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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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It's simply not accurate to believe, moreover, that Notre Dame doesn't make academic allowances when competing for athletes. It suffers its share of coaches lobbying Director of Admissions John Goldrick for special consideration. Goldrick doesn't always turn a deaf ear. The difference is that his gray areas for admissions are just not as broad as those at numerous other schools, and the scrutiny—primarily Goldrick's, but Joyce's, too—is so keen that a coach would be ill-advised to try pulling a fast one with, say, a recruit's transcript. De Cicco says that only three of the 27 football players brought in on scholarship last year were under the standards, and "any more than that would have the admissions department screaming, not to mention Father Joyce."

The halfback who can run a 4.4 40 or the quarterback who can throw a 60-yard spiral into a water bucket might get in with 14 credits or a combined SAT score of 850 or a "predicted" GPA of 2.0 (the NCAA's minimum), "but never a combination of the three," De Cicco adds.

Willie Fry, a defensive end (class of '78), came in with only two years of math, but high grades in other subjects made him a worthwhile risk, and he graduated on schedule. Halfback Jerome Heavens (79) raised some eyebrows at Notre Dame when he was accepted there. His average, says De Cicco, was barely over 2.0, and he "generally didn't have the numbers in other areas." In such instances, Notre Dame tries hardest of all. "With Heavens we went on red alert," De Cicco says. "We had him tutored in English, math and science, and we kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. He majored in economics and graduated in 3½ years."

It would be naive to believe that this devotion to scholarship has always been so scrupulous at Notre Dame, or that it would be so if the leadership qualities weren't as strong in the coaches' offices as they are in the administrators'. Notre Dame has been blessed by many things, and more than anything, it has been blessed by the presence of three extraordinary football coaches: Rockne, Leahy and Parseghian. The fact is, however, that by Hesburgh-Joyce standards, only Parseghian would measure up as exemplary. Rockne was a football original—a brilliant coach, a spellbinding orator and an entrepreneurial genius. Notre Dame was lucky he came along. But he was also a shameless huckster who played loose with the truth, and there is more than casual evidence that his dedication to the academic side of his players' lives was not as rigorous as some have made it out to be. Leahy had the Irish good looks of a movie idol. He was capable of eloquent, impassioned speeches and was a tactical genius. But Leahy was also a practice-field martinet obsessed with winning, and he brought more than a casual shame on old Notre Dame by his devious on-field tactics—for example, the notorious sucker shifts and fake-injury plays.

As for Parseghian, there is no evidence that he recruited illegally, or that he pampered or paid his athletes, or that he played loose with the rules. He wasn't even paid like a big-time coach, at least at the start. He came to Notre Dame for $20,000 a year, a $2,000 raise from his salary at Northwestern. He didn't ask for or get a car or a house. In the end, of course, he became rich and famous. It could be argued that it was justified all around.

Along with Notre Dame's administration, Parseghian believed, as does Faust, that big-time athletics and meaningful education are compatible, that you can compete and still have your athletes graduate in four years, and not be segregated in jock dorms, and not be bribed as recruits or babied as undergraduates, and not be paid a penny beyond the costs of their education. But as long as Notre Dame's leadership clings to the fable that "football is only a game, no more, no less," a statement Hesburgh made at the 1981 football banquet, it will come up short of being an athletic paragon.

To show that that statement has the heavy odor of baloney, one need only compare the treatment afforded Notre Dame's football and basketball programs with that given its other varsity sports. Football and basketball get a ton of support and attention, not because they are better character builders or better examples of manliness or anything else. They get it because they represent money and interest. And the chance to make more money and get more interest. You don't concoct a $1.9 million budget for a sport that is "only" a sport. The practical consideration is as important as the idealistic one. As long as this isn't acknowledged, the inconsistencies will jump out every time the lid is off.

It is fiction that Notre Dame is successful in all 18 varsity sports. There are now only four full-time head coaches at Notre Dame—in football, basketball, hockey and women's basketball (as a concession to Title IX legislation). Other head coaches must perform other duties. Of the 160 athletes now on scholarship, 95 (the NCAA limit) are football players, 18 are hockey players, 13 are basketball players. The other sports divide and subdivide—by giving "partials"—the rest. Track gets 11, women's basketball eight, baseball four, tennis two, golf one, etc.

The results speak for themselves. The Notre Dame baseball team had eight losing seasons in the 10-year period from 1971 through 1980. Since 1958, swimming has been .538. The tennis team had six undefeated seasons and won two NCAA titles, but those came over a 60-year period and it doesn't do very well anymore. De Cicco's fencing team is a notable exception: With no scholarships and a tiny budget ($45,000), it has achieved a 369-36 record in 21 years.

The rationale is practical and understandable: Football and basketball make money, the others don't. Phelps's teams have sold out every home game for 10 years, and the basketball budget benefits accordingly. After expenses of $455,000 (including salaries of $107,000 and grants-in-aid of $90,000), the 1981-82 basketball team made $160,000. Football in 1981-82 had expenses of $1,900,000, including $339,000 in salaries, $651,000 in grants, $148,000 in travel and $101,000 in recruiting. It spent $36,000 on film, $19,000 on laundry and $18,000 on long-distance telephone calls. And it made a profit of $577,000.

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