One of the hazards of this sports writing dive is the ever-present risk that eventually you get too close to the warts and frailties of all of those same things that seemed so All-American perfect and heroic when you were a kid falling in love with the sporting world and the mythical figures who populate it.
Take 1998. That was a sobering eye-opener for me.
Ara Parseghian, the legendary Notre Dame coach of my innocent youth, didn’t know me from the man on the moon and, to be fair, wasn’t expecting my call that morning when he answered the phone in his kitchen, safely retired somewhere down in Florida.
Gerry DiNardo, who’d played for the Irish under Parseghian, was LSU’s coach then and had given me his old coach’s phone number. DiNardo was about to go back to his alma mater in South Bend, Ind., for LSU’s game against the Irish. It seemed like a natural story.
DiNardo must have been preoccupied with his return because he forgot to warn Parseghian to expect a call from an unidentified southern accent.
“Who is this again?” Parseghian asked, or something to that effect.
It was obvious he was preoccupied with something and not really interested in talking to a stranger. After figuring out it wasn’t a crank call, he asked if he could call me back in a few minutes.
Understand, Parseghian was one of the gargantuan college coaches when I was a boy, a legendary figure I thought existed only on black-and-white television and the cover of Sports Illustrated.
One of my first real memories of college football was 1966, Notre Dame and Michigan State in one of those Games of the Century, playing to a 10-10 tie back when ties were still possible.
Notre Dame had the last chance to score and inexplicably sat on the ball, content to settle for the gutless tie, with Parseghian figuring (correctly) the Irish would hold on to their No. 1 ranking.
I would never ever pull for Notre Dame again. I even stuck my toe into a future life of crime by firing off a letter to the editor at Sports Illustrated.
I grew up hating Parseghian because of that one game. It seemed pretty cut and dry, he’d played for the tie.
Now, he’d just blown me off, which seemed about right. He was still evil.
Sometimes, apparently, naive childhood impressions are right on target.
So five or six minutes later Parseghian called back.
It turned out I’d caught him in the middle of making an omelet or something. He didn’t want to burn down the kitchen.
He apologized profusely for the delay. We re-established what I was calling about. He gave me several good DiNardo stories.
He was no stranger to interviews, of course, and warmed up to what I was fishing for. I remember thinking he knew he was going to be quoted in Louisiana when he said something about mixed emotions for his old Irish team going against one of his favorite ex-Irish players.
I had all I needed for the DiNardo story in 10 or 15 quick minutes and the “interview” portion was pretty well done.
But we kept talking.
About this and that. About how DiNardo was being received in Louisiana (pretty well, at the time). About the state of college football. He had some ideas and opinions about where it was heading.
Next thing you know he was asking about some old-time LSU athletic department people he’d once known. He wanted to know if I had any kids. How I liked sports writing. How he’d seen coach and media back-and-forth change in his days. Told me some media war stories from his coaching days.
He remembered being in Lake Charles one time recruiting somebody or something he couldn’t remember.
We chatted and chatted. He asked if my young daughter got to go to any games. Where’d I’d grown up, etc., etc.
Before I knew it, we’d talked for more than an hour … and I thought I’d never get him of the phone.
Totally charming, naturally friendly, just the nicest, classiest guy you ever wanted to talk with.
In short, another firm childhood image shattered to smithereens.
I finally did ask him about the Michigan State game … and we were chuckling like old buddies by the time I confessed to him what my lifelong reaction to it was.
I bring this up not to rally support for the Irish in their Monday tussle with the Alabamas for the national championship.
I could give you umpteen stories about some wonderful people employed at the University of Alabama, including some far kinder and gentler yarns than you’re used to hearing about the Tide’s current head football coach.
Believe it or not, there really are wonderfully decent people involved with both programs.
But I realize this thing Monday night is a tough one for a lot of people.
Not much to choose from.
In the South, there are basically two kinds of football fans outside the state of Alabama — those who have grown up cheering wildly for whoever Notre Dame is playing and those who fall in love with whoever Alabama is playing.
The latter apparently trumps any Southeastern Conference allegiance that might have kicked in if, say, Georgia had won the SEC title game and simplified things.
Parseghian mentioned that he was surprised by the number of Catholic priests on the LSU sideline when the Irish played in Tiger Stadium one year.
Oh, the dilemma.
It’s probably unhealthy to, rather than throw temporary allegiance behind one or the other, by picking which of the two teams you’d more relish rooting against, which of two fan bases you’d rather see suffer great pain and anguish.
But apparently that’s where we are in college football.
Blame it on the BCS. It gets blamed for everything else.
I’m just trying to point out that there are good things to say about both. But your mom, the one who scolded that if you couldn’t say something nice about somebody then don’t say anything at all, evidently wasn’t a college football fan.
It’s just not as simple as elitist Notre Dame fans who often wear stylish patches on the elbows of their tweed coats against arrogant Alabama fans who occasionally wear shoes on their feet.
Otherwise, you’re on your own.
Enjoy the championship. Someone will suffer.
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• • •Scooter Hobbs covers LSU athletics. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org