What good could possibly accrue to the athletic program, in terms of successful teams, under such academic orthodoxy? Economics Professor William Leahy says the Notre Dame faculty is "more appreciative" of its athletes—a subtle bonus. "They're not privileged characters, and we see it."
Equally illuminating is Notre Dame's police record with the NCAA. Great success attracts underminers who try to bring greatness down. Undermining is tacitly approved by the NCAA because its policing process calls for "cooperative enforcement," which means members are encouraged to snitch on each other when rules are believed to be broken. Currently 20 of the 788 member schools are on some kind of probation and 30 to 40 more are under investigation. Since 1952, 261 public penalties have been handed down. It would seem only natural that with its high profile Notre Dame would have gotten nabbed at one time or another, for one thing or another. And it has. Twice: in 1953, when it was "reprimanded" for illegal tryouts, and in 1971, when it was "reprimanded" for a minor technicality involving the grant-in-aid forms of several football players.
But that's it. Two misdemeanors—reprimands are the NCAA equivalent of parking tickets—in 62 years of big-time football and basketball. When I asked NCAA Director of Public Relations David E. Cawood, he said, "The astonishing thing our enforcement people find is that they get so few complaints [about Notre Dame]. For a school that attracts so much envy, and even hate, you would expect it would be defending itself all the time. But nobody points a finger."
Last winter the reverse occurred. Digger Phelps, Notre Dame's basketball coach for 11 years, pointed the finger at certain unnamed programs in his sport that he said were paying star players $10,000 a year under the table. The interesting thing about the charge wasn't that Phelps made it—he has been saying as much privately for years—but that he aroused no counter charges. Not one rival coach was heard to say that Phelps should clean up his own act before implicating others. To the contrary, the integrity of Notre Dame's program was never questioned.
The ability of Notre Dame's leadership to see the ways as well as the values of staying clean in an increasingly dirty world must be considered a reason that the school's reputation for rectitude goes unchallenged. Over the last couple of decades Hesburgh and Joyce have skillfully avoided the pitfalls that others so willingly leap into. There are, for example, no Notre Dame booster clubs, those rabid alumni-and-friends groups who at other schools create so many of the embarrassments (under-the-table payoffs, recruiting misdeeds, etc.) that result in penalties.
This isn't to say that Notre Dame discourages financial support. It generates millions through the 164 alumni clubs that Hesburgh shamelessly plies for funds. But not one penny of any contribution can be earmarked for athletes or athletics. All donations go into the university's general fund. Therefore, no direct influence can be exerted by old grads on the athletic program. Notre Dame alumni clubs are notorious for complaining about the Irish football coach's won-lost record—and consistent in getting nowhere with their complaints.
Two football seasons ago, Joyce hired Gerry Faust from a Catholic high school in Cincinnati to succeed Dan Devine as football coach, even though Faust had never coached a day at the college level or ever recruited a college player. An ominous murmur could be heard from the direction of the alumni clubs. This apparent lapse in good sense should be carefully examined because it will tell us more about Notre Dame than meets the eye.
Six months earlier, Joyce had announced that for the first time in Notre Dame history an athletic endowment fund was being established, with a goal of $10 million. In justifying this new endowment program, which would be administered by the office of development, not the athletic department, Joyce had cited soaring expenses, which had cut the "advantage" football and basketball revenues traditionally gained, as well as the need to expand the athletic program for women. Revenues in 1980 had reached an alltime high ($4.3 million), but expenditures were so large that the net had been only $29,000. By contrast, over a 50-year period—from back in Rockne's day to 1980—Notre Dame's athletic department showed an average annual profit of $250,000.
An essential ingredient in Notre Dame's rise to glory has been the keen eye its leadership has always had for the bottom line. The power of profits has never been lost on the school. It's a pragmatism that comes directly from Rockne, and is best illustrated by one example:
In Depression-wracked 1930, when the entire nation seemed on the verge of disintegrating, Notre Dame was building. It was building two dormitories, the law school, the engineering school, the commerce building and the new football stadium, mainly because Rockne's football teams had gained a national constituency through as slick a packaging job as spectator sport has ever seen. The Irish were a box-office smash year after year. And always the profits were pumped back into the general fund. After financing the rest of the athletic program, Rockne's undefeated 1930 team netted $689,000. In 1930, you could rebuild a small country with $689,000. Says Francis Jones, class of '29, a South Bend attorney and intimate of his alma mater's administrators and athletes, "Notre Dame has never had a depression."