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No Luck Needed: Building a Notre Dame Fighting Irish Football Collection

by Rob Bertrand (11/26/12).

Collecting Notre Dame Football memorabilia isn’t an inexpensive pursuit. However, with some prudent research, patience and a little proverbial luck o’ the Irish, collectors can find meaningful and often valuable memorabilia to fit the needs of any budget.

As the undefeated and un-tied Notre Dame Fighting Irish have officially earned a trip to the Bowl Championship Series title game in Miami this coming January, they will be playing for their first title since 1988, bring out pride in fans of the Irish.

Spending 24 years in the collegiate football wilderness hasn’t put a damper on Notre Dame collectibles and memorabilia, though, as the Notre Dame football program is steeped in history and tradition, with a pedigree for producing top-notch, NFL-level talent without sacrificing the school’s stringent academic criteria. Their return to prominence in the NCAA football landscape has reignited the passions of a rabid alumni fan base and brought national attention to the once-dominant Fighting Irish.

A replica mini helmet with former head coach Lou Holtz’s autograph.

Collecting Notre Dame Football memorabilia isn’t an inexpensive pursuit. However, with some prudent research and patience (and maybe just a little luck o’ the Irish), collectors can find meaningful and often valuable memorabilia to fit the needs of any budget.

Perhaps one of the most appealing collectibles to represent the Fighting Irish is their helmets. The distinctive gold coloring serves as a constant reminder of the lofty goals the program routinely sets for itself. Full-size and miniature versions can be found quite easily online, both with or without autographs. A helmet with current coloring, which features a much more dynamic gold leafing, has not yet been produced by traditional helmet manufacturer, Riddell, for the consumer market. Chances are that will change soon, regardless of the team’s fate in the National Championship game on Jan. 7, 2013.

When it comes to autographed helmets, the ones that are going to create the most demand are star players that went on to the NFL, championship-winning coaches and legendary players from the program’s origins. Names to look for that fall into these categories are:

Players who went on to the NFL: Joe Montana, Joe Theissman, Tim Brown, Michael Floyd, Golden Tate, Jerome Bettis, Paul Hornung, and Raghib Ismail;
Championship-Winning Coaches: Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy, Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine, and Lou Holtz;
Legendary Players: Angelo Bertelli, Johnny Lujack, Leon Hart, Johnny Lattner, Bob Kelly, and Creighton Miller.

Autographs from the “legendary players” category are extremely rare and great caution should be exercised if attempting to purchase one. Additionally, Rockne was also a player and his autograph is rare but can be found, most often in cut-signature form. Other autographed items that are quite desirable by fans and collectors are those from Heisman Trophy winners of which the school has seven, with an outside shot at an eighth this year. Included in this group are:

• Angelo Bertelli, 1943;
• Johnny Lujack, 1947;
• Leon Hart, 1949;
• Johnny Lattner, 1953;
• Paul Hornung, 1956;
• John Huarte, 1964;
• Tim Brown, 1987.

Whenever you can find items with signatures from this group, all the traditional rules apply when it comes to autograph authentication; third-party Certificate of Authenticity (or, barring that, items of support provenance), signatures in multiple color inks, in varied degrees fading, etc. Most importantly, follow your instincts and if it seems too good to be true, it usually is.

A Knute Rockne cut signature. They are rare, but they are out there. (Photo courtesy Heritage Auction Galleries)

The First Day Issue postcard of the 1988 Knute Rockne stamp with the autographs of four Irish Heisman Trophy winners: Angelo Bertelli (1943), Johnny Lattner (1953), Paul Hornung (1956) and Tim Brown (1987).

With regards to collecting authentic autographs of players from this season’s roster, collectors will have to wait until those eligible seniors declare their intentions to enter the 2013 NFL draft next spring. Most notable of these players is running back Theo Riddick, team captain and middle linebacker Manti Te’o, running back Cierre Wood and tight end Tyler Eifert. Trading cards of these players, still being depicted in their navy and gold uniforms, will be found in collegiate products from manufacturers Press Pass, SA-GE, and Upper Deck.

It’s important to keep in mind that there is a distinct difference between fan novelty items and actual collectibles. This is especially true for fan merchandise that you or another has had autographed by a player, past or present, in person. Just because you might have a T-shirt autographed by this year’s quarterbacks, Tommy Rees and Everett Golson, doesn’t necessarily make it collectible, even if the Irish do win the National Championship. In this particular case, this would be true for a couple of reasons; neither are seniors, so their overall legacy hasn’t been written and/or defined as of yet, and a T-shirt, unless it is perhaps framed and accompanied by player photos is nothing more than an autographed T-shirt.

Notre Dame game day programs from the 2012 season are sure to be collectible going forward.

When it comes to ephemera (paper collectibles), year books and programs from championship years are always going to carry more value than those that are not. In anticipation of a potential title, now would be a good time to look on eBay for 2012 Game Day programs. The programs themselves will be collectible and also will make for a great piece to have autographed by key players or Coach Brian Kelly, if the opportunity were to present itself.

Autographed footballs are one of the most eye-catching and valuable pieces of memorabilia. When it comes to university specific collections, you want to be sure to get your in-person autographs or those already signed on either an official home game day ball, or a commemorative ball with the school logo. Commemorative balls are those that you typically see with the smooth white leather panels on half the ball. This surface allows for a fine point Sharpie to be used and provides a nice contrast allowing the ink color of the autograph to really “pop” off the ball. If you use a traditional or game day football to acquire an in-person signature, be sure to use a paint pen in either silver or gold. These colors allow the autograph to clearly standout from the brown leather.

A Notre Dame football with Heisman Trophy winners. This is an example if a commemorative ball with the school logo.

An official Notre Dame football with head coach Brian Kelly’s autograph. This is an example of traditional or game day football.

So whether you’re an old-timer and a fan of Rockne, Lujak and Bertelli, a product of the ’80s and a die-hard fan of Lou Holtz or a fan of the current team, there is a wide array of collectible opportunities available to you purse.

Enjoy the chase and GO Irish!

Rob Bertrand has been an active collector of sports cards and memorabilia for more than 20 years. His involvement in the hobby community is well documented, having been the content manager for the Card Corner Club website before the company’s merger with CardboardConnection in 2011, where he is now a staff writer and multimedia content producer. Rob is also the co-host of the sports collectibles hobby’s only live and nationally broadcast radio show, Cardboard Connection Radio. He is the author of the highly respected and trafficked blog, Voice of the Collector and you can follow him on Twitter @VOTC. A dealer himself, Rob runs an online business through eBay, and is frequently asked to consign collections.

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