Despite the Roland Emmerich film, I wasn't too worried about the Mayan End-of-the-World scenario, predicted for Dec. 21, 2012. I confess it was an occasional topic of conversation around my home. However, my five children all enjoyed the film, and more than one of them asked me what I thought about the possibility. My answer was always the same:
"If the world does end, I'm glad we're going out with Notre Dame ranked No. 1 in college football. Because that's the way it's supposed to be."
At my answer, my children—ranging in age from 10 to 21—simply rolled their eyes. As would, no doubt, fans of Alabama, Michigan, USC, Miami, Oklahoma, Ohio State, Nebraska, Texas, Florida or any other team with a long tradition of football excellence that regularly aspires to be No. 1.
I get that others might feel differently. Growing up, even I wasn't a fan of Notre Dame. I was born in Omaha, and with uncles who'd attended Nebraska, I still retain a fondness for the Cornhuskers. Furthermore, because my father received his doctorate from USC—and though I know these are fighting words to my fellow ND alumni—I root for the Trojans as well. In fact, I wasn't a fan of Notre Dame football even when I first arrived in South Bend in the fall of 1984. I'm pretty sure I was the only freshman on my dormitory floor who opted not to buy football tickets; I used those quiet Saturday afternoons as a chance to catch up on my studies.
But there are seminal moments in every fan's life, and for me it was when I began to meet and get to know the players themselves. Like them, I'd arrived at the school via an athletic scholarship—I ran the 800m and 1500m—and during my freshman year, I struggled with injuries. I spent a lot of time in the training room icing my Achilles tendon, and because of the violent nature of America's favorite sport, there were always football players in my vicinity. More often than not, we'd strike up a conversation. We'd talk about academic challenges and the pressures of competition, or bemoan the lack of social life on campus. Some of them would end up competing in track and field during their Notre Dame careers—Van Pearcy, Tim Brown, Brandy Wells and George Streeter, among others. Still others ended up in my classes (Wes Pritchett, Darryl "Flash" Gordon, Tony Rice) or lived next door (Mike Heldt). A few became good friends, and by the time I graduated from Notre Dame in 1988, I was cheering rabidly for the team like the rest of my classmates. The following autumn, led by some of these same people, Notre Dame embarked on a season in which they went undefeated, and ultimately won the national championship. As a recent graduate, life—at least in the college-football sense—couldn't get much better.
But then the drought settled in. There were close calls in 1989 and 1993, and in 1992, the team was actually ranked No. 1 late in the season, but that's going pretty far back. A decade passed without a national title, then another. Add in an NCAA record for consecutive bowl losses (nine), a revolving door of coaches, and a couple of 8-5 seasons from 2010 and 2011 with yet another new coach, and I—like the rest of ND's despondent fan base—wasn't expecting much from the team in 2012.
The 2012 college football season culminates in the BCS National Championship Game on Jan. 7. WSJ's Darren Everson and Rachel Bachman preview the match-up between defending champion Alabama and number-one-ranked Notre Dame. (Photo: Getty Images)
Alabama head coach Nick Saban's team, the defending national champion, is building the only dynasty in college football. WSJ's Matthew Futterman discusses how Alabama's football culture and a relentless recruiting strategy put this team on top. Photo: Getty Images.
Such was the view from outside the program. Unbeknownst to us, important groundwork had been laid during the past two years by the coaching staff and players. Coach Brian Kelly offered the Kool-Aid—a strategy built around a strong defense and a balanced offense, solid fundamentals, line of scrimmage dominance, and an unwillingness to accept excuses or give up—and the players drank it. One by one, players at every position began to improve, and game-changing recruits enrolled. Nutrition and strength-training were upgraded, and the current crop of seniors and fifth-year players developed into leaders who inspired players to believe that anything was possible if they trusted in each other and the coaching staff. And yet even as the season began and victories began to mount people outside the program—including me —doubted whether it could continue.
Defying the skeptics, the coaches and players continued to show confidence every time they set foot on the field. They seemed to care little that they were underdogs in games against Michigan State and Oklahoma, and I suspect they care little that they're now underdogs against Alabama. They don't need to be reminded that Alabama is an excellent team and that few people give Notre Dame much of a chance at all. They're used to being overlooked or counted out, even by their fans; they've heard they're overrated all year long. In fact, I'm convinced that this us-against-the-world mentality has been a catalyst for team chemistry. It has united them into a truly organic team, and football is the quintessential team sport. They won't concern themselves with Alabama's experience in championship games, nor will they be intimidated by the pedigrees and obvious talents of the players they'll be facing. They'll simply line up and hit and never relent and in the end, Notre Dame will receive 60 minutes of stubborn brilliance from each and every player who trots onto the field.
This, I believe, is where Notre Dame holds an advantage: their ability to do more with less is the very essence of teamwork, and ND has been tested—and triumphed—in this fashion throughout the season. Heading into the championship game, Notre Dame is a team that not only wants to win, but expects to win: not for the school or the tradition or even for personal glory, but for each other, just as they've done all season long. The oddsmakers in Las Vegas may favor Alabama, but teamwork favors Notre Dame. And on Jan. 7, it's the best team that will walk off the field, smiling at the knowledge that sometimes, just sometimes, brilliant seasons can come to an end exactly the way they should…with Notre Dame atop the polls.
—Nicholas Sparks is the author of 17 books, most of them No. 1 best sellers. Seven have been adapted into feature films. The latest, "Safe Haven," will be released in theaters in February.
A version of this article appeared January 4, 2013, on page D4 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Notre Dame Against the World.