I went to the BCS National Championship game last Monday to cheer on Notre Dame. (My uncle, Harry Hiestand, is the current offensive line coach and run game coordinator.)
And yet I couldn’t help but think about Penn football, even amidst all the pageantry and a noise level in Sun Life Stadium that even the Miami Dolphins probably never achieve.
Back when college football players didn’t wear shoulder pads and the most popular national sports were boxing and horse racing, Notre Dame and Penn were both competitive gridiron programs.
In terms of stats, the Quakers and the Irish still are comparable in many ways: the Quakers have had 63 first-team All-Americans; Notre Dame has had 96. Penn has won or shared seven national championships; the Irish have won or shared 13. Overall, the Quakers have 824 program wins; the Irish have 865. Penn has 18 players in the Hall of Fame (tied for 15th with Alabama, by the way) while the Irish have 44.
Penn and Notre Dame are also two of only three schools — the third is Miami — to have exclusive contracts with television networks to broadcast all of their home games.
That last one, to me, might be the most telling of all: for the 1950 season, the Quakers and Franklin Field were all over ABC. Of course, that’s the Irish now — they are the only football team, in college or the NFL, to have all of their games broadcasted nationally on the radio and on television.
As far as I can tell, the 1950s and ’60s were when the programs began to diverge. Not in terms of dominance — the Quakers have won the most undefeated Ivy League championships (eight), the most league titles outright (13) and are second in league titles overall (16). The Red and Blue have the NCAA Division I-AA record for the longest winning streak (24 games, 1992-95).
But could Penn fill an 80,795-seat stadium? Notre Dame does every home game. Could the Quakers draw the kind of crowd to a BCS National Championship game that Notre Dame or Alabama did? I doubt it, even if we rounded up every Penn alum on the planet.
On paper, they’re so similar. But why was my experience at the national championship so different than at any other football game, college or professional, I’ve ever been to?
It’s not that I was more fired up as a fan at the national championship game than I normally am. I get really into football. I seriously risked compromising my media objectivity when I covered this year’s win at Princeton. I watched the Harvard game from home with my mom, a Penn alumna, and we were both on our feet cheering for most of the game.
They’re both storied programs, and if the world had ended back in December and aliens were only able to piece together our sports history from archives and records, Penn would rank up with Notre Dame in some of the best programs in history.
But the fact is, Notre Dame goes out of its way to promote its football team. The Irish have obviously remained in the national spotlight since the ’50s, while the Quakers have faded. If the university invested as much energy into athletics as they did into academics, maybe things would be different — but if that were the case, I don’t think I’d want to be here in the first place. I’m ultimately here to get an education, and I wouldn’t trade that for 20 national championships.
I’m not saying I’m sad Penn football isn’t as big as Notre Dame football. Where one has had its ups and downs on the national stage, the other has faded into nationally obscure conference dominance.
But I’m okay with that. I’ll rock the Red and Blue at homecoming even when I’m old and crotchety. I am and always will be proud to be a Quakers fan, even if that means cheering away from the spotlight.
ANNA STRONG is a senior English major from Philadelphia and is former sports editor of The Summer Pennsylvanian. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.