It’s been a busy month for playing that favorite college football parlor game, “What’s Wrong with Notre Dame?”
In the first half of August, my friend and former colleague Rick Reilly said everything is wrong with Notre Dame – that the football program is such a disgrace it should give up its NBC contract, give up its seat at the BCS proceedings and basically apologize every time someone in the media says a kind word about the Fighting Irish.
On Wednesday, former Irish running back and current Irish radio analyst Allen Pinkett says Notre Dame is too law-abiding. He says the Irish need “bad citizens” and that championship teams have “criminals” on the roster. He actually is heartened by the fact that Brian Kelly’s third team in South Bend starts the season with several players suspended for either one or two games.
Pinkett’s comments were so absurd that they elicited a swift statement all the way from Ireland, from athletic director Jack Swarbrick: “Allen Pinkett’s suggestion that Notre Dame needs more ‘bad guys’ on its football team is nonsense. Of course, Allen does not speak for the university, but we could not disagree more with this observation.”
Now it’s my turn. You want to know what’s wrong with Notre Dame? I’ll tell you.
Nothing is wrong with Notre Dame.
There is something wrong with the rest of us for thinking there’s something wrong with Notre Dame.
Yeah, the Irish could win more. They could win like they did under Holtz, Devine, Parseghian, Leahy and Rockne. But times have changed in college football since those days, and largely not for the better. Meanwhile Notre Dame – while trying to win big – has had the backbone to stay largely the same.
Without that backbone, they might have to follow the knucklehead advice of Pinkett to win like the old days. Or the apparent belief of Reilly and others: if you’re faced with the prospect of losing, make like the other football factories in America and simply compromise your standards.
I find the national glee/outrage over Notre Dame’s demise as a national football powerhouse to be a staggering display of selective perception.
Penn State sacrificed its principles on the altar of king football, with tragic results. North Carolina has made a mockery of its academic reputation in an effort to admit and keep eligible marginally prepared football stars. There are looming NCAA clouds over Miami and Oregon, a postseason ban at Ohio State, and just-concluded penalties at USC.
We see all the fresh carnage caused by a loss of perspective. We howl at the scandals that diminish the game.
And still Notre Dame gets ripped and mocked for not winning enough.
How dare the school continue to stand for something more than going 12-0? How dare the school decide that leading the nation for the past three seasons in the NCAA’s Graduation Success Rate is more important than leading the nation in the polls? How dare the school recruit future societal leaders instead of the future medium-security detainees Pinkett wants?
Last week I spoke with Don Bishop, associate vice president for undergraduate enrollment at Notre Dame, and director of admissions Bob Mundy. Bishop worked at Notre Dame in the late 1970s, went to a couple of other institutions and is now back at the school. Mundy has been there for 29 years. They’re proud to work at a school that has resisted cutting academic corners in exchange for regaining football glory.
“We have not had to recalibrate our selectivity for football over 34 years,” Bishop said. “It has not changed, and it would seem from an academic standpoint that those standards are working pretty well. The kids that are being recruited and are here are getting the job done.”
Apparently so. Look at the current Notre Dame roster and you find five players who already have undergraduate degrees, and a whopping 26 who are in the Mendoza College of Business. BusinessWeek merely ranked Mendoza the nation’s No. 1 undergraduate business school for 2012, while U.S. News & World Report had it way down at No. 14.
So, no, they are not storing all the football players in lightweight majors at Notre Dame. Nor are they segregating them from the rest of the campus.
There is no jock dorm at Notre Dame, and no off-campus housing for incoming freshmen. In fact, most players wind up rooming with non-players as freshmen.
“You’re going to live in the dorms, and your roommate might be from China,” coach Brian Kelly said. “He might not know what a football looks like.”
But he might help a football player know what real campus life looks like – the world beyond the practice facility and the weight room and the stadium. Notre Dame is big on that stuff – on the bonding of an entire student body.
Football is the biggest bonding agent on campus, but the players live among the regular Joes and take regular classes. They are peers as much as heroes.
“There has to be a philosophical fit between prospect and school,” Kelly said. “There has to be a fit when it comes to how to relate on this campus. To understand the place, you need more than just a flyover. You’ve got to be on our campus.
“There are no mixed messages at Notre Dame. Not everybody is going to fit it, and I think that’s a two-way street.”
The question is whether the Domers themselves believe in staying the course that has been established for decades. Or whether they’d succumb to the allure of altering the course if it meant the first national championship since 1988.
Bishop, of the alumni office, isn’t worried.
“There’s the fan base, and then there’s the alumni base,” he said. “We think the alumni are very supportive of maintaining the standards. They’re more likely to question the football coach than the admissions office. For the fans who are only interested in the sport, they’re not in support of all that is Notre Dame.
“You can’t be all things to all people. You better be who you are.”
Notre Dame is OK being what it is. And anyone who has a problem with that has a problem with perspective on where football fits on a college campus.
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