Whoa, Nellie! Judge Bill Gibron doesn't cotton much to this lackluster presentation of a classic college gridiron contest.
Are you ready for some…really old football?
The name along drags up certain undeniable imagery, visual cues from the sheer magnitude of its mythology. The Golden Dome. Touchdown Jesus. The Four Horsemen. Knute Rockne. Winning one for "the Gipper." "RUDY! RUDY! RUDY!" While not quite on the same level as a "Dallas Cowboys: America's Team" mantra, or the modern marketing mentality of the NBA, college pigskin has been a rigid rite of passage, and Notre Dame has always been considered the University of Football.
The mystique surrounding this Ivy League-level Catholic college in western Indiana (the seminal South Bend, to be exact) has always been palpable, measured in memories and meaning, not necessarily wins and losses. It didn't hurt that, for the longest time, the Fighting Irish were a national contender, usually just on the cusp of a title. Fiercely independent, never resorting to an association with a conference (they are not a Big 10 or ACC school), and yet almost always found on a Saturday afternoon national TV broadcast, the Blue and Gold (with occasional switches to green) triumphantly take the field and battle to a victory march that almost every American—sports fan or not—knows by heart. They are part of the fabric of the culture, from their place in the lexicon of intercollegiate athletics to the various incarnations the team and its members have taken within the media (especially in the movies).
So when Dan Devine, having followed in the footsteps of the fabled Ara Parseghian, held out for the 1978 Cotton Bowl bid (which offered a chance to battle undefeated Texas for the national championship), his fifth-ranked Irish seemed sadly out matched. Texas, after all, had the Heisman Trophy winner in superstar running back Earl Campbell. All Notre Dame could claim were the talents of their quiet quarterback, a sensation by the name of Joe Montana. "Experts" predicted a Longhorn blowout. By the final whistle, however, another chapter in the Notre Dame social anthropology was permanently inked for the ages.
College football fans, especially those tied to either participating program, may have many reasons to own this barebones presentation of the actual New Years Day broadcast by CBS, technical foul-ups and all. Nothing more than a faded, vintage presentation of the entire game—sans commercials and halftime fun of course—1978 Cotton Bowl: Notre Dame vs. Texas is a two-hour and 35-minute DVD diversion from VSV (which stands for Vintage Sports Video, oddly enough) that is definitely good for a one-time look. It stands as a reminder to the modern viewer of how basic and unadorned the television presentation of athletic competitions used to be back in the day. This is the Cotton Bowl, the biggest game of the year, and yet it feels like some semi-important AAA showcase on ESPN2. There is no corporate sponsorship, no goofy nonsensical name like the Tucks Medicated Pads Partner Bowl or the Hepa-Lock Corporation Amalgamated Shrimp Bowl to distract from tradition. The press box is filled with familiar names—Paul Hornung and Lindsey Nelson, to name a couple—but there are no faux-celebrity pundits prognosticating on every play from scrimmage, second-guessing each aspect of the coaching. From the lack of deep, rich color and detail, to the utter absence of fancy graphics, you will not see a down-and-distance reminder, a yellow computerized line indicating the first down marker, or an update clock, ticking away the seconds with ever-increasing suspense in the upper right corner of the screen. Back in the '70s, when football was on, time was simply not important. You were in the game for the long haul, taking the announcers' and the referees' word as to the remaining moments in the contest. There was no micromanaging the minutes, plotting and planning before you could call the Off-Shore Betting Line and readjust your wager. Heck, there's not even the now ever-present pause for a word from the sponsor. Like an icon captured for all eternity, this is sport when it was a game, not a profession.
So, if you are interested in seeing what the biggest bowl game in the country looked like circa disco, this DVD is an interesting historical artifact. Otherwise, the overall content is less than impressive. The 1978 Cotton Bowl has very little to recommend it as an actual game. Notre Dame beats the ever-loving snot out of Texas, as the Longhorns can't seem to hold onto the ball. After a few fumbles, an interception or two, and a myriad of blown assignments, Notre Dame is cruising to an easy victory, one in which the result is barely in doubt. It is interesting to listen to the commentators apologize for Texas. They obviously felt that this Goliath was destined to destroy Dan Devine's Irish David, so much so that they practically suggest ways for the Lone Star statesmen to stay in the game. With just a few moments of controversy toward the end (the stadium clock malfunctions, and no one seems to know how much time is left before the referees unceremoniously fire off the final gun), this is just a good old-fashioned romp.
Of all the names involved in this competition (you football fans will recognize a few), Joe Montana seems like a silly afterthought, a nothing who is never really respected or regaled. At a certain point, someone suggests that he may have a "bright" future in the NFL, but his success is not assured. Too bad there aren't more ironic moments like this during the game. From the pedestrian pre- and post-game segments to the complete lack of halftime highlights (the bands make a college game), this is more or less a memento for those looking to celebrate one of Notre Dame's several national championships. Nothing amazing happens, no historical instance to remember ever occurs. This is just fun, no-frills football the way it used to be played and presented.
Vintage Sports Video does very little to enhance the ancient technical quality of this 26-year-old network broadcast. The 1.33:1 full screen image is faded, fuzzy, barely focused, and suffering from compression problems. There is massive ghosting, a few moments of digital artifacting, and some incredibly irritating flaring during the crowd shots. The Dolby Digital Mono sound is shrill and tinny most of the time, with the auditory fundamentals of the announcers coming across as flat and lifeless. There are no bonuses here, just a menu screen that allows you to view the game by segment (Pre-Game, 1st Quarter, 2nd Quarter, etc.). While there is an insert furnishing the schedule, the results for each team (both Notre Dame and Texas were 11-1-0 going into the Cotton Bowl), and player rosters (other notables beside Montana and Campbell were Bob Golic and the dynamic duo of Ham and Lam Jones), we get nothing to aid in the much-needed area of context. Why this game was important to both fans of Notre Dame and Texas—and what it signified in the grand scheme of sports—is left for us to decipher. Obviously, if you are a booster for either program, the framework is clear. But for casual football fans who may be thinking of picking up this title to add to their collections, there is no digital depth or background offered.
The 1978 Cotton Bowl gave Notre Dame another national championship and cemented its place in the pantheon of stellar college programs. It also gave the myth another dose of drama to aid in crafting immortality. And there is nothing wrong with providing fans with the fodder they need to fuel their obsessions and feed their memories. But it is only the overzealous or the rabid who will rejoice at learning that this game, along with a few others, is available on DVD. Otherwise, this is a tepid time capsule. It is worth a visit, but VSV's DVD edition of this classic college contest is destined to simply lecture to those already won over. How Notre Dame became synonymous with football is a story for another day…or perhaps Knute Rockne, All-American.
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