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In the mid 90s I spent some time playing football and training at the University of Nebraska. I was in awe at how the football program generated such an advantage under Tom Osborne. You walked the hallways next to the locker room and you see each year's roster, record, stats... 10-2 was an off year.

Some of the things I noticed:

  • the weight room was state of the art. And they were well ahead of the curve on powerlifting (after you clean, deadlift, and squat you can clean, deadlift, and squat), they had nutrition coaches (remember this was mid90s), everything was perfect

  • they had two indoor facilities that rivaled pro teams

  • their stadium field was "different". What I mean is it was thin, sharp astroturf, laid on a bed of concrete. When coach said "take a knee" that was the most painful part of the day - your knee had cuts on it. The hardness took a while to get used to. Can't imagine being the visiting team. To top that off they had tons of speed at the skill positions, which made them even quicker.

  • they ran the option. High schools during that era weren't passing so they had a recruiting advantage.

  • Tom Osborne had started "advanced metrics" and each player was graded on several criteria. I remember having a great practice (DE) and asked the D-Line coach what I graded out for quickness and he gave me a 4 out of 5... with 5 being the worst. I'm like damn coach I thought I dominated. He says, "You got the only 4."

  • Tom also took care of his athletes. I remember seeing all these big guys painting the steps of the stadium. Well on one side they painted the steps, the other side they stripped the paint off. The best job was turning on the lights and turning them off (they paid the guys the entire time the lights were on).

So I give you some reasons Nebraska dominated for 25+ years. I would like to know why Notre Dame became Notre Dame in college football. What gave them a recruiting advantage, what made their program great before it was great?

  • Nebraska also benefited from the sanctions against Oklahoma, their biggest/only competition at that time. – JeffO Jan 8 '15 at 16:08
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Notre Dame became Notre Dame because it was one of the best football schools in the early days of college football, when a great coach with a few interesting strategies could make all the difference in the quality of a school's team. They then managed to keep that advantage instead of either disbanding the football team (Thanks for the memories, Amos Alonzo Stagg) or losing the momentum due to poor coaching or difficult entry requirements (see Yale/Harvard/Army/Navy etc.). Notre Dame managed to find a compromise in terms of academics that allowed them to recruit effectively while maintaining a mostly high academic standard (compared to other schools with strong football programs) when the great shift from the Ivies to the State Schools occurred in the middle of the century.

In this case, it was Knute Rockne who led the school to prominence. He played for them in the early 1910s, and in 1913 led them to beat the then-dominant Army team soundly (35-13) thanks to his practicing the forward pass with his quarterback extensively during the off-season; the forward pass was legal but rarely used in football at the time.

He then became the head coach starting a few years later (1918), and led them to four national championships (1919, 1924, 1929, 1930, using the NCF designation as is usual in that era) and regularly won 9 or 10 games per year. He emphasized athleticism and speed, a change from many other teams at the time who were more of the pounding sort. He introduced the 'shift' (ie, changing alignment just before the snap). He also continued to emphasize the modern forward pass - while other teams did use passes, they tended to be shorter, screen-variety, while he used passing more extensively and more downfield.

He also was a great showman, as Wikipedia goes into some length to describe; as much as winning games, he had to sell the school and make the team profitable (or at least pay for itself!) as athletics weren't the big industry back then they are now.

Notre Dame then built on his legacy in the 40s and 50s with Frank Leahy, who won four national championships and had the second highest winning percentage in NCAA history (.846). Future coaches built on the legacy, with several more national championships and very competitive teams until the last decade or so the SEC recruiting advantage seems to have lessened their status, although they still manage to be competitive on a fairly regular basis.

They continue to have a few advantages. One is their TV deal, which as being a single school with no conference to share revenue with is substantial, and pays for very good facilities. They also have a national following (driving the TV deal, among other things) because they are one of the leading Catholic schools in the nation, so their alumni tend to be more spread out over the country than a state school who would have most of their alumni centered near the school.

  • Do you know how they got Knute Rockne? – Coach-D Oct 17 '14 at 21:18
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    @Coach-D Knute went to school at Notre Dame and played (as an end, which is what would now be called a wide receiver or tight end depending on the play). He wasn't anything special before that, so it wasn't like he was recruited there specifically because of his amazing skills or anything like that. – Joe Oct 17 '14 at 21:22
  • So you are saying the tradition started out of complete blind luck? Knute was an OK football player and ND and coaches had no idea about his ideas, and then he jsut transformed the game/university? – Coach-D Oct 17 '14 at 21:25
  • I don't know that 'blind luck' is exactly the right phrase. Was the Mongol Empire formed out of blind luck? Most people would credit Genghis Khan with the deed, but who knows. I'm sure Knute learned in part from others, as everyone does; but in general, he's considered the 'origin' of Notre Dame's success, insomuch as they were a minor Midwestern Catholic university with no meaningful football program before he turned it into a powerhouse. – Joe Oct 18 '14 at 1:03
  • Early in a sports' history, you tend to have these visionaries who combine one part strategic vision with one part self-promotion, leading to success. Undoubtedly some of it is luck, but I think it's reasonable to assume he had some idea that his ideas were likely to succeed. Some people guess wrong of course, and that's where luck comes into play - but I suspect it's more the person than the luck. – Joe Oct 18 '14 at 1:06

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