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Casting A Special Light
John Underwood
January 10, 1983
A critic of colleges that stoop academically to conquer athletically sees in Notre Dame—and its two enduring leaders—much worth emulating
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January 10, 1983

Casting A Special Light

A critic of colleges that stoop academically to conquer athletically sees in Notre Dame—and its two enduring leaders—much worth emulating

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Prejudices aside, Notre Dame undoubtedly is neither the dream world my coaching friend thinks it to be nor the model for every school that other administrators should rush to imitate, as Joyce appeared to suggest. But, upon evaluation, Joyce would seem closer to the mark. Certainly, Notre Dame has great football tradition, but so do other schools. There's no doubt, for example, that emerging O.J.'s all over Southern California dream of playing for USC. Like Notre Dame (and a goodly number of other schools), Southern Cal doesn't "have to cheat," but evidentally it does—since 1956 the school has been on NCAA probation three times.

Notre Dame had Knute Rockne, but Alabama had the Bear, and Penn State has Joe. Notre Dame has Catholicism going for it, but Nebraska and Oklahoma and a lot of other schools have the religion of statewide football obsessions going for them. In short, Notre Dame may have more tradition and mystique and social forces working for it than any other football school, but its lead over its rivals in such things is nowhere near what a lot of them would have you believe.

Rather, the Irish's success in blending big-time football—and basketball—with integrity may be just as easily rooted in more mundane factors that other universities can copy to one degree or another. Joyce himself is the embodiment of perhaps the most significant of these factors: a consistent leadership.

Joyce has been one of Notre Dame's two major influences—the other, of course, having been the school's president, Father Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C.—for an incredibly long time. Every person hired for a key position at Notre Dame in the last 30 years has been hired by Joyce or Hesburgh; they have been in charge that long. In the harsh realm of higher education, where leaders burn out quickly or get routed, no other major institution has been granted such consistency at the top. None comes close: The national average for time in rank for college presidents is seven years.

The tall, graying, icy-eyed Joyce comes across as a solid and caring administrator, comfortable in his role as a highly visible second banana to Hesburgh. For three decades he has played archconservative to Hesburgh's flamboyant liberalism. "It's Father Joyce," says one officer in the Notre Dame administration, "who keeps Hesburgh from bankrupting the place." Working companions for 33 years, Hesburgh and Joyce have, among other accomplishments, performed a notable balancing act in keeping the monster of Notre Dame football both healthy and under control. Philosophically, they accept football's clout as a kind of astral benefit, like a prevailing wind, and refuse to be embarrassed or intimidated by it, although Hesburgh went through an early period of "putting it in its place."

At his first off-campus press conference as school president, in 1952, Hesburgh was asked to hike his cassock and crouch over a football for the photographers. "Would you ask the president of Yale to do that?" he replied testily and refused to pose. And he still revels in his in-house victories over Coach Frank Leahy on the issue of strict interpretation of eligibility standards for football players. Those triumphs helped Hesburgh establish his power base in the '50s.

"Intercollegiate athletics are important in the life of an institution, but not all-important," Hesburgh said at the 1981 Notre Dame football banquet, commemorating, ironically, the Irish's first losing season in 19 years. He once wrote in this magazine (Sept. 27, 1954) that those who "favor intercollegiate athletics praise them out of all proportion to their merits," but those who deny them "are quite blind to the values" they possess. He says he wouldn't want to be at a university that didn't participate in major competitive sports, as long as those sports were honest. He also says he has his statement of priorities whittled down to a two-minute speech he gives new coaches: "The one I gave Gerry Faust is the same one I gave Ara Parseghian and Digger Phelps and Dan Devine. I say, 'You've got five years. We won't say boo to you if you lose. I think you'll have the tools here to win more than you lose; it seems to work that way, but if you don't, you won't hear from me. You will hear from me if you cheat. If you cheat, you'll be out of here before midnight.' "

Joyce defends the same hallowed ground in his own speeches and writing, and both he and Hesburgh regularly reaffirm their view that Notre Dame exists not to provide the civilized world with first-rate football teams, but with a place to go for a first-rate Catholic education. The football teams just happen to make it a more attractive place to go. That's what they say. I don't doubt they believe it.

It's instructive to point out, however, if only to give schools that have run afoul of the rules proof that fanaticism can raise its ugly head in the best of circles, that in the '20s another Notre Dame president, the late John Francis O'Hara, proclaimed Notre Dame football to be "a new crusade" that "kills prejudice and stimulates faith," and blatantly promoted the school's identification with the sport on and off campus.

And the poor coaches who succeeded Rockne and Leahy—but without their predecessors' success—felt the wrath of the administration and wound up unemployed. Heartley (Hunk) Anderson (1931-33), who followed Rockne, and Terry Brennan (1954-58), who succeeded Leahy (1941-43, '46-'53), were sacrificed just as surely as they would have been at LSU or Texas A&M.

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