Pete Sampson Q&A

Author: Caroline Pineda

Pete Sampson covers Notre Dame football for The Athletic. The 2022 season will mark his 22nd year on the beat.

The energy around the program seems very high. In your years covering Notre Dame football, can you think of a time that is similar, or is this a unique situation and kind of uncharted territory?

It's unique, but it's not hard to think of stuff that's similar. I think anyone who was around here in 2012 would say, "Hey, hold up, the energy of that fall was kind of off the charts." Because it sort of tied together the third-year coach storyline from Ara to Lou to Brian Kelly. So I think that season probably was the most energetic in-season that I've covered. I mean, there have been moments like 2005 USC, which was pretty wild. But I think in terms of an off-season and sort of a unity among the fan base, that's probably what makes this unique to me is that, when Brian Kelly was hired, there were still people that were not on board with Brian Kelly. When Charlie Weis was hired, same thing. And every coach that I have covered when they've been hired, there hasn't been this universal approval that Marcus Freeman seems to have. So that's what makes this moment unique to me. Because that energy is independent of wins and losses, right? It's just the personality. So that is different than what I've experienced as a reporter covering Notre Dame.

To go to the extreme, it seems like obviously, the conversations about the potential national championship situation have already arisen. At what point do you think that conversation or that hype is warranted?

He would have to win a game that you felt like Brian Kelly didn't. And that could be Ohio State. That could be Clemson with its starting quarterback, not its backup quarterback, but a game like that. Because until then, if he just goes out and beats every team that Notre Dame is favored to beat, Brian Kelly did an amazing job of that. So you'd have to push the envelope beyond that, because I realize a lot of fans look  at recruiting and say, "Well, this is different, or this feels different." And that is true. But there's a big lag between recruiting buzz and getting commitments, and when that actually shows up on Saturday. So if Notre Dame goes out and they beat Ohio State, then, alright, I think the conversation changes a lot. But if he's just producing at a level Brian Kelly produced, which is a lot of wins, then I think you want to see something different in the games that Brian Kelly struggled so often to win.

You mentioned Ohio State, obviously a date that's already circled on the calendar there. In your mind, when you look at that game, what do you think Notre Dame would have to do to win that?

I think you would need Tyler Buchner to take the step that Notre Dame hopes he will eventually take, but in his first start, which is a big ask. You would need the defense without Kyle Hamilton and without Marcus Freeman as defensive coordinator to play the best it's played in that kind of moment since maybe going back to Oklahoma in 2012, like a big spot where Notre Dame played above its talent level. So I mean, I think a bunch of things would have to happen. But the quarterback and the secondary would have to play at a level that we just haven't seen them play in a long time.

I can't help but notice you went straight to Tyler Buchner on that. Having covered your share of quarterback competitions, what makes you answer that question immediately with Tyler Buchner?

I think getting to know the coaching staff as they recruited him and what they hope he can be. There was a feeling when they signed him that this is the kind of quarterback that gets you closer to a Trevor Lawrence or a Joe Burrow, somebody who can go out and make the difference in a game. You know, Ian Book had a great, great college career. But I think that Notre Dame came away from some of the games that they played against Clemson and Alabama thinking that they needed more at that position than what they had. So that's what they think they have in Tyler Buchner. Whether they actually do, we'll all find out. And he's probably going to need time to grow into the position considering he's played one full season of football in the last four years, if I'm not mistaken. So I think you have to allow for quite a bit of growth on the fly. But if he comes out and is a revelation in September, then I think you can look at Notre Dame and feel like, "Okay, maybe they have a chance to punch above their weight a little bit."

Well, I want to follow the “every Notre Dame fan’s favorite thing to talk about” thread for a minute with the quarterback competition. You've covered your fair share of them. Is there any moment that kind of stands out as the most memorable moment from covering a quarterback competition in your 21-plus years on the beat?

Oh my god. Where to start? I mean, it would have to be the circus of Jimmy Clausen in 2007, where it was like a four-person quarterback competition in spring. And then in the summer, I believe Charlie Weis announced that it was down to two, which was a really weird thing to do. You don't see that. And then, ultimately, they went with Demetrius Jones for a minute. And then went to Clausen a couple of weeks later. Demetrius Jones ended up transferring in the first month of the season, which back in 2007 was kind of a weird thing to do. So that would definitely be the weirdest one. There have been a bunch of strange ones, like Dayne Crist beat out Tommy Rees in 2011. And then Tommy Rees replaced him at halftime of the opening game of the season. But the 2007 circus I think, to me, that still steals the show for insane quarterback competitions.

You've obviously had so many great guests on [your podcast] The Shamrock ... Do you have a favorite guest on the Shamrock? And if so, who would that be?

Having Mike Tirico on was pretty awesome. He was so prepared and magnanimous about doing it. I mean, there's a million people pulling his time. He was outstanding. I really enjoyed that. Mike McGlinchey was great. He had some awesome stories about Harry Hiestand, that he didn't mind sort of like pulling back the curtain a little bit about what it was like to be at Notre Dame during kind of a weird time — 2015, 2016, but also 2017 and sort of that rebuilding process. So those have been great. I really enjoyed Tirico. It's probably a media bias on my part because where he is, from a media point of view, he's just at such a Hall-of-Fame level. It was fun to just talk to him. We actually had Muffet McGraw on once, which was a little bit off-topic for us as a college football show, and I thought she was dynamic and made me want to go back to college and take her class. So those would be ones that jump out off the top of my head that I really liked.

It's a pretty solid list, I would say. You wrote a lot of great stories in the 2021 season. When you look at the 2021 season, does any story stand out from that as your favorite?

My two favorite ones were both very heavy Brian-Kelly based. So the first one was right around when he passed Rockne [on the all-time wins list], and I started working on it probably a couple months in advance, just to try to understand why he won as much as he did. Because I think we all sort of viewed him as like, "Alright, you're not a dynamic recruiter, you're not an X's and O's wizard. So why do you win as much as you do?" And I ended up talking to 10 former assistants that I learned a lot from. I also sort of just selfishly enjoyed reconnecting with some of those guys. And then the other one was the Georgia Tech game, the last game of the season. I ended up watching the game in the stands. It was like the fourth row of those blue seats behind the Notre Dame bench. And I just watched him watch Notre Dame. Because when we're up in the press box, you're watching the ball or you're watching the players. And I've always just been interested in his sideline demeanor for reasons beyond the red-face NBC highlights, but just how he manages the day. Because he's kind of a private person who is difficult to get to know. So I enjoyed that part of it as well. So those were the two last season that I think I really enjoyed putting a bow on the most.

When you think back on all your years on the Notre Dame beat so far, what stories stand out as some of your favorites?

I would say probably since I've moved over to The Athletic, it's probably easier to pick out some. I did an oral history, which is maybe a little bit overdone. But it ran the week of the USC game in 2018. And it was looking back at the week Notre Dame went to No. 1 in 2012. And that was just a great, fun piece to put together. So I really enjoyed that one. The one with Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah on the physics of hitting was fun, for reasons that included [ESPN’s College] Gameday coming to my house and turning that into a feature on TV. So I mean, those were really good. When you produce stuff, you want to at the end, be like, "OK, this was unique, and I felt good about it." And those were two that I just really enjoyed putting together.

Well, that was all the questions I had for you. If there's anything else you would like to talk about, feel free!

I'm just fascinated to see where everything goes with Marcus Freeman because it feels like the ceiling has been raised on what Notre Dame football can be, but you have to make sure that the floor didn't drop out too, if that makes sense. What Notre Dame football could be, I think there's so much more variance now to it than I think what it was under Brian Kelly, where you sort of knew what you were going to get, but you also knew what you weren't going to get. And now I think that is part of the enthusiasm of the fan base, is you can kind of dream big a little bit again in a way that maybe you stopped doing with Brian Kelly.