Notre Dame may not be perfect, but as the authors of Under the Tarnished Dome: How Notre Dame Betrayed Its Ideals for Football Glory are learning, it is very, very good. The school's response to the book, a highly critical look at the Irish football program under coach Lou Holtz that was released last week, was so swift, so deftly orchestrated and so scathing that writer Don Yaeger (his coauthor is SI senior writer Douglas S. Looney) was shaken.
"I told a friend I felt like I should move in with Salman Rushdie," Yaeger said as the Notre Dame attacks on his and Looney's "motives and methodology" poured forth. "He told me, I don't think Salman would want to be near you.' "
Yet, for all the fuss the book has brought, Notre Dame has faced such scrutiny before. Much of the material most quoted by the media, that dealing with steroid use among Irish players, echoes an SI article written by former Notre Dame player Steve Huffman (Aug. 27, 1990), who alleged widespread steroid abuse under Holtz. Likewise, the book's portrayal of Holtz as callous and blind to players' injuries, mirrors the image projected in Huffman's article. Notre Dame responded to the Huffman story three years ago with self-righteous denials, characterizing the charges as the lashing out of a disgruntled player.
What is different this time is that Yaeger and Looney have gotten scores of former Irish players to buttress Huffman's observations. In fact, says Yaeger, many sources agreed to talk because they were offended by Notre Dame's response to the Huffman piece. Yaeger says the book grew out of a phone call from an Irish player who took exception to Yaeger's praise of the Notre Dame program in his 1990 book on the NCAA, Undue Process; he and Looney interviewed 84 players, says Yaeger, all on the record, and "90 percent of them" on tape. And while there were some positive voices, the testimony in Tarnished Dome clearly paints the picture of a program that, if not yet renegade, is no longer holier than thou—or even than Miami or Oklahoma.
The book links the decay of Notre Dame's standards to Holtz's arrival in South Bend from Minnesota in 1985. Under Holtz's predecessor, Gerry Faust, the Irish had gone a dismaying 30-26-1. Notre Dame was ready for a big-time college coach who knew how to win. Holtz delivered the goods, including a national championship in 1988. But, the book argues, Notre Dame sold its soul to achieve this. Besides steroid use, say Yaeger and Looney's sources, there was classroom cheating, double standards for football admissions and booster handouts.
The Irish's response to the book has been predictably hard-line. Holtz says he hasn't read it and refuses to discuss any of the allegations for fear of distracting his team. Notre Dame executive vice-president Rev. E. William Beauchamp served as the university's front man when the networks lobbed their questions last week: NBC, which has a five-year, $38 million contract to televise Irish football games, barely mentioned the book during last Saturday's telecast of Notre Dame's season opener against Northwestern; ABC sent Notre Dame alum Mary Ann Grabavoy to South Bend to ask Beauchamp a few gentle questions.
In an interview with SI, Beauchamp said that "the whole premise upon which this book was written is false." He cited Notre Dame's own investigations into steroid abuse and its own exit polls of players; the school's findings don't square with what was published.
Moreover, he said, Notre Dame has been hearing from sources in the book who claim they were "misrepresented." Beauchamp said these reactions were not orchestrated, though he admits that the school sent some former players copies of their quotes, asking, "Are you aware of how you're quoted?"
The effect of such a question must have been powerful. One former player, John Askin, wrote to the university to say he was "blackmailed into the interview" and "would never have allowed [ Yaeger] to use my good name to promote a TRASH book." Yaeger calls the Askin letter especially curious. He says he has his original interview with Askin on tape. Further, he says that in March he discussed all of Askin's quotes with him and that on Aug. 29 he sat down at Askin's dining room table to go over the book. Askin, says Yaeger, told him, "I'm proud of what I said in the book." Askin's letter to the university was dated the next day. Askin could not be reached for comment last weekend.