Decked out as he was in full Notre Dame regalia, Michael O’Brien felt like a marked man as he made his way through LaVell Edwards Stadium in September 2004 in search of a “Cougar Tail.”
He was in the heart of BYU country rooting hard for the Fighting Irish, and he expected Cougar fans to defend their turf, just like their team was doing on the field.
But to O’Brien’s surprise, the BYU fans who stopped him near the concession stand weren’t interested in smack talk. They were more concerned with making sure he — and his favorite team — had a good time at the game.
“I was stopped by probably six different BYU fans who told me how welcome I was there,” he said.
O’Brien, 61, recalled that “nice memory” this week when asked to describe what it’s like to live in Utah as a Catholic Notre Dame fan (and alum).
Rather than recount times he’s felt out of place or excluded, he emphasized how faith and football have only brought him closer to his Latter-day Saint friends.
“These people are like brothers and sisters to me. Their only imperfection is who they’ll be cheering for on Saturday,” he said.
O’Brien does see BYU and Notre Dame as rivals, but not in the typical sense. The two teams want to beat each other, sure, but their fan bases bond over the unique experience of rooting for a high-profile religious school.
“It’s sort of like a version of the Utah-BYU rivalry without all the unpleasantness,” he said.
Hunter Hampton, an assistant professor of history at Stephen F. Austin State University who studies the links between football and faith, agreed with O’Brien’s assessment, noting that connections between the two football programs run deep.
When BYU relaunched its football team in the 1920s, it hosted famed Notre Dame coach Knute Rockne in Provo to help train the coaches. The school later asked Rockne for help in its quest to beat its in-state rival.
“Coaches would send him letters asking for his scouting reports of teams that had beaten Utah in hopes, I guess, that if they studied how Rockne studied these other teams, they could emulate the teams and win their rivalry games,” Hampton said.
For both schools, football has been a way to boost acceptance of their at-times misunderstood religious identities, he added.
“Notre Dame and BYU have had quite a bit of success using the game as a missionary tool,” he said.
That commonality helps explain why the rivalry between the two programs is more “wholesome” than most, according to Hampton.
“The rivalry is meant to build faith and build community,” rather than sow discord, he said.
From O’Brien’s perspective, the process is working, at least among his coworkers and friends. Anytime BYU and Notre Dame play, he ends up feeling closer to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, not farther apart, he said.
“It’s a lot of fun to have our teams play and be able to talk about it,” he said.
However, he knows that not all Utah Catholics see the BYU-Notre Dame rivalry the same way. Some prefer Catholic viewing parties over more mixed events, approaching game day as a chance to bond with other Notre Dame fans rather than anyone who’s watching.
“When you grow up Catholic in Utah, you know you belong to a much smaller group,” he said. “Some Catholics prefer to silo themselves off.”
On Saturday in Las Vegas, those who prefer the fan groups to stay separate may win out, O’Brien noted, since Catholics are typically more interested in the “sins” of Sin City than Latter-day Saints.
“Near as I can tell, our only advantage (this year) is we can go to the strip and drown our sorrows when the game is over,” he said.