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The Final: Not So Fast

Yes, he saw the rousing Michigan game, but this Notre Dame grad isn't buying into the idea of an Irish resurrection just yet

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By John Walters

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The upside: an upset of a Top 10 team last week. The downside: an uncertain long-term picture.
John Biever/SI

Earlier this summer the Miss America pageant announced that it was all but eliminating the talent portion of its program. A year earlier the contest had endured its lowest-ever TV rating while the Miss USA pageant, which spells talent with only a t and an a, had earned its highest rating in five years.

Miss America was in effect throwing in the tiara. She was admitting, basically, that people watch beauty pageants to see ... smokin' babes.

After hearing this I immediately 1) thought of Notre Dame and 2) downloaded images of Miss USA 2004 Shandi Finnessey. Not in that order.

If you've seen my alma mater play lately -- last week's (home) win over (overrated) Michigan nothwithstanding -- you might wonder if Notre Dame had all but eliminated the talent portion of its program. The school boasts the nation's highest Division I-A student-athlete graduation rate (92% for all sports; 81% for football), but what does that have to do with gridiron success?

N(a)D(a).

Listen, I'm not saying that academia and football are so at odds with one another that even Aamer Haleem couldn't reunite them. I don't have to. Paul Hornung already did. Last March the 1956 Heisman-winning quarterback at Notre Dame addressed the crisis of college football's cornerstone program, which had lost nine of its previous 14 games. "We can't stay as strict as we are as far as the academic structure is concerned," Hornung said. "We must get the black athlete if we're going to compete."

Forget, for a moment, the racist overtones in that statement. Wasn't Hornung pointing out that the best football teams are comprised of ... the best football players?

After hearing this, I immediately 1) thought of Tony Rice and 2) downloaded more images of Shandi Finnessey.

Sixteen years ago Tony Rice became the first black full-time starting quarterback for Notre Dame. A gifted option-style runner from Woodruff, S.C., Rice led the Fighting Irish to a 12-0 record and their last (and by last, I mean most recent, I hope) national championship.

But Tony Rice was more than an ethnic pioneer. He was an academic pilgrim as well, the university's first Prop 48 student-athlete. A year before Rice arrived on campus, the Irish had been blown out 58-7 by the Miami Hurricanes -- the brazen, busty Miss USA of college football programs. Then Lou Holtz took over as head coach and Tony Rice was offered a scholarship. You might say that ND officials had found religion.

After the Irish won the national title, plaid-pantsed alums cheered, "Halle-Lou-yah!" Notre Dame Stadium expanded by more than 30%. Applications soared, allowing Our Lady to select from an even more elite (and diverse) pool of students while erecting new buildings at a rate Donald Trump would envy.

Rice, instead of damaging the school's academic stature, enhanced it (and graduated with a degree in psychology). Did Rice belong at ND in the first place? I don't know. Did Knute Rockne and George Gipp, two famed Domers who never graduated from high school, belong there?

The myth of my alma mater is that it has always dressed the best and the brightest in blue-and-gold on autumn Saturdays. The truth is that it dresses some of the best while some of the brightest cheer them on.

If some of those best also happened to be bright ... well, I hear that Shandi Finnessey is an accomplished pianist. But that's not why she won Miss USA.

Issue date: September 16, 2004

SI On Campus: September 16, 2004 issue 
SI ON CAMPUS

Sports Illustrated On Campus, a new magazine covering college sports and collegiate lifestyles, is available as an insert in 74 major college newspapers across the country every Thursday throughout the school year. Click any of the links below to see selected content from the latest issue.

Cover Story: Best College Football Weekends: 1-10
Cover Story: The Best of the Rest: 11-25
Road Trip: University of Miami
Scorecard: The Vibe at Vanderbilt
The Final: Not So Fast, Notre Dame
Previous issue: September 9, 2004
 

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