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To Bowl or Not to Bowl? ND Legend Zorich Shares His Thoughts

Updated: Dec 11, 2022

Photo Courtesy of Fighting Irish Media.

Notre Dame fans are never short on a good debate: Which is better for a post game celebratory beer: Corby's or The Backer? Which has the more authentic cuisine: Rocco’s or Parisi’s. Or the ever popular, should Notre Dame join a conference?

Unfortunately for Irish fans, a new debate topic has entered the equation: Which is better, for Notre Dame to get destroyed in a playoff or NY6 bowl game (see Cotton Bowl 2018 vs Clemson or any of the Alabama games) or to completely dominate a “lesser” opponent in a mid-tier level bowl game (see Camping World Bowl 2019 vs Iowa State.)

Notre Dame’s last major bowl victory came nearly 30 years ago. In dramatic fashion, the Irish defeated Texas A&M in the Cotton Bowl on a Kevin Pendergast 31 yard field goal and a late fumble recovery by All-American Jeff Burris.

I was a senior in high school then. Had I known that would have been Notre Dame’s last major bowl victory, or that it was going to be my last summer before my hairline started to recede, I certainly would have enjoyed both a lot more than I did.

College Football Hall of Famer and Irish Legend, Chris Zorich knows a thing or two about playing in big bowl games. Zorich played in the Orange Bowl twice, the Fiesta Bowl, where the Irish won their last national championship, and although he didn’t see any action on the field, the Cotton Bowl where his post game locker room disappointment caught the attention of then head coach Lou Holtz.

Zorich made it clear which side of the, lose in a big bowl or win a mid-tier bowl, debate he stands on.

“I’m of the theory that you play the best team you possibly can, and you give 100%. If you don’t win, you learn from that, and if it’s a blowout then you have a lot to learn. And hopefully the coach is of a mindset where he takes the blowout score, and where the huge interlocking ‘ND’ is in the locker room, he paints the score of the ball game over that so your team looks at that ever single day as they lift as a way to get motivated,” said Zorich.

Gabino Pena has been a Notre Dame fan since 1990. He knows the long depressing walk back to his car after a humiliating bowl loss first hand, as Pena was at the 30-3 loss to Clemson in the 2018 Cotton Bowl. He sees things a little differently than Zorich.

“I prefer to see them win vs a lesser team in a mid-level bowl. Notre Dame has not won a big name bowl game since the 90’s, until Notre Dame builds a true competitive championship team, a mid-level win is best for the program as it establishes a winning culture,” said Pena.

Photo Courtesy of Tim Warner/Getty Images.

Photo Courtesy of Tim Warner/Getty Images.

Tommy Meaney from New York has been a fan of the Irish his whole life. Although he has yet to attend his first Notre Dame bowl game, he would rather see his team risk it all against an elite team in a bigger bowl game.

“I understand the narrative around Irish football, that they can’t win the big game, but that will change. Every year you should strive to make the playoffs and get a chance to win the national championship, that’s the goal. Going to a mid-level bowl is fun, but getting to the dance is what I would want every year, even if they get blown out,” said Meaney.

The Notre Dame bowl debate exists even north of the border as Marc Gagnon, from Gatineau, Quebec, Canada, who has been cheering for the Irish since their 1988 national championship year, believes it is most important to end the season on a high note.

“To me, I want to win and dominating a lesser team is more important. Getting humiliated is not good for the program. The team has to end the season on a positive note. That gives the momentum for recruiting,” said Gagnon.

Gagnon does bring up an interesting point: What does it do to recruiting after a humiliating bowl loss? Would it be more beneficial in terms of recruiting for Notre Dame to just win their bowl game even if it means beating a “lesser” team?

Zorich is of the mind set that in order to attract elite players to Notre Dame, the Irish must continue to play elite teams, even if it means potentially risking embarrassment.

“You have to right your own ship. If you are worried about recruiting when you are choosing your bowl game, you better be ranked number one or two, because if you are worried about, this would look good for recruits if we beat Akron, and it wouldn’t look good for recruits if we’re playing Alabama and we get blown out, well I wouldn’t want to be on a team that chooses Akron, because at the end of the day you probably won’t win those big games,” said Zorich.

Photo Courtesy of Otto Greule Jr/Allsport/Getty Images.

To date, the Irish have the second ranked 2023 recruiting class according to ESPN. Despite some tough losses in some very prominent bowls, Zorich believes you still have to play the best team you can play.

“If you are doing this for recruiting and not thinking about your current team, even if you play UAB and you win, is a 5 star going to want to come to Notre Dame because you beat UAB? I would have a better chance to recruit if I was in a kid’s living room as a head coach and say, ‘We want to compete against Alabama, you saw that we didn’t have the proper depth. We think that you can come in, add to that depth, you aren’t going to start right away, but you are going to get a hell of a lot of playing time, and you may even take over someone’s position,'” said Zorich.

Zorich shares in the fan’s frustration over these agonizing bowl losses, however he maintains that even a loss in a big bowl game is still better than a win against an average team in an average bowl.

“I’m tired of Notre Dame going to these big bowls, playing good opponents, and getting their ass kicked, I’m tired of that. But that’s the coaches responsibility to get a team together that will have success against those teams. You could play a lesser team in a bowl game, but what does that mean? What’s that going to do for you in the upcoming months to improve as a team? The idea should be that you want to play the best opponent you can, that’s offered,” said Zorich.

The best team that was offered to the Irish for their bowl game this year was the 20th ranked South Carolina Gamecocks in the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl on December 30th. Although it isn’t a playoff or NY6 bowl game, Irish fans will undoubtedly have plenty to debate about as the, who should be the starting quarterback debates, have already caught fire on social media. Whoever the starter will be, Irish fans hope he will get the bowl win, and I hope he enjoys his healthy hair follicles while he still can.


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