Q/A with Kirk Herbstreit: On whether Notre Dame can sustain success; title teams people love to hate

Perhaps tonight’s title game should be renamed the Polar Bowl, because it features two of the most polarizing teams in the country.

If you live outside of SEC country, you’re tired of that conference winning the BCS title every year. And even if you live within its boundaries, you’re probably thinking, anybody but Alabama and Nick Saban.

Meanwhile, rooting for Notre Dame hardly is an appealing option for the legion of Irish haters throughout the country.

All in all, the dynamic should deliver a huge rating for ESPN, assuming the game is close.

During a teleconference, Kirk Herbstreit, working his sixth straight BCS game, addressed the love-hate aspect and talked about whether Notre Dame’s success in 2012 will be more than a one-year fling.

As you travel around the country, what is your sense of how much of the interest a lot of these games actually comes from people rooting against one of the teams even maybe more so than people rooting for some of these teams, and also, how do you think that plays into the interest in this particular game?

Well, I think you’re right.  I think because the SEC has won six straight National Championships, I definitely feel that the SEC, as much as that region claims all 14 teams, when they get to this point, I think every other conference and every other fan base outside of those 14 teams is passionately rooting against Alabama.

And what’s interesting is in this case, Notre Dame is such a polarizing team, where everybody, no matter when you grew up, you either loved Notre Dame or you just couldn’t stand Notre Dame.  So there are a lot of people out there that I think are going to have to make a tough decision on who to pull for, and I really believe that, again, outside of the SEC, most people, even if they aren’t big Notre Dame fans in this case, because of the six straight national titles, I think they’re going to be pulling with all their hearts to see Notre Dame end that streak.

And as far as the interest, any time you put those two letters, ND, in a National Championship game, I think the level of interest obviously is going to go up, and I think the fact that it’s been since 1988 since the last time they won a National Championship, I think it definitely raises the bar of your hype and the buzz of this National Championship compared to any of the other games that I’ve had the good fortune to call.

Have you heard any people on sort of the other end saying, well, I don’t like either team, so I’m not going to watch, or do you think people just say that but they’ll still watch it?

I think anybody that takes the time to make a comment like that, clearly they’ll be watching the game.  They’ll, in fact, watch the four hours of pregame that we have before the game and be blogging and tweeting about how wrong everybody is on those shows.

Without a doubt, people are going to ‑‑ if you’re a college football fan or even if you’re a fringe college football fan, you’re going to watch.  An example for me is Tiger Woods and golf.  I could care less about golf on a weekly basis.  But if Tiger Woods accidentally stumbles into a Sunday, I’m that guy that tunes in and watches golf on Sunday.

And I think if you’re a fringe college football fan and you have Notre Dame and Alabama playing on a Monday night, no matter what you feel about either team, no matter if you despise both these teams, you’re going to be tuned in watching this game.

We’ve seen Notre Dame have these blips before, where previous coaches had a decent run for a year and then quickly fell off.  How is this going to be different?  What’s your sense as far as what Brian Kelly is building there, and will he be able to sustain it beyond this year?

We were around those teams with Bob Davie when he had a team that got in early part of the BCS era when they got into a BCS bowl game, I think it was against Oregon State, and you remember what happened in the Sugar Bowl when they went up against LSU.  This just feels different, not just because they’re undefeated and because they’re in the National Championship, but I’m never one to really pay attention to the recruiting hype of five‑star recruits or why they’re ranked No. 1 or No. 2.  I always like to wait to see players in their first year or two, see how they kind of make that adjustment to the college game and see how they’re maturing and developing.

I just really sense that, as Brent said earlier, with Brian Kelly’s background, I mean, if there’s anybody that’s ever been typecast to be the Notre Dame coach, it’s Brian Kelly, and I think it’s legitimate, his energy and his passion for the school and the way he’s recruiting.  If you look at what they’re trying to do for the future, I think they’re going to use this fifth year as kind of a springboard into the future, and I really believe as long as Brian Kelly is the head coach, with what he has going on right now, if they will hold onto to staff, I think they’ve got something very unique going, and I think this has staying power.  I don’t think this is a, hey, let’s make a run one year and then go away.  I think Notre Dame football has a real opportunity here to be around and compete at a very high level for a long time.

What is the most compelling aspect of this match‑up from your point of view?

I think an interesting aspect of the game is just the hype of dealing with the long layoff, the hype about Alabama trying to win three of the last four National Championships with Nick Saban, the fact that they’re going up against Notre Dame, one of the most storied programs in college football with a new coach who’s reaching out to other coaches who have had to deal with a 44‑day layoff, about how to peak your team at the right time, the fact that it’s uncharted waters for Notre Dame’s program to have to deal with this, and then when they take the field just to see how they both handle themselves.

We witnessed a game last night, if you don’t show up mentally and physically prepared and in the right frame of mind, you can get embarrassed.  And just because that was a Sugar Bowl not in the National Championship limelight doesn’t mean that that couldn’t potentially happen at a National Championship.  I’m sure both those coaches watched that game last night and they both panicked a little bit just to make sure, hey, am I doing the right thing, because you just don’t know until your team goes out and starts to play.

So I think the anticipation of the hype of this particular match‑up and how these teams play early, especially in the game, I think is going to be an interesting aspect of how the game eventually plays out.

5-0 Notre Dame has NBC smiling; Herbstreit says Irish will be in BCS conversation

Is it time to starting sipping that Irish Kool-Aid? You bet if you’re a TV executive at NBC and ESPN.

A 5-0 start has ratings soaring for Notre Dame’s games on NBC. And with the Irish suddenly relevant, ESPN isn’t wasting any time.The network is hustling Chris Fowler, Lee Corso, Kirk Herbstreit, Desmond Howard and the rest of the GameDay crew to South Bend Saturday.

Herbstreit can’t believe it has been seven years since GameDay did a show from Notre Dame.

“It’s been way, way too long since we’ve been there,” Herbstreit said.

NBC also is bulking up. For the first time, NBC Sports’ college football studio show featuring Liam McHugh, Doug Flutie and Hines Ward will go on the road and broadcast on-site from Notre Dame Stadium. Prior to the game, a special NFL Films- produced behind-the-scenes look at Notre Dame Football, Onward Notre Dame: South Bend to Soldier Field, will air at 2:30 p.m. ET on NBC.

With all the pregame build-up, NBC should generate another strong rating for the Irish’s game against Stanford.

Through three games, NBC’s rating is up 45% vs. last year (4.2 million vs. 2.9 million). Primetime coverage of the Miami-Notre Dame from Soldier Field last Saturday night was watched by 3.7 million viewers, up 131% vs. last year’s third game on NBC (Air Force, 1.6 million) and up 76% vs. last year’s second Notre Dame primetime game on NBC (Maryland at FedExField, 2.1 million).

All in all, it’s a huge jump from what NBC faced last fall. Home games against Air Force and Navy only generated a 1.1 rating, a record low for Irish games on the network.

How long has Notre Dame been a relative non-factor? Saturday’s trip will mark GameDay’s first to the Domers since Charlie Weis’ first year in 2005. That’s incredible considering the Irish’s stature in college football.

Naturally, Herbstreit is excited about returning to South Bend.

“It’s awesome,” Herbstreit said. “Any time, Notre Dame is up there in the rankings, it’s good for the sport. They are a polarizing team. You either love them or hate them. For us, for people who love the sport, when you have teams like Notre Dame and USC, Texas, the high profile schools out there that have great years, it makes it a lot of fun.

“Selfishly, to have GameDay back in South Bend, it’s great. It’s nice to see that they have a high-profile game at home. It’ll add to the atmosphere on Saturday. They are very deserving.”

I know it’s early, but I asked Herbstreit if Irish fans can start dreaming about a BCS bowl?

“They took the nation by storm (with the win over Michigan State),” Herbstreit said. “A lot of people walked away from that game saying, ‘Notre Dame is one of the top defenses in the country.’ To follow it up with the way they corraled Denard Robinson, and the way they played against Miami…Their front seven might be playing as well as anyone in the country.

“Without a doubt they will be in discussion for the BCS. Brian Kelly, though, will be the first one to tell you there’s still a long way to go. When you look at who they still have to play, beginning with Stanford….They’re on the road against Oklahoma and USC. Their fans are pointing to those games as three of the most challenging. If they’re able to get able through Stanford, it’s time to start bracing yourself if you’re a Notre Dame fan. Then you’re just a couple games away.”

Of course, it all could slip away with a loss to Stanford Saturday. But who wants to ruin a good story on Wednesday?

Keep sipping that Kool-Aid.