By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
BLUEFIELD, Va. —
It has been a long 25 years for John Crist. Displayed proudly in his Bluefield home is a framed art print of Notre Dame’s last national football championship, secured with a 34-21 win over West Virginia in the 1988 Fiesta Bowl.
Twenty-five years later, the Irish are back.
“Everybody knows I like them so when we are losing I am an easy target,” he said, “or when they are not winning them all.”
Crist, who has followed Notre Dame athletics since 1964, has been able to celebrate four national championships — in 1966, ‘73, ‘77 and ‘88 — but the fifth has been a long time coming.
“I have been lucky, in 49 years I have seen four national titles,” said the 59-year-old Crist, a retired educator who taught for 35 years at Abbs Valley Elementary School and Graham Middle School. “I said I would never see another national title nor another Heisman winner and we almost got a Heisman winner this year.”
While Manti Te’o fell just short of being Notre Dame’s first Heisman winner since Tim Brown in 1987, Crist is hoping his 25-year wait for another title is finally over when his beloved Fighting Irish face Alabama on Monday night in Miami.
“If they don’t win I am certainly going to be disappointed,” said Crist, who still serves as a tutor and substitute teacher. “It seems like it is a special season with Manti, but like I tell a lot of people, I have seen four national titles so I have to feel fortunate even if they don’t win.”
Crist gained his allegiance from his father, who graduated from Notre Dame in the late 1930s, and returned to the area, working for years at Double Cola in Falls Mills.
“My grandfather settled in Pocahontas, he had a lot of businesses,” Crist said. “He had a grocery store, he had a restaurant, he had a one-lane bowling alley, he had a bottling company over there before it burned and that is where they grew up.
“When the bottling plant burned in Pocahontas then they built one in ‘46 in Falls Mills.”
It was while Crist was working with his father that his love affair with Notre Dame began and has only continued to grow.
“I was little when I first started following them. This is my 49th year, I started following them when Ara (Parseghian) came in ’64,” Crist said. “When I would work at Double Cola with my dad, that is what we would talk about.
“We talked that or the Yankees, but he was a huge Notre Dame fan.”
Crist followed in his father’s footsteps and went to Notre Dame in 1971, seeing his first of many games, a 50-7 win over Northwestern, at Notre Dame Stadium, a season that ended with an 8-2 record after the seniors voted not to accept a bowl bid.
That was also Crist’s last game at Notre Dame for more than a decade when he transferred to Bluefield State to complete his degree.
“That is the biggest disappointment of my life,” he said. “I didn’t do real well at Notre Dame.”
He has, however, kept his allegiance to Notre Dame. His home is like a shrine to everything Fighting Irish, and could qualify as a museum.
“I guess because my dad liked them,” said Crist, looking for a reason for his love for the Irish. “You used to have those replays, but I liked them before those replays with Lindsey Nelson and Paul Hornung at like 11:30 on Sundays.”
Crist wouldn’t see the Irish in person again until 1975 when Notre Dame played at North Carolina. It would another nine years before it would happen again, thanks to his converted Virginia Tech fan and wife, Debbie, and they have been going to games ever since.
“My wife surprised me with Navy tickets in like ’84,” said Crist, who has had season tickets to Notre Dame for six years. “That was the next time that I went and from then on we have gone to at least one game a year.”
Never more than this year. The couple have attended five games involving the Fighting Irish, including a trip to Ireland to see Notre Dame play Navy, which they attended with their daughter, Jennifer, and her husband, Matt Clements. Ironically, Jennifer’s first steps were taken at a spring game at Notre Dame.
They also went to Chicago to see the Irish play Miami and Pittsburgh to see the three-overtime thriller, and witnessed home games with Michigan and the finale against Wake Forest.
“(Debbie) has kept track of the games. This is the most we have gone to this year,” Crist said. “We have went to five this year because when I was teaching and I didn’t have season tickets I had to always pick a game where it looked like it was easier to get tickets.”
That changed when Crist decided to retire, and he can now make his trek to Notre Dame without having to miss work.
“I have been to West Virginia games and Tech games and Marshall games, but it is just different,” Crist said. “There is a spirit there at Notre Dame, tradition, but it is a different atmosphere than anywhere I have been.
“The campus is very small...You can walk the campus in an hour easily and see everything. It is just the tradition, all the iconic buildings, you see old players there, if you would go see the tailgates…
“It is just that spirit. You know how it is with Notre Dame, you either love them or you hate them, there is not a whole lot of gray area there.”
No one knows that better than Crist, who has often had to defend his allegiance for a school that has suffered through many years of what many have called irrelevancy, although don’t tell that to him.
“They will say now Notre Dame is relevant,” Crist said. “Well, you talked about them when they weren’t winning, were they relevant then?
“If you don’t talk about them then they are not relevant. I have had a good friend of mine say college football is better when Notre Dame is winning.”
They haven’t won like this since finishing 12-0 in ‘88 under Lou Holtz, who replaced an overmatched Gerry Faust at the helm. Since Holtz left, the Irish have had a few good years mixed in with some bad, with Brian Kelly finally able to wake up the echoes of glory days past this season.
“My glass is always half empty, not half full with Notre Dame,” Crist said. “I am more pessimistic about things, I have been through the Faust years…Then I think they kind of settled on coaches at times after Lou especially.”
Perhaps those concerns are finally over, even if the Irish had some close calls this year, including a controversial win over Stanford, the overtime thriller at Pittsburgh and narrow margins against Purdue and Michigan.
“Really I kept waiting for something bad to happen because they have had that tendency to lose to people that they shouldn’t,” Crist said.
Much like Alabama last year and this season, the Irish also needed help, and got it when No. 1 Oregon and No. 2 Kansas State both lost on the same weekend. Suddenly, the Irish were on top of the college football world again.
“When they were third I just kept saying I can’t see an undefeated Notre Dame team not getting in the national title, but then things fell into place,” Crist said .”I could see K-State lose, but I would never have thought that Oregon would lose.”
Up next is Alabama. These schools have played six times, with the Irish often serving as a thorn to legendary coach Bear Bryant, whose Tide lost by 1, 2 and 3 points from 1973-76, and the Irish won the national title in ‘73.
Notre Dame also beat Alabama in 1980 and in their last meeting in ‘87. The Tide’s lone victory came in 1986.
They haven’t played since. While Notre Dame has endured a dry spell of 25 years, Alabama went 13 years between titles from 1979-92, and another 17 seasons from 1993-2009.
“All of them are up and down, people have said Notre Dame has been down,” Crist said. “Well, Alabama went through this for a few years, Oklahoma went through that stretch. You are not going to be great every year.”
As for the game itself, Crist thinks the Irish will win, but has his concerns, from scoring touchdowns instead of field goals to slowing down the potent Alabama rushing attack.
“They get in the red zone and for some reason they can’t punch it in,” Crist said. “They kicked five field goals against Southern Cal, I hope it is a close game, I hope it is a good game and I hope Notre Dame wins.
“I don’t think they will win big, like they beat Oklahoma 30-13. I don’t think it will be anything like that. I think a field goal is going to decide the game.
“I certainly hope Notre Dame wins, but they are not going to win a national title kicking field goals. You are not going to win unless you punch a few touchdowns in there.”
While Crist talks, it is hard not to notice everything Notre Dame in his den, including a poster of ‘old’ Notre Dame Stadium signed by all seven Irish Heisman winners, including his favorite, John Huarte, a quarterback in 1964, the same year Crist’s allegiance with the Irish began.
There is so much more, including his prize possession, a book autographed by Frank Leahy, who led the Irish to five national titles from 1943-53. There is also memorabilia left behind by his father, including four programs and five tickets from the 1939 season that were found in a World War II foot locker.
Crist will be with his ‘stuff’ on Monday night. The trip to Miami proved costly, especially when he’s already been to five games this season. He will definitely be glued to the television, and don’t call him during the game.
“I would loved to have gone, but I think it is going to be more comfortable at home watching it on TV,” Crist said.
For 25 years, Crist has waited, hoping that Notre Dame could get another opportunity to win the national championship. That time as arrived.
Bring on the Tide, this Notre Dame fan is ready.
“If they do win, I will be happy and I won’t have to see another one,” said Crist, with a smile. “I will be happy.”
—Contact Brian Woodson