Adam Poltrack

Most Influential Nickname In Sports: Fighting Irish

Created on Mar. 23, 2014 6:07 AM EST

Whether you’re talking about players, coaches, or the universities that they represent, nicknames are ubiquitous in college football. “The Bus” (Jerome Bettis) and “Johnny Football" (Johnny Manziel). "The Ol' Ball Coach" (Steve Spurrier) and the “Mad Hatter” (Les Miles). The Longhorns hook ’em, the Tide roll, and the Irish fight. That’s the way it has always been.

At least, it seems that way.

In reality, the Irish “rambled” through most of the early 20th century and didn’t make their moniker official until 1927. But it was born long before then. Nobody is quite sure how it started either. Some attribute it to a halftime speech made in 1909, while others hearken back to 1889, when a rowdy troop of Northwestern fans allegedly chanted, “kill the fighting Irish, kill the fighting Irish.”

In those days, the term was derisive, used as a slur by those who believed the Irish were truculent and reckless. Like many a pejorative before it, however, it was co-opted and worn as a badge of honor. After all, in football, fighting is essential. Teams fight back from deficits, ball-carriers fight for yards, and teams sing fight songs.

And so the name stuck. But at the time, no one could have known the impact it would have on the university, or on college football at-large.

Part of the beauty of college football is that small towns, miles from the nearest pro team, build a culture around their local university. There are no NFL franchises in Alabama or Mississippi, yet their college teams draw scores of rabid fans every Saturday. That said, if you remove alumni from the equation, most of those supporters live within a relatively small geographical halo. National appeal is a tough nut to crack — but not with a name like the Fighting Irish.

As of 2010, there were roughly 34 million people in the United States with Irish ancestry, many of them Catholic. That’s a pretty large well of potential fans to draw from. Chances are, whether you live in New York City or Los Angeles, you know a Notre Dame fan, and chances are that fan didn’t go to Notre Dame, and has never lived within 100 miles of South Bend, Ind. Maybe their great-grandparents sailed over to America in the 19th century. Maybe their spouse has family on the Emerald Isle. Or maybe they just love the look of the verdant, team-themed gear.

You might be laughing at that last bit, but we’re not kidding.

As evidenced by the bevy of kelly-green-clad partiers we saw on the street last week for St. Patty’s day, Irish-themed gear is fairly popular — and in the world of sports, Notre Dame has a virtual monopoly on it. Football fan or not, wearing the team’s gear is an easy way to showcase your pride in your heritage.

In that sense, Notre Dame’s appellation transcends football itself. Remember that friend who has no affiliation with the university, yet bleeds blue and gold? You may also have one who sports Notre Dame gear on a regular basis, but couldn’t tell you the difference between a quarterback and a cornerback. Football fan? No sir. Notre Dame fan? Why, yes. Yes I am.

Bottom line: Notre Dame just wasn't Notre Dame until they were the Fighting Irish. Of the team's 11 national championships, 10 came after they adopted their now-familiar moniker. The formula was simple: As the nickname caught on, the program's appeal broadened, and as more fans jumped on the bandwagon, the sobriquet began to bear financial fruit. Before you could say ‘what’s in a name,’ a scraggly little leprechaun etched himself onto college football's Mount Rushmore.

Damn Fighting Irish!

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