One day last week Notre Dame's president, Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, was sitting in his campus office, directly under the Golden Dome of the administration building; classical music played, as always, softly and elegantly from across the room. In this serene and scholarly setting Hesburgh considered the question: What would it mean to the institution if the Irish never won another football game?
"It would mean," said Hesburgh, "that we wouldn't be known for football anymore." And a faint smile crossed his face; the idea of no more football victories was an intriguing, yes, even an appealing one.
Indeed, Notre Dame is a paradox. To the university's hierarchy, football is almost inconsequential, maybe even a detriment to a loftier purpose. Father Hesburgh—a giant of a presence, with 110 honorary degrees (he is tops in that category in the Guinness Book of World Records), 14 presidential appointments, a true citizen of the world (the joke around Notre Dame is that the difference between God and Father Hesburgh is that God is everywhere and Hesburgh is everywhere except Notre Dame) who has given commencement addresses in four languages—says, "I'm not concerned about football. If we win, hooray. If we don't, fine." He doesn't hate football, really. It's just not very important.
Everywhere beyond South Bend, however, Notre Dame is football. And vice versa. The fact that Notre Dame is considered one of the outstanding universities in the land (Barron's Profiles of American Colleges lists it among the 36 most competitive of more than 1,500 colleges and universities) still seems overshadowed by the memories of Rockne and Gipp and the Four Horsemen and 100 comeback victories. Or is it 1,000? Fact and fiction blur at Notre Dame.
But these days, Notre Dame football—indeed, Notre Dame athletics—is at a major crossroads. Ergo, whither the Irish?
That's a good question because the winds of change are blowing in South Bend. Hesburgh, after 35 years as boss, will resign in May, along with his No. 2 man for all that time, Rev. Edmund P. Joyce, a power in intercollegiate athletics. Whoever the new leaders are at Notre Dame, it appears certain that the university will continue to try to play down sports and play up education. It was Hesburgh, for example, who insisted that the library, completed in 1963, cost more than the planned Athletic and Convocation Center, built five years later. It did—$12.5 million to $8.6 million. Further, Hesburgh seems proud of the fact that of 40 campus buildings constructed during his tenure, only one of them—the ACC—was for athletics. The Irish basketball team is the prime tenant of that center and it, too, hopes for a national championship. But that isn't in the cards, either, since the administration is even less excited about hoops. If one sport must be played at Notre Dame, it will be football.
Joyce ruled athletics at Notre Dame with an iron fist. (Hesburgh has rarely consented even to talk about sports.) Veteran athletic director Moose Krause, who retired in 1980, was a figurehead. It was Joyce who picked Ara Parseghian, and Joyce who admired Dan Devine. And, yes, it was Joyce who selected Gerry Faust. O.K., nobody's perfect.
But AD Gene Corrigan is gaining authority. Corrigan, not Joyce, selected Lou Holtz to replace Faust. Corrigan likely will emerge as a substantially more powerful figure under the new administration. Of football, he says, "Fans always have the same expectations around here: Win every game."
The problem is that Notre Dame is one of a handful of big-time football schools—others include Michigan, Penn State, Stanford, Duke, the military academies—that insist their athletes also be students. The NCAA requires an athlete to have completed 11 high school credits in such subjects as English, math and science; Notre Dame requires 16. No exceptions. Of 53 students given athletic scholarships to Notre Dame in 1980, 51 graduated. Can any other big-time school match that record? Since 1965, 485 of the 490 scholarship football players who stayed four years have graduated. It is true that two freshmen recruited for the current season can't play for the Irish because their SAT scores were below the minimum required by the NCAA. But they are typical, says Corrigan, of the kind of player that Notre Dame takes chances on. There are one or two such recruits each year, he says, and the graduation rate for them is 100%.
NCAA-enforced academic standards benefit Notre Dame, of course, by weeding out some of the dim bulbs the competition traffics in—players whose main qualification is 4.3 speed. Says academic adviser Mike DeCicco, "Where's a first-rate student-athlete going to go? Oklahoma? Anybody who has the academic stuff will want our challenge."
Yes, Notre Dame has dominated college football: It has the best winning percentage (.759) of all time, and the school has won the most national championships (seven) since the Associated Press began polling in 1936. But Irish teams of the recent past seem to be better in our memories than they were on the field. In fact, Notre Dame has had only two national championship teams—1973 and 1977—in the last 20 years.
Father Joyce believes that there could be another championship sometime, "with an awful lot of luck and if universities will do away with the cheating that seems to be endemic." But, assuming that cheating and Notre Dame continue to flourish, dreams of another football national championship in South Bend are only that.
Says Hesburgh, "Football is bad only when it is perverted and misused. But football can be done honestly, and this place has proved it. And we don't want to be third-rate in anything."