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Notre Dame-Cincinnati connection revived?

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Sunday, May 1, 2005

Irish revival might begin in Cincinnati

Wade 1st from area to sign in a while

By Tom Groeschen

Enquirer staff writer

Since Notre Dame's last national football title in 1988, the Irish have changed coaches three times, missed the postseason four times, finished unranked five times, and have gone 4-8 in bowl games.

Notre Dame has not finished in the national top-5 rankings since 1993, when the Irish were a consensus No. 2.

Notre Dame last won a national football championship in 1988. Around that time, the Irish pipeline of Greater Cincinnati prep products started drying up.

While the twin droughts (national titles, Cincinnati players) are just coincidence, local Notre Dame fans are still cheering the news that Withrow's Kallen Wade, a junior defensive end, has committed to the Fighting Irish for 2006.

Wade is the first area player to accept a Notre Dame scholarship in nearly 10 years, a stunning statistic when one considers Cincinnati once regularly helped stock the Irish program.

"I love to see one of our players going back up there," said Bob Crable, the Moeller head coach and former Notre Dame All-America linebacker. "I know Notre Dame wants to make a presence here again."

The Notre Dame media guide lists 76 Greater Cincinnatians who have played at least one second in an Irish varsity game, dating to the program's formation in 1887. Of the 76 locals, 50 played at Notre Dame between the late 1960s and late '80s.

A total of 18 Cincinnati products played on Notre Dame's last three national title teams (1973, '77 and '88). Tight end Frank Jacobs (Newport Central Catholic) and cornerback D'Juan Francisco (Moeller) both played for the '88 Irish. But, since 1990, only five locals have played in a Notre Dame varsity game.

Former St. Xavier linebacker Rocky Boiman, who played for Notre Dame from 1998-2001, was the last local player awarded an Irish scholarship.

Boiman, now in the NFL with the Tennessee Titans, is nearly a decade removed from high school.

The only Cincinnati player on the 2004 Irish roster was junior quarterback Marty Mooney, a walk-on from St. Xavier.

Gerry Faust, the former Moeller (1963-80) and Notre Dame (1981-85) head coach, said he was thrilled to learn Wade had chosen Notre Dame. Faust is retired and living in Akron.

"I've been trying to tell people for years that Notre Dame needed to get back to recruiting the Midwest schools," Faust said. "Notre Dame made its heydays on those kids. Ara Parseghian did it, Dan Devine did it, we did it and Lou Holtz did it."

Back to their roots

And now, new Irish coach Charlie Weis wants to do it with help from his own Cincinnati connection - Rick Minter.

Minter, the former Cincinnati head coach (1994-2003), is back as Notre Dame's defensive coordinator. It's the same job Minter held at Notre Dame under Holtz in 1992-93.

"To rebuild this program in the proper way, we need to have a very strong hold on the Midwest," Minter said, speaking by telephone from his office in South Bend, Ind. "That includes being strong in Ohio, and particularly in Cincinnati where it's such a strong high school town. With my familiarity there, we hope to use that to our advantage."

Jon Dannemiller, a St. Xavier grad who is president of the Notre Dame Club of Greater Cincinnati, said Notre Dame has between 1,500 and 2,000 alumni living in the area. Add to that the countless "subway alumni" who grew up watching Notre Dame football highlights on TV each Sunday morning with Lindsey Nelson and Paul Hornung, and it's no secret that Irish football has always been big in Cincinnati.

"I'm so happy Charlie Weis seems to be recruiting the Midwest again," Dannemiller said.

By land, Notre Dame is about 4½ hours northwest of downtown Cincinnati. When did the relatively short drive suddenly get so long for Notre Dame, and how did Irish football lose its grip in Cincinnati ?

"I can't answer that, because I haven't been here for a while," Minter said. "I do know we want to get that presence back, because it goes all the way back to Ara's days and Gerry Faust's days."

What changed?

Theories abound on why Notre Dame has no longer recruited Cincinnati as hard:

The Cincy "connection" was broken when Faust was forced out in 1985. Faust sent several Moeller players to Parseghian and Devine in the 1960s and '70s, and there were several Faust recruits still playing for the '88 national champions.

The decline in local recruiting actually began under Holtz, who got the occasional plum (Norwood fullback Marc Edwards in the early 1990s) but signed only a handful of Cincinnati players in his 1986-96 tenure.

Holtz's successors, Bob Davie and Tyrone Willingham, also tried to spread their recruiting nets more nationally at "speed" players. To a degree, they got away from Notre Dame's hardnosed Midwest roots. And being several years removed from having Cincinnati players, the Irish were no longer regular visitors to area high schools.

Crable thinks the Irish, trying to compete against their murderous schedules, recently have gone more for the so-called "athletes" than the tough, smashmouth Notre Dame players of the past.

"I think Notre Dame recently has gotten the fast kids, tall kids and kids who could catch the football," Crable said. "Charlie Weis said he's looking for toughness, and I think his predecessors failed to find enough tough kids. I know speed kills, but football is a game of attitude. You've got to have some nastiness."

Crable, who epitomized nastiness as a player, said Notre Dame also has lost some recruiting battles to the Ohio States and Michigans in recent years.

"Kids like winners," Crable said. "Notre Dame hasn't won in a long time."

It's not as if Notre Dame has been ignoring Cincinnati prep football. The Irish last summer were a top contender for St. Xavier senior Robby Schoenhoft, who was ranked among the nation's top dozen prep quarterbacks.

"After I visited there, I was ready to commit," Schoenhoft said of Notre Dame. "I was just dumbfounded. I was in awe of the place and its tradition."

But Schoenhoft hit some snags with Willingham and his staff. Schoenhoft said he couldn't get a straight answer on who else the Irish were recruiting at his position. Finally, he decided to look elsewhere.

"The whole process turned me off," Schoenhoft said. "Nothing against anybody, because I did like it up there."

Schoenhoft signed with Ohio State, after paring his list to OSU, Michigan and Notre Dame.

Other locals of interest

This year, Wade has not been the only local target for Notre Dame.

According to the recruiting Web site NDNation.com, the Irish also have offered a scholarship to Princeton offensive lineman Aaron Brown and have "mutual interest" in Withrow defensive back Robert Williams. St. Xavier linebacker/defensive end Alex Albright visited Notre Dame's spring football game last week with Wade.

Tom Lemming, the ESPN.com recruiting analyst, said Wade may be the No. 2 overall prospect in Ohio behind Princeton's Brown, with both having the potential to be "Top 100" players when Lemming releases his annual list in June.

Has the Cincinnati pipeline reopened? Time will tell, but city coaches including Withrow's Doc Gamble, St. Xavier's Steve Specht, and Moeller's Crable all say Minter has told them Notre Dame will be back.

"I know they hadn't visited Withrow in some time," Gamble said. "I used to work Rick Minter's camp when I was an assistant at Mount St. Joseph and East Carolina, so we have a connection. I know they're making a point of emphasis to get back to Ohio."

It doesn't just mean to Catholic schools, either. While Notre Dame is famous as a Catholic school, the Irish had no qualms about landing an inner-city player from Withrow.

"I was kind of shocked that Kallen was so excited about Notre Dame, but he loved it," Gamble said.

The 6-foot-5, 220-pound Wade, who had 13 sacks last year, said he was also considering Boston College and Illinois.

"Once I saw Notre Dame ... I don't think anybody could touch them," Wade said.

Wade's road

At Notre Dame, it will help that Wade is a 3.8 student. Notre Dame's rigorous academic standards have been blamed, fairly or not, for the Irish losing recruits in recent years.

Wade said he is not particularly familiar with the Irish tradition. The 11 national titles and Knute Rockne and the Four Horsemen and Touchdown Jesus are just now coming to the Cincinnati kid, who grew up in Phoenix dreaming of being an Olympic sprinter.

"I moved here five or six years ago, but I really don't know much about Notre Dame's past," Wade said. "I just liked the atmosphere when I went up there."

For the record, Wade is Episcopalian. He laughs when asked about the Catholic yarn that says the two biggest jobs in the world are Pope and Notre Dame football coach, not necessarily in that order.

"It doesn't matter to me," Wade said. "We're all Christians anyway."

In South Bend, he'll find everyone on the same page. Irish alums, people he didn't know from Adam, were coming up and welcoming Wade as he walked around Notre Dame Stadium last weekend.

"I know they haven't won for a while," Wade said. "It's my job to help put them back up there."


The Notre Dame media guide lists more than 2,500 men who have played at least one second in at least one regular-season varsity football game. There are 76 such Irish alumni listed from Greater Cincinnati, including Northern Kentucky. Some facts about local ND products:

Withrow junior DE Kallen Wade, who committed to the Irish last weekend, is the first Cincinnati player to accept a ND scholarship since St. Xavier linebacker Rocky Boiman (ND 1998-2001). Boiman now plays for the Tennessee Titans.

Of the 76 Greater Cincinnatians who have played in a ND varsity game, 50 of those men played between the late 1960s and late 1980s. A total of 18 Cincinnati products played on Notre Dame's last three national title teams (1973, '77 and '88).

Since 1990, only five locals have played in a ND varsity game.

The most recent Cincinnati product to reach ND is junior QB Marty Mooney, a walk-on from St. Xavier.

Moeller sent 18 players to ND during its heyday of the 1970s and '80s, including future NFL standouts Steve Niehaus (DL), Steve Sylvester (OL), Bob Crable (LB) and Tony Hunter (TE). All were coached in high school and/or college by Gerry Faust, Moeller's coach from 1963-80 and ND's coach from 1981-85.


Notre Dame has been consensus national champion 11 times: 1924-29-30-43-46-47-49-66-73-77-88

The current 16 seasons without a national title matches the 1950-65 drought as school's longest stretch without a championship.

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