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Irish Stew
Tim Layden
May 01, 2000
How strong academic requirements, a suicidal schedule and an unproven coach have taken the fight out of Notre Dame
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May 01, 2000

Irish Stew

How strong academic requirements, a suicidal schedule and an unproven coach have taken the fight out of Notre Dame

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Notre Dame's reputation was built on three pillars: 1) recruiting the best players in the country and graduating them at a high rate, 2) showcasing these players in a national schedule, and 3) hiring great coaches. Notre Dame was (and still is) the best-known Catholic university in the U.S., a status derived in no small part from its football success. That renown created a pipeline to South Bend from the nation's talent-rich Catholic high schools. Many of the best players simply wanted to join the Irish, so Notre Dame could be fairly picky as far as academic qualification was concerned. "It's not true that I never left South Bend to recruit a player," says Ara Parseghian, who won 95 games and two national titles from 1964 through '74. "It is true that I didn't leave very often."

The schedule in those days may not have been as tough as the Irish would have had us believe. Parseghian's storied 1966 national championship team played traditional opponents Army, Navy, Pittsburgh, Purdue, USC and, in that year's Game of the Century, Michigan State, but it also met "national" names Northwestern, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Duke. None of those teams finished with more than six wins. "Look at all of Ara's schedules," says Gene Corrigan, Notre Dame's athletic director from 1980 to '87. "For every Michigan State, there was a Rice. It was a national schedule, but it was a smart schedule."

As for the coaches, was it Rockne, Leahy, Parseghian and Holtz who made Notre Dame great, or was it the reverse? The answer of Notre Dame's administration to that question will probably decide Davie's fate.

Now a generation of athletes and fans shares the opinion of 6'8", 335-pound senior Max Starks of Orlando Lake Highland High, whose father, Ross Browner, was a star defensive lineman for the Irish in the 1970s. "They had their glory back in the old days," Starks said last winter, three days after signing with Florida.

Part of the Notre Dame company line in the face of its football struggles is that the Irish's glorious history is littered with hard times (see Joe Kuharich's teams, which went 17-23 from 1959 through '62, and Gerry Faust's, 30-26-1 from '80 through '85). "You'll see down cycles, and then it turns around," says Parseghian. There's no guarantee of a turnaround anymore. College football is different from when Notre Dame ruled. Lower scholarship limits and widespread television coverage have vastly increased the number of competitive teams, making possible the sudden emergence of, say, Virginia Tech as a national championship contender. The schedule the Irish will play this fall—Texas A&M, Nebraska, Purdue, Michigan State and Stanford in the first five weeks—is suicide. The acceptance of black players into the mainstream of college football, which occurred only in the last 25 years, has shifted the power (and the recruiting juice) from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt. What Notre Dame once was, Florida State is now.

In January, Notre Dame's president, the Reverend Edward A. Malloy, forced athletic director Mike Wadsworth to resign, effective in June, and removed vice president William Beauchamp from his role as athletic overseer. Malloy essentially took on that role himself. In March, Malloy hired Kevin White from Arizona State to replace Wadsworth. This sweeping reorganization came, in part, as a response to the NCAA's ruling in December that Notre Dame was guilty of major violations, including lack of institutional control, after several players were found to have received illegal benefits from a school booster. The shake-up has left Malloy in charge of Notre Dame's football future, a subject on which he evinces ambivalence.

On the one hand Malloy invokes the philosophy that was preached by his two most recent predecessors, the Reverend Theodore Hesburgh and the Reverend Edmund Joyce. "We aspire to excellence in everything we do, and that includes football," says Malloy. "We try to provide the wherewithal for people to achieve that goal." Yet he also seems to understand the modern dilemmas. "Certainly the circumstances under which college football is played have changed," he says. "It's a plausible argument that we're affected by those changes, but I'm not convinced it prevents us from having a successful program."

Malloy stops short of defining successful. He also makes clear which way he will lean in a crisis. "Given a choice, Notre Dame people would rather do things the right way than achieve total success." Pause. "We try to do both."

It's a goal that any college would consider admirable, but is it feasible? Consider the condition of the three pillars.

RECRUITING AND ADMISSIONS

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