The challenge came by mail, from a valued friend who over the years had favored me with a sporadic correspondence, mainly in the form of gentle but well-aimed critiques of things I'd written. This time, apparently, I'd gone too far. He said he had read the things I had done on the recurring failures of intercollegiate sport. Failures to curb the big-money madness. Failures to relieve the pressure on coaches to win, pressure that has led to desperate conduct on and off the playing field and court—the cheating and the gratuitous violence. Worst of all, that pressure had led to the academic derelictions that have scandalized America in recent years.
Although granting that my stories—notably The Writing Is on the Wall (SI, May 19, 1980)—called attention to "inexcusable acts," my correspondent thought them on the whole too negative, too likely to rally only the cynics. There is indeed another side, he said, and he was living it every day. He wrote, "As I read [your words] I say to myself, 'Not the slightest tinge of this scenario is applicable to Notre Dame. It simply doesn't describe the athletic picture as I know it.' "
Then, taking both sides of a lively little morality skit, he asked rhetorically if Notre Dame might be unique in the high values and integrity it demanded of its athletic program. "I trust not," he answered. He encouraged me to make an appraisal, promising "full access" to records and personnel, and reminded me (unnecessarily) that this wasn't a self-serving suggestion, that, after all, Notre Dame really didn't need any more publicity. But he thought some good could come from it because college administrators were more troubled than ever that the system might be fundamentally flawed.
He polished off the challenge with best wishes and signed it with a flourish, right above the typed signature and title, "Edmund P. Joyce, C.S.C., Executive Vice-President."
The letter sat around for some time, but not passively. Like dough rising under a baker's towel, it expanded in my consciousness even as the system's breakdowns made their ugly marks in increasing number on the nation's sports pages and TV screens. I'm neither Irish nor Catholic, not a Notre Dame fan, not an alumnus, not even especially fond of the place or its famous victory march (On Brave Old Army Team has always struck me as a more inspiring number), but I had nonetheless come to include myself in that legion of admirers who harbor a vague conviction that Notre Dame is doing something right, that it possesses something that, if transmittable, might very well deserve parceling around.
Shortly after that, I was in the company of a coaching friend who I happened to know once lusted for a football job at Notre Dame. A tyrannical pragmatism cured him of that itch—needing to eat, he took a job elsewhere. I asked him if he thought there were things to learn from Notre Dame, if in its success in football and other sports and its upgraded academic status in recent years, there were patterns to be found and followed.
The coach is a combustible conversationalist. When he gets on a subject he stomps around and waves his arms. Immediately he was into the verbal equivalent of top gear. "Learn? What's to learn?" he shouted. "That's Utopia! You can't even compare Notre Dame with us. Some of us try to run first-class programs within the rules. Some of us succeed, some don't. Notre Dame doesn't worry about it because it doesn't have to cheat. Father Joyce brags about not allowing transfer students or junior college graduates into Notre Dame and not redshirting players. Notre Dame doesn't need to do those things, you get the picture?" He paused to allow the picture to be gotten.
"Notre Dame doesn't recruit, Notre Dame gathers," he said. "You say 'Notre Dame' to a high school football player, and it's like saying 'free lunch' to a starving man. Half the top players in the country tell you they've been dreaming about going there since they were little kids. Nobody tells you they've been dreaming about going to Louisville or Memphis State.
"What do you learn from a place where a coach loses 12 games in 13 years? You want to know? O.K. One, tradition. Notre Dame has fantastic tradition. Two, it has Rockne. He's dead, but he'll live forever. Twelve losses in 13 years! Three, it has a great common denominator, Catholicism. Four, it has a great fight song. Five, it has a golden dome that blinds you to the fact that in the winter the campus looks like a penitentiary. But Number One it has great tradition, and you can't get that anymore because college presidents fire you if you don't win, and the program has to start all over again every time that happens.
"Educationally, I think Notre Dame is overrated, but for overall prestige in academics and athletics, it's in a class by itself. I think it's great that intercollegiate sport has an example like Notre Dame. But it's not the real world. It's Utopia."