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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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That being the case, what did the hiring, at this critical fiscal juncture, of a high school coach represent? One editorialist suggested that it amounted to bringing in a local car dealer to run General Motors. But it strikes me that there are two ways to look at the chance taken in hiring Faust. One, it was a gamble not inconsistent with others taken during the Hesburgh-Joyce era. Parseghian, for example, turned out to be the beau ideal of all Notre Dame coaches, but his previous coaching success was limited to several above-average seasons at Northwestern. He was no sure thing. To this day, neither Joyce nor Hesburgh admits to understanding why Devine (1975-80) wasn't beloved by the Irish faithful. He arrived in South Bend with a distinguised record, and he gave the fans good teams and even a national championship. When he could no longer handle the alumni charges that he somehow "didn't fit," Devine quit. He wouldn't have been fired.

Any coaching job carries within itself the seeds of an abrupt termination, but last winter, after his 5-6 inaugural season, there wasn't—and there still isn't—any movement by the university toward ending Faust's employment at Notre Dame. The jury of public opinion may still be out, but Joyce and Hesburgh don't answer to juries. Or alumni clubs.

Which brings us to the second, or more idealistic, way of looking at the Faust hiring. It represented a kind of Dei gratia stand for righteousness at Notre Dame, and never mind the business risk. Faust was more than just a successful high school coach. He was a devout, stand-up Catholic who made a lasting positive impression on his players. "We have a short motto," says Joyce. " 'What's good for the boy is good for Notre Dame.' I think Gerry Faust will be good for the boys." In effect, the Faust hiring put Notre Dame's actions where its mouth has always been. But not always was. A South Bend man who was close to Leahy recalls his installation in 1941. "Leahy asked Father So-and-so, 'What do they want?' Father So-and-so said, 'They want to win, and they don't care how.' "

Certainly, the hiring of Faust was more in line with what Notre Dame now sees itself to be, and that's almost as important as what it is. To be good, you must aspire to goodness. It doesn't come naturally.

In answering Joyce's challenge, I've now heard many voices giving many impressions of Notre Dame. Not all the voices were admiring ones. One rival coach denounced the school's "bullying" ways, especially at Notre Dame Stadium, and the "smugness" of its leadership in not taking "certain types of athletes."

Even some of those who were intimately connected don't feel that the bricks of Notre Dame were laid by angels. Alan Page, an All-America on the 1966 team, says that the place "never had a mythical effect on me." He says it was different "only in that it was smaller, and you couldn't get lost in the classes the way you might at Minnesota." Page says he has "no nostalgia for Notre Dame."

Perceptions randomly given are, of course, imperfect barometers. It is, rather, the weight of evidence between the extremes that make the larger truth. In sorting out an accumulation of viewpoints, I found that the majority of those who have played at Notre Dame have an unusual affection for the place, even more deeply felt than I had imagined. Many of them talk in terms of the bond they forged, the kind you find among participants in a great mutual undertaking, like a war or a social crusade. They are not, however, of one mind.

The earlier ones speak almost exclusively of the football experience, how inspiring that was. Johnny Lujack quarter-backed the national championship teams of 1946 and '47. He remembers his first visit to the Notre Dame campus, as a high school senior. "I got to meet the coach [Leahy], to see the Notre Dame team, to be in the locker room after the game," he says. "Everything was the way I'd imagined it. Hell, if God had taken me then, I'd have thought I'd had a full life, and I was 17 years old."

Those whose experience is more recent seem to see Notre Dame in broader measure, as if in reflection of the greater breadth Hesburgh has brought to virtually all aspects of the university. In the pre-Hesburgh days, Notre Dame was considered academically a limited, sectarian institution and not necessarily even the best of the nation's Catholic schools. Today it's a well-regarded, "national" university that, while certainly no Harvard, ranks comfortably within the top 100 of the nation's 2,500 colleges.

Michael Oriard, a walk-on center who co-captained the 1969 team, recalls that of the 10 or 12 people "I really lived with" in the dorm at Notre Dame, only he played football. "Four of the others are now doctors, three are lawyers, two are engineers," he says. "They were guys who got good educations. But you know, they never missed a football game." Oriard is now an English professor at Oregon State.

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