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The Greening of the Fighting Irish
Jerry Kirshenbaum
December 14, 1970
The statue of the Virgin still looks down from the famous Golden Dome, and football still dominates the autumn Saturdays at Notre Dame. But even here there is New Awareness, for the times, they are a-changing in South Bend
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December 14, 1970

The Greening Of The Fighting Irish

The statue of the Virgin still looks down from the famous Golden Dome, and football still dominates the autumn Saturdays at Notre Dame. But even here there is New Awareness, for the times, they are a-changing in South Bend

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It is thus that the legacy of Rockne, after whom Studebaker once named a car, has passed to Parseghian, who makes TV commercials for Ford. Parseghian, a brindle-haired man of 47 who is not above going around campus in Notre Dame's colors—gold slacks, blue-and-gold rep tie, blue blazer—is old-fashioned enough to believe that a football coach must still be boss ("a benevolent dictator, ideally") but progressive enough to have given a guarded go-ahead to several players who wanted to take part in a campus demonstration. The coach himself endorsed last month's successful reelection campaign of South Bend Congressman John Brademas, a liberal Democrat. "Why can't a football coach endorse somebody?" Parseghian demands. "If I sit on my hands, I'm also influencing the decision, right?"

Given the high visibility of Notre Dame football, Parseghian could hardly have remained untouched by the issues of the day even had he wished. Banners have been raised at home football games against the Vietnam war, while Krashna, the student-body president, has joined other blacks in protesting the "lily-white backfield." This Parseghian counters by noting that Notre Dame has half a dozen Negroes on the varsity—including standout Defensive Back Clarence Ellis and two reserve running backs, not to mention Tom Gatewood, Joe Theismann's All-America receiver. Indeed, there is more racial balance in Notre Dame's backfield than almost anywhere else on campus: only through the most strenuous efforts has Notre Dame succeeded in raising its total black population to 120.

An obstacle to attracting more Negro students is a shortage of scholarship funds, which is one reason why Notre Dame decided a year ago to reverse its 45-year-old policy against postseason play. Notre Dame is almost as expensive as the Ivy League—$2,100 for tuition against $2,400 at Harvard—and this makes recruitment of blacks, only 3.5% of whom are Catholic in the U.S., that much more difficult. The university grossed $340,000 in the Cotton Bowl, and it earmarked the entire $210,000 profit toward a new black-studies program and minority scholarships. But not everyone was satisfied. Student leaders wanted to know afterward how the school could possibly have run up $130,000 in bowl-related expenses.

Athletes may be practically pariahs on some campuses, but not at football-minded Notre Dame, where they are often drawn very much into the thick of things. The prime case at the moment is Co-Captain Larry DiNardo, a senior guard from New York, who last summer was one of four college football players sent by the NCAA to visit GIs in Vietnam. On his return, he wrote an article for one of the Notre Dame football programs calling the war "a total waste." Since then he has been flooded with requests to endorse candidates and to speak at political rallies, and the athletic department is quick to cite him as an example of the athlete who really cares. But DiNardo says, "I don't want to be a hero of the New Left. I mean, who's not against this war?"

Notre Dame takes pride in the fact that, unlike some major universities, virtually all of its athletes graduate. It has no athletic dormitory, does not redshirt football players and it takes care to channel football proceeds into the university kitty to prevent the athletic department from becoming a power unto itself. There are, to be sure, a few well-known "jock courses" that some athletes gravitate toward "to keep from being worn down," as one football player puts it, and in view of the heavy demand for scholarships, some critics deem it the worst kind of extravagance to award 33 free rides a year to football players who may or may not actually need the money. Father Joyce provides a characteristically direct answer: "It's not a case of either/or with scholarships. With football players there's a return that more than makes up for it."

Old stories persist that Notre Dame football stars tooled around during the 1950s in automobiles, a luxury then denied ordinary students, and it has been documented that some players in the 1920s took off after their Saturday games to play professional ball under assumed names on Sunday. And certainly the show-business atmosphere of Notre Dame's big-time, big-budget football program contrasted jarringly at times with the O'Simon-pure austerity that otherwise prevailed on campus. Yet almost the opposite contrast can be drawn today: at a time when the old values are under siege in other areas of Notre Dame life it is football that stands for discipline, teamwork and fair play.

Not that the great battle raging over those values is decided yet, far from it. "We spent all those years trying to catch up with Harvard, Columbia, Berkeley and the rest," says John Houck, "but they don't seem so sure of themselves anymore, and we're looking inward. Maybe we had something special here all along." With many of the glamour stocks of American education now in the high-risk category, loyalists like Houck must be forgiven if, in their affection for the place, they consider their institution as gilt-edged as the Golden Dome itself. And just maybe they are right. By no coincidence whatever, Notre Dame's football helmets are golden, too.

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