Notre Dame's success hits home with Bill Gallagher

Posted: December 03, 2012

WHEN BILL Gallagher played football at Notre Dame, not only would a trip to the national-title game not raise many eyebrows, it was expected.

Gallagher, a Father Judge product, was a Fighting Irish running back under the legendary Ara Parseghian. As a Golden Domer in 1970 and '71, he ran for 224 yards on 56 carries and caught four passes for 69 yards.

After that, Gallagher, now 62, spent 28 years patrolling the sidelines of his hometown as a head coach, first at Chestnut Hill Academy, then Penn Charter, Springfield (Montco) and finally Episcopal Academy, where he still teaches.

The constant through it all for Gallagher? Notre Dame football.

But while Irish fans around the country spent the past week deliberating which Southeastern Conference team they would rather play in the BCS title game Jan. 7 in Miami, Gallagher had a different outlook.

"Who cares?" he said. "It doesn't matter, as long as Notre Dame is in there."

Gallagher knows his Irish might be double-digit underdogs to Alabama, which edged Georgia in the SEC championship game, but he can't help but be optimistic. To him, everything has fallen into place this year for Notre Dame. Why would it stop now?

"This year has been the perfect storm," Gallagher said. "Pittsburgh missing a short field goal, the Stanford game the guy gets stopped on the 1-inch line. Everything has been going their way. Going out to Southern Cal, playing them without [Trojans star quarterback Matt] Barkley."

During Gallagher's time in South Bend, Notre Dame was what Alabama is now, only bigger. With a schedule that took it all over the country, Notre Dame was essentially the only national college football program, and the recruits, desperate for exposure, lined up accordingly.

Times have changed. While the prestige of the Notre Dame legacy remained a selling point in recruiting, the Irish had fallen behind in nearly every other phase of the game. The last time they finished the season in the Top 5 of the Associated Press poll was 1993.

Until now. They are the current No. 1.

The excitement among former Irish players has been contagious, says Gallagher. For decades, they have dissected every Irish loss and grown frustrated as the program accepted bowl bids they deemed unworthy of Notre Dame.

It's amazing how much 12 straight wins can make people forget.

"Right away, everybody was like, 'Are you going to the game? I already got my plane tickets.' Right now everybody is going to the game. We will see a couple weeks from now who is actually going," Gallagher joked.

So what took so long?

"As a football coach, I don't want to say it was the coaching, but it was," Gallagher said. "You need to be a special kind of person to be able to handle that situation."

Notre Dame hired Brian Kelly in December 2009 after he put together a 34-6 record at Cincinnati. From what he has seen, Gallagher believes that Kelly has been the difference.

"Every place he goes, he has won," he said of Kelly, whose earlier stops were Grand Valley State and Central Michigan. "He is a character. He goes out in the community and serves in South Bend. Not that that is the key or anything, but it shows that not only can he handle the football stuff, he does extra."

The next test for the Irish will be their toughest yet. Under Nick Saban, Alabama has been a juggernaut. A win over Notre Dame would give the Crimson Tide its third BCS trophy in 4 years. While the Irish will be big underdogs - early lines range from 7 1/2 to 10 points - it doesn't necessarily mean that they will have the nation's backing.

"People either love the idea that Notre Dame is so special or hate it," Gallagher said. "For whatever reason around here, some people have their two favorite teams: Penn State and whoever is playing Notre Dame. I never understood that."

When you have a team as prestigious, talented and well-coached as the Irish, it can be a curse in disguise.

"When I was playing it was there, and people don't understand that it is still true: When Notre Dame plays somebody, they get the absolute best that team has. Parseghian used to drill that into our head. I think the top 10 to 15 schools can all play with each other. Notre Dame didn't have too many cupcakes on their schedule to begin with, and they got those teams' best."

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