On a late January afternoon in 1999, Notre Dame gave 18-year-old T.J. Duckett the Golden Dome treatment, a show of shameless pursuit reserved for the football recruits most coveted by the Fighting Irish. At one point T.J. and his father, Ted, were escorted to the press box overlooking Notre Dame Stadium, an awe-inspiring college football shrine even in the dead of winter. The seven Heisman Trophies won by Notre Dame players were laid out in front of the Ducketts, as if to say to the gifted T.J.: You can win one of these here.
A 6'2", 255-pound Parade All-America, T.J. not only was a three-year starter at quarterback and linebacker for Loy Norrix High in Kalamazoo, Mich., but also would run 100 meters in less than 11 seconds and wind up a three-time state champion in the shot put. Many recruiting experts regarded him as the best high school player in the country, and most thought his future was at linebacker. T.J., however, liked carrying the ball, and Notre Dame coach Bob Davie had told him in a phone conversation that the Irish were interested in him only as a running back. "You can be the next Jerome Bettis," Davie said, invoking the name of the Bus, a Notre Dame standout from 1990 through '92 and, to players of T.J.'s generation, the patron saint of big backs. Davie also told Duckett he could wear Bettis's old number, 6.
Duckett had already visited Florida State, Michigan, Michigan State and UCLA, but after the Irish began recruiting him late in 1998, he canceled a planned visit to Ohio State and made the 90-minute drive from Kalamazoo to South Bend. "Notre Dame was never on T.J.'s list," says Ted, "but when Notre Dame contacted him, [the idea of playing for the Irish] was very enticing." Such is the power that Notre Dame still wields. Yet the courtship was a bust, thanks to an incident that took place on the morning of the Ducketts' arrival in South Bend.
Their first stop had been beneath the Golden Dome itself, at the office of Dan Saracino, the assistant provost for enrollment—in effect, the admissions director. No student enrolls at Notre Dame without Saracino's approval, and the Ducketts' meeting with him was ugly almost from the start.
There are conflicting accounts of T.J.'s high school academic performance. Ted says T.J.'s average was "three point something." Late in his junior year, T.J. told recruiting expert Allen Wallace of SuperPrep Magazine that he had a 3.1 and that he had scored 18 (one point above the minimum) on the ACT. A person familiar with T.J.'s transcript says T.J. had a 2.4 average in college prep courses (as opposed to all courses). According to Ted, at the time of T.J.'s visit to South Bend, he had already been approved for admission to Florida State, Michigan, Michigan State and UCLA—all of which routinely admit recruited athletes who have met the NCAA minimum requirements of a 2.5 average in 13 core courses and an 820 SAT score or 17 in the ACT. Notre Dame's standards are more exacting. The Irish require 16 units of college prep courses and demand that a prospective student be prepared to take calculus, because all Notre Dame freshmen, football players included, must take calculus. Saracino believed that T.J.'s performance in math courses had not been strong enough, and on this point the interview turned contentious.
"T.J. didn't have precalculus, but there was still time to take it [in summer school]," Ted says, recalling the meeting. "The man assumed that my son wasn't intelligent enough to get through his school. He told me, 'We don't have basket-weaving at Notre Dame.' I was livid. My son is a quality individual. He comes from an educated family. [Ted teaches high school history and physical education; T.J.'s late mother, Jacqulyn Barham, was a retired special education teacher.] I believe this man made judgments about T.J. because T.J. wore a long leather jacket and jeans, instead of a suit. The bottom line is, this man insulted my kid, and no matter what else happened that day, there was a bad taste in our mouths." Ted says that before he stormed out of the admissions office, he told Saracino, "Plenty of fine universities aren't making these demands on my son."
Saracino recalls that Ted was "more a broker for his son than anything else," and he denies having made any reference to basket-weaving. "What I will say is that it's not my goal to make the coaches happy," Saracino says. "All our admissions decisions are made with the best interests of the student in mind, and we're not going to admit young men who don't have the God-given ability to succeed here."
Notre Dame didn't formally reject T.J., because he never formally applied. He enrolled at Michigan State and, as a freshman, rushed for 606 yards and 10 touchdowns and had 10 tackles on defense. He also helped the Spartans to a 23-13 victory over the Irish in the same stadium where he had been so lavishly courted.
There were two North American sports dynasties in the 20 the century. You can clog a chat room by pounding away in upper-case frenzy about the Boston Celtics, the Montreal Canadiens and the UCLA basketball Bruins, but the New York Yankees and, in football, Notre Dame were the only teams to achieve success almost throughout the century and to occupy a place in the bosom of popular culture. The argument is simple: The Yankees went from Ruth to DiMaggio to Mantle to Jackson to Jeter, winning 25 World Series from 1923 through '99; Notre Dame went from Rockne to Leahy to Parseghian to Holtz, winning 11 national championships from '24 through '88. No other teams performed so enduringly.
At the turn of the 21st century, the Yankees are thriving, having won three of the last four World Series. They haven't simply adapted to the changes in the way baseball business is conducted; they have exploited those changes. Their legacy is intact. The same can't be said for Notre Dame, which hasn't contended for the national championship since 1993 and last year went 5-7, its worst record in 36 years. There's a feeling that while Notre Dame's football prestige is still significant, its aura is fading—as measured in sliding television ratings and mediocre recruits—and that once that magic is gone, it will be irretrievable.