Notre Dame coaches have been losing admissions battles ever since. Saracino, who took over for Rooney in 1997, argues that he's not only protecting poor students from failure but also guarding the integrity of a university that has lately moved into the ranks of the national academic elite. "The profile of our freshman class is much stronger than it was 10 years ago," he says. In its 2000 rankings of U.S. colleges and universities, U.S. News and World Report rated Notre Dame 19th, in front of Cal, Vanderbilt, Virginia and Michigan. Among schools with serious football programs, only Stanford (No. 6) ranks ahead of Notre Dame, and it is silly to argue that the pressure for the Cardinal to succeed in football matches that of the Irish. ( Stanford, which demands 16 college prep courses and has a math requirement similar to Notre Dame's, has beaten the Irish two of the last three seasons.) Saracino also says that few of the 18 freshmen admitted in Notre Dame's most recent recruiting class would have been accepted had they not been football players.
Given the range of first-rate football programs to choose from, there are plenty of other reasons for a football player not to attend Notre Dame, even if he's qualified. The northern Indiana landscape is bleak, and the weather is horrible. The Irish's football facilities are only average. Also, the Notre Dame student population is just 3% African-American. "If you're a minority player looking for a social life, there's not a lot here," says Jarious Jackson, a black player from Mississippi who spent five years in South Bend. "There are no frats, no sororities and not many minority students. But that's not why you come here."
An athlete comes to Notre Dame for the tradition that appealed to Carson Palmer and for the postgraduate networking opportunities that alumni eagerly provide. It's the value of the Notre Dame education and the unique experience of playing at a shrine to football that the coaching staff sells. There's a certain nobility in this approach, and it can still work.
Davie's recruiting classes of 1998 and '99 were considered to be of top 10 quality by most recruiting analysts, and some of the best players in the '99 class haven't played yet. The class Davie signed in February is regarded as slightly less potent, although the Irish did beat out Nebraska for 6'2", 190-pound quarterback Carlyle Holiday of San Antonio and signed five good wide receivers, including 6'4", 205-pound Jovan Witherspoon of Fort Wayne, Ind., whom many experts regard as one of the best players in the country.
They also signed Mike Goolsby, a 6'4", 225-pound linebacker from Joliet, Ill., who was a first-team Parade All-America with a 2.8 average in college prep courses and a high 24 on his ACT. "I realize it's gotten un-cool to like Notre Dame," says Goolsby, "but I grew up liking it. My parents always loved the place; they bought me Notre Dame sweatshirts when I was little. I believe it's a great place." Goolsby will spend a chunk of his summer working out with fellow Irish recruit Greg Pauly, a 6'6", 275-pound defensive lineman from Waukesha, Wis. They view themselves as the future. "We'll be good," Goolsby says. "Trust me. We will be good."
Good would be an improvement, but it's great that's expected.
There's honor in recruiting selectively and in trying to maintain the dignity of the student-athlete, but does it makes sense to shrink the talent pool and also open the season with five opponents who should challenge for conference championships and berths in major bowls? The Irish will start with consecutive home games against Texas A&M, which went 8-4 last season but has had one of the best programs in the country for more than a decade; Nebraska, which will be shooting for its fourth national championship in six years; and Purdue, which, with quarterback Drew Brees returning for his senior year, will contend in the Big Ten race. After that, Notre Dame travels to Michigan State, which has gone to bowl games in four of the last five seasons, before returning home to play Stanford, the defending Pac-10 champion. The Irish could be very good and still start 2-3.
The rest of the schedule is easier, including games at West Virginia, Rutgers and USC, home dates with Air Force and Boston College, and a game against Navy in Orlando. (Combined 1999 record of those teams: 30-39.) "The opponents aren't quite as strong near the end," says Davie, "but there's a cumulative effect on your team when you play so many tough games early."
The other teams know that. Before meeting Notre Dame, Nebraska tunes up with San Jose State and then has a week off. Purdue gets ready for the Irish with Central Michigan and Bowling Green. The week after playing Notre Dame, Texas A&M meets Wyoming. Nobody strings together strong opponents the way Notre Dame does. The Irish's 2001 schedule is just as hard, starting with Nebraska and Purdue on the road and then Michigan State at home. Notre Dame will meet Tennessee at home on the first weekend in November. Michigan and Florida State are back on the schedule in 2002.