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It is not the only change. Generations of Notre Dame students, including football players, have lived by the rules laid down in a booklet (and now a Web page) called du Lac: A Guide to Student Life. Hence, when fifth-year senior fullback Rashon Powers-Neal was arrested for DUI in the fall of 2005, du Lac mandated that he be suspended from all extracurricular activities, including intercollegiate athletics. Weis had no say in the decision. Three years later Weis lost tight end Will Yeatman, who was arrested for suspicion of underage drinking, resisting arrest and providing false information in a raid at an off-campus party that nabbed 37 Notre Dame students, including 22 athletes. (The charges were dismissed against Yeatman, who had previously pled guilty to DUI. He transferred to Maryland and now plays for the Dolphins.)
Upon leaving Notre Dame, Weis did an interview with a small group of selected media in which he said, in response to a question about the biggest problem on Notre Dame's campus, "Oh, it's Residence Life [the disciplinary branch of the school's student affairs office]. It's not even close for second.... I just think these are college kids, and college kids do what college kids do. Let's say a kid has been too loud because he had some alcohol, why wouldn't you just tell him to go to bed? ... I'm just saying boys will be boys, and I'm just defending them." (Weis never specifically said that he was talking about football players, but he was the football coach.)
More quietly, in the summer of 2010 Notre Dame dismissed associate vice president for residence life Bill Kirk, who for more than two decades had been du Lac's enforcer. Kirk's leaving was seen by some in the Notre Dame community as a capitulation to the departed Weis's clamor for softer discipline. Philosophy associate professor David Solomon, who has taught at the school since 1968 and was the director of Notre Dame's Center for Ethics and Culture, wrote a 2,000-word post on the online newspaper The Irish Rover, in which he said that football fans, "... frequently charge that Bill Kirk's enforcement of Notre Dame's disciplinary code was too harsh and that his insistence that Notre Dame athletes be subject to the same rules as other Notre Dame students was responsible for our repeated failures on the athletic fields." And also this: "In a summer in which all Domers were celebrating the distance between our oversight of athletics and the disorderly mess at USC, this incident [Kirk's exit] raised questions about just how different we really are."
Kirk, who was hired as vice president for student affairs at Ave Maria University in southwestern Florida in July, had no comment about the state of Notre Dame's disciplinary enforcement.
The changes became evident when wide receiver Michael Floyd was arrested for drunken driving in the spring of 2011, before his final season at Notre Dame. It was Floyd's third alcohol-related offense during his college career, yet his discipline was handled by Kelly, and Floyd did not miss a game. "With Michael Floyd," says Kelly, "I was the beneficiary of the student code of conduct being updated. Residential Life is going to be the final authority, but changes to du Lac kept Michael in the university, which then allowed me to discipline him to the level that [I deemed]was appropriate."
Brian Coughlin, Notre Dame's associate vice president for student development, says that a review of Notre Dame's disciplinary policies was undertaken in the spring of 2009; and changes were installed a year later that allowed for any student to be on probation without losing the right to participate in extracurricular activities, including football.
Whether these changes shrink Notre Dame's ethical soapbox is a debate over which purists will wring their hands and others will shrug. Few football powers have lost players for underage drinking; now Notre Dame generally will not. The school's academic record among football players remains healthy. In the most recent NCAA GSR (Graduation Success Rate) figures, Notre Dame is tied for first with Northwestern; by U.S. Department of Education accounting, Notre Dame is sixth, behind Northwestern, Boston College, Stanford, Rice and Penn State. Measured by the NCAA's Academic Progress Rate (APR), Notre Dame is tied for 25th among 120 FBS schools (among those higher: Ohio State and Miami).
Much of what Notre Dame does, it does indeed do the right way. "They won't knowingly break the rules," says Mike Tranghese, who worked closely with Notre Dame as Big East commissioner from 1990 to 2009 and as a BCS official. "But there are a lot of schools that won't knowingly break the rules. There is a certain kind of kid that they want, but they will make exceptions. People perceive them as acting privileged. They've earned that."
The school is in a unique position to control its message. In the winter of 1990, NBC executive Ken Schanzer told his boss, Dick Ebersol, that because of potential changes in the structure of college football broadcasting contracts, Notre Dame might be interested in cutting an exclusive deal with the highest bidder. Early in his career, at ABC, Ebersol had shared an office with Beano Cook, the former University of Pittsburgh sports information director and tireless college football proselytizer. "Beano impressed on me that Notre Dame was by far the strongest brand in college football. He thought it was worth more than Casablanca," says Ebersol, now retired. (Cook died in October.) "I told Ken, 'Get out of my office. Go do it.'"
So a school with only 8,372 undergrads but untold support among Irish Catholics got its own TV contract. That deal is now in its 22nd season, signed through 2015 at $15 million a year for Notre Dame. "We love the relationship," says NBC Sports chairman Mark Lazarus. "We intend to be their partners for another 25 years." For NBC, which paid $1.2 billion for the 2012 Olympics, the cost is minimal. And for Notre Dame, the money is less significant than the platform. "You watch the telecast, and it's clearly a Notre Dame telecast," says Tranghese. "It may not be maximum dollars, but Notre Dame has a brand, and the NBC deal allows them to advertise that brand." Notre Dame further solidified its financial well-being by joining the Atlantic Coast Conference in all sports except football beginning in 2014, while also keeping a spot in the BCS and in the ACC's rotation of non-BCS bowls.