Can the Fighting Irish Excel at School and at Play?

Author: Richard Conklin '59M.A.

The University wants national championships in athletics and international prestige in academics.

By Richard Conklin ’59M.A.

In the Joyce Center’s Sports Heritage Hall, surrounded by souvenirs of a revered athletic past and framed by photographs of football glory, is a small showcase reminding the visitor of a tension running through intercollegiate athletics. In it are fine-grained wooden trophies won by Notre Dame for graduating the most football players. They are less imposing than others in the concourse marking national championships and bowl triumphs, and some observers are starting to wonder whether the two types of trophies are even compatible anymore.

Indeed, Notre Dame is a high-wire act in American intercollegiate athletics, and the sport carrying the balancing pole is football.
Collegiate sports today are under intense criticism, much of it coming from the Knight Commission On Intercollegiate Athletics. In three reports during the past decade, the commission has voiced increasing concern about the effect of collegiate sports on academic mission, on institutional finances and on the noncommercialism that has traditionally distinguished amateur athletics from its professional counterpart. (The commission is co-chaired by Father Theodore Hesburgh, CSC, University president emeritus.)

Notre Dame is trying to keep athletics in perspective while competing successfully in an environment where not everyone does. A lot of people are watching this effort — the University’s athletic Web site gets two million hits a year — and some are openly skeptical about football’s ability to keep its footing. Yes, there are other institutions sharing Notre Dame’s challenge of combining academics and athletics at the highest level, among them Stanford, Duke and Northwestern, all of whom have higher football SATs than Notre Dame. But what they don’t have is an iconic football program.

Notre Dame continually resists becoming a full-fledged member of intercollegiate athletics’ mainstream. It still requires math and foreign languages for admission, and it does not offer majors that contain words like “leisure” and “recreation.” It does not recruit from junior colleges, does not provide football dormitories or special training tables. It does not allow booster clubs or independent fund-raising by the Athletic Department. It expects any revenue surplus from athletics to be available for academic purposes.

Still, the University does adjust to the times. The market for football coaches has rendered quaint the notion that their salaries could be tied to that of the highest-paid professor. Academic redshirting is prohibited, but Irish football teams can field as many fifth-year players as opponents because graduating seniors with eligibility can apply for another year if they pursue postbaccalaureate studies. There is virtually no commercial intrusion in Notre Dame Stadium, but on fall Saturdays corporate tents and Chevrolet cars can be found across the street.

The man in charge of Notre Dame’s delicate athletic balancing act is Athletic Director Kevin White, whose background in both public and private institutions gives him experience unmatched since Gene Corrigan resigned in 1987. “When I was hired,” White recalled, “I heard these expectations: Academic performance by athletes should remain among the best in the country; compliance with NCAA regulations should be ensured; football should regain its pinnacle position; Olympic sports should be ranked in the top 10 nationally; and Notre Dame should finish in the top five in the Sears Cup [emblematic of overall intercollegiate athletic achievement]. There are economic consequences that flow from these.”

White’s list of expectations provide a way of taking a look at Notre Dame’s progress across the high wire.

Academics/Football. “Nothing is more important to [the integrity of] athletics at Notre Dame than the independence of the Admissions office,” emphasized the University’s NCAA faculty representative, professor of law Fernand “Tex” Dutile ‘65J.D. Nothing has changed in the admissions process for athletes — and everything has. “The bottom line continues to be whether we think the prospective student-athlete can succeed at Notre Dame,” noted director of admissions Daniel Saracino ’69, ’75M.A., adding that the best indicator is high school performance, especially senior year. That’s the constant. The “everything” that has changed is precisely the difficulty of succeeding at Notre Dame, given the steady ratcheting up of overall student body quality. “Between 1996 and 2001, the average SAT of the entering class went up 51 points,” Saracino pointed out. The scholastic gap between the average football or male basketball player and his classmates is larger than it has ever been.

Notre Dame makes allowances for athletes in the admissions process, as it does for other groups, such as faculty and staff children. Among the 115 Division I-A schools, its average SAT (and ACT converted to SAT) rank for entering grants-in-aid football players, for example, was 42nd for the years 1994-97.

The difference comes in graduating athletes. While the lag time allowed in compiling NCAA graduation statistics frustrates direct comparisons, Notre Dame has never been out of the top 10 in Division I-A football graduation rates and is usually in the top 5.
Those high graduation statistics are why White sees the scholastic-challenge glass as half-full, not half-empty. “What we have to offer a student-athlete is a phenomenal ‘academic updraft,’” Notre Dame’s athletic director stressed. “In many cases, these young women and men get higher GPAs at Notre Dame than they got in high school.” In explaining this, he cited Notre Dame’s 38-year-old academic support system for athletes and its award-winning “Life Skills” program but gave prime credit to the University’s tradition of residentiality. The community that student-athletes find at Notre Dame helps them academically, socially and spiritually, White is convinced. “I had a chat recently with [freshman] Chris Thomas,” he said. “I asked him who his closest friends were, figuring a point guard distributing the ball would have a lot of players wanting to be friends. Chris spoke warmly about his closest friends — and none of them was from the basketball court; they were all from his residence hall.” White makes his own contribution to the sense of community he wants student athletes to experience at Notre Dame — he and his wife, Jane, annually have every varsity athlete to dinner at their home, inviting them by team.

Given the time pressures that now go with virtually every sport, keeping “student-athlete” an honest compound noun is a major challenge, according to both Dutile and Saracino. “It is not enough to keep someone eligible,” Saracino said. “We need to make sure he or she has a complete educational experience at Notre Dame.” The ideal he had in mind was illustrated last summer when a Notre Dame administrator vacationing in London spotted a familiar face at a National Theatre production of Hamlet. It was basketball forward Harold Swanagan, taking in Shakespeare’s classic tragedy as part of a University summer program. “There can’t be a handful of Division I-A basketball players who have ever seen Hamlet,” the administrator remarked dryly.
White’s “academic updraft” theory seems to be working in football — its players had the best classroom performance in history last year, and the program had a 100 percent graduation rate. (A reminder of mainstream reality in football graduation rates came last bowl season. Had a Knight Commission-recommended ban on bowl games been in effect for schools with less than a 50 percent graduation rate, it would have eliminated 30 of 50 bowl teams, leaving a viewer the Humanitarian, Holiday and Music City games.)

At the same time, it should be acknowledged that many “blue chippers” in football and basketball cannot even be pursued by University recruiters. They lack the right package of secondary school courses — University requirements that exceed those of the NCAA and which Saracino thinks of as foundations for a Notre Dame education, not stumbling blocks to admission. In this scenario, Notre Dame will continue to get good players, but not the “difference-makers” that can take a team into Bowl Championship Series (BCS) bowls.

Proponents of this thesis can point to a significant fall-off in recent years in the number of Irish All-Americans and in the number of players going in early rounds of the National Football League draft. This includes both Lou Holtz and Bob Davie recruiting classes. Yet secondary-school requirements for admission have remained unchanged, as has the next question Admissions considers about a high school football prospect who meets the requirements: “Can he compete academically at Notre Dame?” It may be that a self-selection process is going on. While a young man looking beyond the stadium would prize a Notre Dame degree, the academic reputation of the University might not seem a plus to a sought-after player looking for a ticket to the NFL rather than an education.

One does not need a Harris Poll to know that Notre Dame football remains the most popular and visible program in the country, notwithstanding recent lackluster records. If Notre Dame football has a cold, the saying goes, the nation’s sportswriters get pneumonia. Typical is Chicago Tribune sports columnist Rick Morrissey, who opined last fall, “I hope the next coach understands that, unless the school loosens its academic requirements, he’ll be working at the program formerly known as Notre Dame.” Behind that admonition is a demographic argument summarized by Indiana University professor Murray Sperber, a perceptive critic of intercollegiate sports and a historian of Notre Dame football. “The pool for blue-chip football players who can be admitted to Notre Dame is small, and since wall-to-wall televising of games has brought national exposure to many schools, Notre Dame can no longer depend on the getting the percentage of these players — even from Catholic schools — it needs to compete with the Florida States, who don’t have the same academic standards.” Sperber hastened to add, “Notre Dame should be prouder to be among the top 20 national universities in the country than to win a national championship in football.”

“The data show that admissions is not the problem,” White countered, citing the SAT evidence belying the perception that Notre Dame entrance requirements are unreasonable for Division I-A football. “We should,” he advised, “be talking up the academic updraft of Notre Dame, the fact that student-athletes who are admitted do graduate. We have been down before in football and come back, and we’ll do it again. The place has a certain magic.” Father Edward Malloy, CSC, the first Notre Dame president to have a monogram (his is in basketball), also takes the long view. “We have seen in our history cycles of success and non-success,” he commented. “Our aspirations and commitment have not changed, and although the environment in which we compete has, I still think we can achieve success in football.”

Compliance. In March U.S. News & World Report inaugurated a ranking of collegiate athletic programs, modeled on its widely quoted assessment of undergraduate education at the nation’s institutions of higher learning. Notre Dame was not to be found on their “honor roll” — the magazine excluded schools with major NCAA infractions in the past 10 years, an uncomfortable reminder of the Kim Dunbar affair. In the wake of the 1999 NCAA sanctions, Notre Dame trustees recommended improvements in compliance, and White has expanded personnel in this area from one-and-a-half persons to three, with a fourth soon to be hired.

“I want an environment in which we do the right thing, even when no one is looking,” White stated. “We are the only school in the country where all of the coaches and staff — 86 people, including myself — have formally agreed to a financial penalty if involved in a major NCAA infraction.”

Can White guarantee there never will be another compliance problem? “No,” he said, “there are too many moving parts,” starting with about 800 varsity athletes and including some 104,500 graduates. On the federal level, the University considers itself in line with Title IX’s gender equity goals. Since women’s fencing became the first female varsity sport in 1972, Notre Dame has added 12 more, and there are now 13 varsity sports each for men and women. Of the participants, 55 percent are male, 45 percent female in an undergraduate student body 53 percent male and 47 percent female.

Olympic Sports/Sears Cup. Members of the women’s rowing team, the latest varsity sport at Notre Dame, were working out on the Saint Joseph River in South Bend one afternoon recently when a stranger shouted from the bank, “You’re our hope for the Sears Cup!” The Sears Cup has, indeed, intensified interest in Olympic sports, an area not emphasized at Notre Dame until the late 1980s. In a sign that so-called nonrevenue sports have come of age, 10 different teams achieved the highest rankings in the history of their programs in 2000-01, and last fall all five Olympic teams — men’s and women’s cross country, men’s and women’s soccer, and women’s volleyball — advanced to NCAA postseason competition. Their performance contributed to the University’s Sears Cup ranking of 14th after the 2001 fall sports season. Notre Dame has finished as high as 11th three times in the last nine years, but has never cracked the top 10 in the final Sears Cup standings. However, the University will be adding 64 grants-in-aid (36 for women’s sports, 28 for men’s) over the next four years, bringing all Olympic sports to their full NCAA complement and fulfilling White’s top priority of putting all Irish sports teams in position to win national championships. Some of those grants-in-aid will go to a sport White did not see until he came to Notre Dame — lacrosse.

When White enumerated what he considered his charge as athletic director, he mentioned “economic consequences,” and with good reason. Economics and amateur sports have never been so intertwined. In his 1990 book College Sports Inc.: The Athletic Department vs the University, Sperber was among the first to document the counterintuitive fact that most collegiate sports programs lose money, draining dollars away from an institution’s educational endeavor. Accounting varies from university to university, making it difficult to compare apples with apples, but White estimates that only “a handful” of Division 1-A schools actually make a profit in athletics. Notre Dame has long been one of them, dating back to the south quadrangle built by the teams of Knute Rockne.

In fiscal 2002, for example, the budgeted revenues for the Notre Dame Athletic Department are $40,982,476 (about 60 percent generated by football), with expenses at $31,478,972, leaving a net of $9,503,504. This profit provides funding for such things as maintenance and renewal of athletic facilities, payments on stadium expansion bonds and student financial aid, as well as a contribution to the University’s operating budget. That operating budget contribution has averaged $900,000 over the past several years, apart from postseason revenues. Net from all postseason appearances in fiscal 2001, including the Fiesta Bowl, was $7 million. Bowl monies over the years have flowed into student financial aid, benefiting undergraduates, as well as the Graduate School, the Law School and the MBA program.

Revenue over the past eight seasons from the NBC contract and postseason play that the University has applied to expendable and endowed scholarships totals more than $62 million. The majority of these funds, about $49 million, went to financial aid endowments, which have grown to nearly $90 million. These are figures to ponder the next time one sits through a commercial timeout in the rain in Notre Dame Stadium. The University is rightly perceived in higher education circles as an institution that has leveraged athletics for institutional advancement, and football has played the leading role.

One area where White sees Notre Dame’s athletic program as deficient is in varsity athletic practice facilities. “Our game day venues are in relatively good shape,” he commented, “but we are at a recruiting disadvantage when comparisons are made with our training and practice facilities.” Matt Dougherty winced when he saw the basketball locker rooms in the Joyce Center, and after he was hired as head coach lobbied successfully for a complete renovation and expansion. “Today’s student athlete is a sophisticated consumer,” White argued, one inclined to infer institutional commitment from the level of attention given the practice and training environment in which he or she will spend a lot of time over a collegiate career.

Note the emphasis in a New York Times sportswriter’s recent description of Rutgers “as the sleeper of the [basketball] Big East: Good facilities, an athletic and academic heritage, state-of-the-art weight room, and a players’ locker room voted one of the best in the nation.” If one is wondering about the relative weight of “heritage,” the Four Horsemen and the Peloponnesian Wars exist in the same time frame for most student-athletes brought up on MTV.

White’s bricks-and-mortar wish-list includes a major renovation of the 33-year-old Joyce Center, which would include a revamped hockey arena with a self-contained feel; an addition to the Loftus Center that would improve weight-training facilities and bring together football offices and locker room; and upgrading of soccer and softball facilities. Price tag: $120 million.

One way university athletic departments have sought to add to the bottom line is through commercial partnerships, which have generated occasional controversy. Commercialization is an area in which Notre Dame can be said to be half-pregnant. It accepts commercial ties as a legitimate way to capitalize on the national popularity of Notre Dame athletics, but it declines to go as far as many schools. Father Malloy candidly cited Rockne’s entrepreneurship as presaging contemporary marketing of athletics and pointed out that years before the NBC contract, Notre Dame had its own television outlet (Dumont) for football. The University has the standard agreement with a vendor, Adidas, to supply footwear and apparel for all 26 varsity sports. (Dutile has speculated that Father Sorin’s canoe had three stripes.)

Still, as sports historian Sperber observed, “Notre Dame trails in today’s commercialization derby.” In today’s marketing-driven atmosphere, what an institution decides not to do defines it as much as what it does. Some popular things that Notre Dame has thus far declined to do include building luxury boxes and an income-generating JumboTron scoreboard while renovating the stadium, seeking corporate sponsorship for individual home football games, and inviting donors to endow positions on the football team. “Everybody watches what Notre Dame does,” commented Sperber. “Can you imagine the reaction if Notre Dame rather than Oregon had spent $250,000 for a New York City billboard plugging a Heisman candidate? We’d still be reading about it.”

One of the reasons we would still be reading about it, according to Father Malloy, is that the balancing act of intercollegiate athletics is not receiving balanced reporting by the news media. “The gee-whiz school of sports reporting has been replaced by pervasive cynicism about the value of intercollegiate athletics,” he asserted. “My own athletic experience was positive. Basketball provided me with an opportunity I would not otherwise have had to come to Notre Dame, where I had a chance to grow as a person. I still think there are many stories like mine. Despite its problems, and I have dealt with some, intercollegiate athletics remains a distinctive asset in American higher education.” As an example, he pointed to Notre Dame’s 2001 national champion women’s basketball squad, a team from central casting that was as appealing in its off-court citizenship as it was in its on-court athleticism.

As for the central question of whether Notre Dame can meet both its academic aspirations and its football expectations, only one thing can be said for certain: People are still watching the high wire.

Richard Conklin recently retired as associate vice president for University Relations.

Notre Dame Magazine, Summer 2002