John Mackle, Notre Dame Class of 1993, gathered up his Christmas lights in November and placed a giant, illuminated No. 1 sign on the roof of his Pinecrest home. It is a replica of the 8-foot No. 1 that sits on top of Grace Hall on the Notre Dame campus in South Bend, Ind., whenever a Fighting Irish sports team reaches No. 1 in the nation.
For the first time in 24 years, after two decades of mediocrity, that honor has once again been bestowed on the iconic Fighting Irish football team, the team that brought us Knute Rockne, Ara Parseghian, 11 national titles and the movie Rudy, the team known for its Golden Dome and Touchdown Jesus, the resurrection mural that looms over its stadium.
The revival of Notre Dame has been one of the biggest stories this college football season. The Irish are undefeated at 12-0, ranked No.1 and will be playing No. 2 Alabama (12-1) on Monday night for the national title in Miami, of all places, a city known for its distaste for the Fighting Irish dating to the 1980s, when the University of Miami and Notre Dame were bitter rivals drawing huge TV ratings for their dramatic matchups.
Mackle is wearing his gold and blue proudly these days, digging out all things leprechaun. His wife, Kathleen, whom he met (where else?) at Notre Dame, is on the board of the Notre Dame Club of Miami, and they are helping organize pregame events for Irish fans in town this week.
But it was not so easy being a Mackle brother in Miami in the 1980s. The Mackle family is steeped in Notre Dame tradition, which did not sit well in UM territory back when the Hurricanes and Irish were battling for national titles, back when “Catholics vs. Convicts” T-shirts were hot sellers, back when legendary coach Parseghian, a golf partner of Mackle’s grandfather, accused UM coach Jimmy Johnson of running up the score during a 58-7 rout at the Orange Bowl in 1985 — Notre Dame’s most lopsided loss in 42 years.
The Mackles were in the stadium that day, as they had been every time the Irish came to town.
Frank Mackle Jr., a well-known developer throughout Florida, was a Vanderbilt grad but a Notre Dame trustee and close friends with the longtime Notre Dame president, Father Ted Hesburgh. The Irish football team, seeking a warm-weather opponent, began traveling to Miami to play the Hurricanes in 1955, and the teams played annually between 1971 and 1990. The Mackle family owned the Key Biscayne Hotel and Villas, which became the winter home for the Notre Dame team and its traveling fans.
Mackle’s son, Frank III, graduated from Notre Dame in 1966, one of the years Parseghian led the Irish to a national title. His grandson, Frank IV, kept the tradition going and graduated from Notre Dame in 1988, the last time the Irish football team won a national title. John followed his brother to South Bend, and now his son, John Jr., is a senior and hoping for another Irish title.
“I grew up a Hurricane fan and a Notre Dame fan,” John Mackle said. “But when UM played Notre Dame, our family rooted for Notre Dame. I got a lot of grief for that. I couldn’t wear a team shirt without being called out by my friends. When I was at Columbus High in 1988, I had a bet with a history teacher there who was a diehard UM fan. If UM won, I’d have to wear a UM tie to school all year. If Notre Dame won, he’d have to put a leprechaun sticker on his podium. I won the bet.”