large are Chicago-area kids that graduated from places like Mount Carmel High School and Joliet Central. Too bad so little media attention is given to the St. Xavier Cougars.
Then there’s the case of the ironically named “Blue Demons” of DePaul University. Like Notre Dame, DePaul completed in national college sports games as an independent for much of its history, and had multiple NCAA appearances throughout the 1980s. More recently, in the 2006–2007 season; the Blue Demons beat powerhouse #5 Kansas, pulling off one of the greatest upsets in school history. They also beat 2007 NCAA tournament teams California, Northwestern State, Marquette, Connecticut, and Villanova. The team made it to the NIT and lost in the bracket final to Air Force. After the 2008 season, two of their star players went to the NBA. In their full history, over 32 Blue Demons alumni have become NBA players.
Nearby in Joliet, Illinois, there is another prominent Catholic College. That’s the University of St. Francis. Their football team is the Fighting Saints, with a St. Bernard dog as their mascot. In 2011, the team rose to considerable prestige. The University of St. Francis football team was named an Elite. Only eight college football teams made up the “Elite Eight” of the NAIA Football teams, and The Fighting Saints earned it on a bitterly cold day in northwest Iowa. They did so by picking up their first playoff victory in school history with a fourth-quarter comeback win, in a 21-17 nail bitter victory over No. #6 team Morningside College. University of St. Francis senior linebacker Drew Tondini of Morris, Illinois has been named to the 2012 Capital One Academic All-America College Division Football Team, as selected by the College Sports Information Directors of America (CoSIDA). He was a Second Team pick.
And as a final example, there is Loyola University of Chicago intercollegiate sports teams, the "Loyola Ramblers". Their basketball team competes in National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I and the Horizon League. As of 2012, Loyola University is still the only Division I school in the State of Illinois to win a national championship in men's basketball. Loyola also is remembered for its courageous steps to end racial segregation in sports teams. Beginning in 1961, Loyola broke a long standing “gentlemen's agreement” among basketball teams not to have more than three black players on the team at any given time. Loyola selected players based on abilities, and soon had four or more black players on the court at every game. For the 1962-63 season, Loyola also became the first team in NCAA Division I history to play an all-black lineup, doing so in a game against Wyoming in December 1962. In that season's NCAA tournament, Loyola defeated the all-white team of the then-segregated Mississippi State, a game especially notable because the Bulldogs defied a state court order prohibiting them from playing against a school with black players. The Loyola University Ramblers are recognized today for ushering in a new era of racial equality in the sport by shattering color barriers in basketball.
When it comes to Catholic universities playing sports, however, we don’t hear much about St. Xavier, DePaul, St. Francis, or Loyola. Rather, it’s Notre Dame: all the time, every time. The fact Notre Dame is ranked fourth in all-time college football wins and went undefeated until the championship game this year is certainly impressive and deserves acclaim. But do they really deserve all the acclaim? When I was a child, I even assumed Notre Dame was an NFL team, because you’d see the “Fightin’ Irish” Notre Dame merchandise sold right alongside such notable Midwestern NFL teams as the Chicago Bears, Green Bay Packers, Indianapolis Colts, and St. Louis Rams. Why? They’re an extremely prestigious university that competes in the NCAA Football League as an independent, and they have alumni around Chicago, I’m told. So is West Point, yet I don’t see any Army Black Knights football gear being sold. (In fact, I didn’t even though their football team was the “Army Black Knights” until I wrote this article!) One cynical Chicagoan felt differently about Notre Dame. She noted “I stopped caring when they gave the abortionist backer in chief an award and when they mishandled the rape/suicide case a few years ago”. While she has a valid point, it’s not something we should take out on the players. The only question I’d pose is: if the BCS National Championship is such a huge, huge deal to deserve nonstop coverage and attention all week, what about all the other college sports out there?
Do you get it? I don’t, Chicagoland.