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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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In the Brennan case, it was Hesburgh himself, with Joyce's backing as chairman of the athletic board, who yielded to the dark attraction college administrators seem always to have to firing football coaches. While bringing Notre Dame into the 20th century academically, an achievement for which he may well deserve sainthood, Hesburgh had taken on Leahy's victory machine—four national championships, in 1943, '46, '47 and '49—and some highly dubious coaching ethics, and by 1953 had cut that eccentric genius down to size with restrictions that, in Leahy's eyes, if not Hesburgh's, amounted to de-emphasis. The number of scholarships was cut from 40 to 20 for a year, and the football department was made to adhere to strict eligibility rules.

Then, in 1954, Hesburgh helped ease Leahy, only 45 but suffering from ileitis, into retirement. "We made no effort to keep him," Joyce admits now. Four years later, Hesburgh had to scuttle Brennan, his personal choice as Leahy's replacement, when it became obvious that Brennan wasn't going to win enough games under those same restrictions.

The experiment in de-emphasis was over. It had done precious little for Notre Dame's spiritual or financial needs. Recalls an alumnus who has remained close to his alma mater for 40 years, "Fundraisers were not mad, they were furious." It's not likely that Hesburgh will make such a mistake again. For one thing, he's too alert to fiscal needs. Notre Dame's endowment was $8.5 million in 1952; it's now over $200 million and in the Top 20 nationally.

In recent years, Hesburgh and Joyce have been outspoken critics of those abuses that have fouled college sport. Just last month, at the National Football Foundation and Hall of Fame dinner, Hesburgh called for a stricter code of academic standards—and struck fear in several university comptrollers' hearts by saying that Notre Dame might refuse to schedule schools that don't abide by such a code. There is some risk in this crusading business, especially if your own laundry isn't clean. But Joyce and Hesburgh can speak with confidence that their school has been obeying the letter—and even the spirit—of the rules.

Evidence: A private survey of the National Football League two years ago showed that, of the 31 former Notre Darners then playing in the NFL, 30 had their degrees. When he passed on the survey to me, Joyce said that No. 31, New York Giant Offensive Tackle Jeff Weston, not wanting to be the lone ranger, was returning to school to get his diploma, which he has since done.

In the 18 years that Mike De Cicco, the Notre Dame athletic department's liaison with academe who doubles as the Irish fencing coach, has kept such records, only five Notre Dame football players have completed their eligibility without getting their degrees. Since 1971, all 41 basketball players who have completed their eligibility have earned degrees. Every single one.

Moreover, it must be noted that Notre Dame doesn't offer any of those "life science" majors or have any other apparent means of shielding an athlete from exposure to at least some of the rigors of scholarship. At all schools there are a few professors who grade athletes with affection—like the beloved "88" O'Grady, who taught philosophy at Notre Dame from 1926 to '56—but there's no such thing as a jock curriculum in South Bend.

There's no athletic dormitory at Notre Dame, either. Notre Dame doesn't believe in segregating athletes. Says Joyce, "We expect our athletes to be full-time members of the student body, no more, no less." In the dorms, the jocks get no perks, no favors, no fancy hideaways for watching color television. There is no special training table, except during the season of an athlete's sport when he has no choice but to dine late (after practice). Even then he eats the same food as everybody else, in one of the two campus dining halls. The athlete, in sum, benefits from having lived a "complete" college experience, rather than tunneling through a narrow corridor to the pros.

Seventy-five percent of the scholarship athletes in football and basketball are liberal arts or business majors; the other 25% divide into engineering, premed and prelaw. They, like other students involved in extracurricular activities, are granted one privilege in their academics: a priority in arranging their class schedules so that they can be free by 3 p.m. to practice. But even this isn't always possible, and when laboratories run to 4 or 5 p.m., as they often do, it's the coaches, not the athletes, who must make an accommodation.

Neither does Notre Dame believe in redshirting, and allows it only in cases of injury, never to "season" a player for later service. It pushes its athletes to graduate in four years. Most do. If one fails or drops a course, he must make it up in summer school. If his grade point average falls below the required 2.0 or he's lagging in the credits he needs (30 a year) for normal progress toward a degree, same thing—summer school. The salutary results can be charted: Of the 28 players who were given football scholarships in 1978, 25 graduated on time in 1982. Two are still in school and will get their degrees. Only one dropped out.

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