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Ravell Call, Deseret News
Footballs and a portrait honor Knute Rockne at Notre Dame. Fans and tourists visit the campus of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, Friday, Nov. 12, 2010.

PROVO — The phrase "win one for the Gipper," was immortalized by a 1940 movie called "Knute Rockne, All American."

Knute Rockne was the coach at Notre Dame, and his star player, George Gipp, died of strep throat not long after he played his final game.

The young actor who portrayed Gipp in that film, Ronald Reagan, ended up becoming president of the United States. While running for the highest office in the land, Reagan was nicknamed "The Gipper" and he used "win one for the Gipper" as a political slogan.

As the story goes, when Gipp fell ill, he told Rockne to promise that when things were going badly for the Fighting Irish, he should inspire the players by asking them to "win one for the Gipper." Eight years after Gipp's death, Rockne told his struggling team, which was trailing a favored Army squad, 6-0, at halftime, about Gipp and his request to win the game for him.

Notre Dame rallied for a 12-6 triumph. The story is true, as unbelievable as it seems.

Then again, almost everything about the Fighting Irish's football history seems hard to believe. In many ways, Notre Dame epitomizes college football.

You want proof? The College Football Hall of Fame is located not far from the campus in South Bend, Ind.

You want history? The Fighting Irish have produced 96 All-Americans. They have 11 national championships, seven Heisman Trophy winners and the Four Horsemen.

You want a following? Notre Dame has enjoyed its own broadcast agreement with NBC since 1991.

You want aura and tradition? The Irish play at 80,795-seat Notre Dame Stadium and their fight song is iconic. Their mascot is a leprechaun. Painted shamrocks adorn the faces of cheerleaders on game day. The Golden Dome, which tops the administration building, is symbolized by the gold helmets worn by the Irish football team. The paint for the helmets is mixed with actual gold dust and applied by student managers prior to every game.

Notre Dame is also one of the few football programs in the country that operates as an independent, along with Army and Navy.

And this fall, that trio will be joined by BYU.

Ever since BYU announced it was going independent, many observers have examined the similarities and differences between BYU and Notre Dame. Some have mocked the Cougars for being audacious enough to try to brand themselves as "The Notre Dame of the West." They point out that BYU's football history pales in comparison to Notre Dame, noting the Cougars' one national championship and one Heisman Trophy winner.

Yet the two schools do have a lot in common. Both are religious-affiliated, both boast a national following, and both have signed their own national television contracts (BYU has an eight-year deal with ESPN). While Notre Dame's teams, besides football, compete in the Big East, the majority of BYU's other sports will play in the West Coast Conference.

BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe has acknowledged some of the similarities, and downplayed some of the comparisons.

When it comes to the Bowl Championship Series, Notre Dame can earn an automatic berth to the BCS if it finishes among the BCS's top eight. Meanwhile, BYU, Army and Navy are eligible for at-large selections to a BCS bowl if they win at least nine games and are ranked among the top 14 in the BCS standings.

The Cougars would love to achieve Notre Dame-like status in the BCS at some point, but realize it will take time. "We're not saying we should be like Notre Dame," Holmoe said. "They came in with an established record. We're trying to make small steps."

Truth is, Notre Dame football has fallen on hard times lately. The Irish's last national championship came in 1988. Notre Dame has had four different head coaches in the last decade. The Irish are counting on second-year coach Brian Kelly to bring them back to glory.

"Notre Dame hasn't been the Notre Dame of old. But if you look at the entire history of Notre Dame football, they've been great for a long, long time and they have an incredible following around the country," Holmoe said.

"I have an incredible respect for them and I understand that they've earned it. They're not going to lose it immediately. They could, if Notre Dame struggled over the course of a decade or two, they could potentially lose the position that they're in. I don't think it's going to happen, but they could. I like it that way, that you have to earn it."

Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick believes BYU is one of the few schools that can make independence work. The Irish and Cougars have agreed to play six times between 2012 and 2020.

"(Independence) is not for everybody, but they certainly fit the profile of an institution for whom it probably does make great sense — frankly, in the same way it still does for Army and Navy," Swarbrick told the Chicago Tribune about BYU. "All the schools currently in that category have some common characteristics — national profile, strong history and traditions that are important to honor. BYU adds to that, as I think Notre Dame has, media access. Not everybody can produce on their own. It certainly looks like a smart move, from where I sit."

Swarbrick likes the relationship with BYU — the two programs have played six times since 1992 — because of their common values and characteristics.

"For all those reasons: A lot of success in football, great program, storied program, great following, they have not only a local fan base, but the extent to which people around the country follow them is a real plus. We try very hard as we start our scheduling process to start by looking at schools that have a common approach to collegiate athletics and share our values. And they certainly fit that category."

BYU is also interested in forming strong relationships with Army and Navy. Holmoe has had conversations with the athletic directors at those two schools.

"For them, things are changing, too," Holmoe said. "As BYU enters independence and starts investigating things, they look at it as an opportunity to re-evaluate their position in independence."

If Holmoe has his way, there will be many games with Army and Navy in the future.

"I'd love to see us play Army and Navy in a lot of sports, not just football," Holmoe said. "I'd love to play them in football because we're independents. But everybody wants to play Army and Navy because it's such a sweet place to go play. Whenever Army and Navy show up anywhere, they have a built-in crowd. Having Army and Navy come to BYU, I think our fans would love to see them come here, maybe more than some big-time college football teams."

Looking forward, back

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The Cougars will travel to South Bend, Ind., to take on the Fighting Irish on Oct. 20 and will make a return trip the following year on Nov. 16, 2013. The other four games in the six-game series will be played between 2014 and 2020. Two of the remaining games will be in Provo, and the other two in South Bend.

BYU and Notre Dame have met in football six times — all since 1992. The Irish lead the series 4-2 and hold a 3-1 advantage in South Bend.

Oct. 24, 1992: Notre Dame 42, BYU 16, in South Bend

Oct. 16, 1993: Notre Dame 45, BYU 20, in Provo

Oct. 15, 1994: BYU 21, Notre Dame 14, in South Bend

Nov. 15, 2003: Notre Dame 33, BYU 14, in South Bend

Sept. 4, 2004: BYU 20, Notre Dame 17, in Provo

Oct. 22, 2005: Notre Dame 49, BYU 23, South Bend

email: jeffc@desnews.com