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Where coaches are canonized -- and earn millions


Recently, I went to the University of Notre Dame to witness their final home game of the season. Notre Dame is the Hogwarts of Catholic football. The sport is their version of Quidditch, the major sport at Hogwarts. It is attended by some 86,000 faithful muggles (non-wizards).

The head coach at Notre Dame is said to hold the second-most important job in the church. Indeed, no true fan would blanch if they numbered their coaches like popes, that is, Knute I, Frank II, Ara III, Lou IV, and so on. At this writing, the university has just closed a secret conclave to find a new head wizard. On New Year’s Day, a plume of white smoke went up from the Dome to signal that Tyrone Willingham, Stanford’s successful coach, had just signed a contract at a reported $2 million per year, enough to pay about 20 full professors. Willingham, the school’s first African-American head coach, is said to possess the balance of athletic wisdom and academic achievement required at Notre Dame.

They played Navy and won. Poor Navy has been beaten by the Irish in about 60 of their last 70 meetings. Yet, it was a good, clean game. Annapolis did not have a single penalty. Although outweighed some 44 pounds per man on the line, the midshipmen made the Irish sweat every yard. The sportsmanship on both sides was exemplary. Notre Dame’s talented band played “Anchors Aweigh” while the crowd joined in. Perhaps it was the ripple effect of Sept.11, but the small contingent of Navy cadets drew respectful cheers.

At game’s end, both teams jogged to the middle of the field to offer handshakes. You just don’t see that anymore. Such sportsmanlike behavior could get one banned from a postseason bowl game. Most significant, both teams had players capable of talking in complete sentences -- young men who looked like college students, not Neanderthals majoring in snow removal. No names on their backs, no stars on their helmets. No special dorms or towel warmers.

My soul was warmed by the repeated announcement that Mass would be celebrated in Sacred Heart Church 30 minutes after the final whistle. Both upper and lower churches were jammed. Clearly, the famous library wall mosaic of Touchdown Jesus is more than just a decoration.

Notre Dame has been playing football for 113 years. It wasn’t a name team until it began throwing the ball in 1913. In that year, early in the season, by throwing unheard-of forward passes, it won three unnoticed games, racking up 169 points against its opponents’ seven. Then, the school wrote a polite letter to mighty West Point and scheduled a game at the academy for Nov. 1. In that game Notre Dame’s Charley Dorais passed to Knute Rockne, who would become the first of the canon of the saints. David beat Goliath 35-13.

Now, 88 years later, the university sells, sadly, quantities of sweatshirts with that idiot, hostile Irishman stenciled on the front -- an image that lowers the university’s grade point average. With universities all over the country banning negative images of Native Americans, it might be time to bury the image of a sotted Irishman looking for a punch up.

College football likely dates to at least 1827 when Harvard sophomores played freshmen. Heck, it could be said to date to 1389 when Richard II tried to ban what had become the riotous Shrove Tuesday game because it interfered with archery practice. By 1869, however, intramural football was supplanted by interscholastic football when Rutgers played Princeton.

Today, sadly, higher education strives to have universities that their football teams can be proud of. Sports has a lot to do with the values that drive our American ethical system, I believe. When the head coach earns 10 times the salary of a full professor, there is something rotten in the locker room.

Recently, Notre Dame’s president, Fr. Edward Molloy, accepted a plaque that recognized that the university’s athletes had a very high graduation rate, an achievement in a national educational system that serves as little more than minor leagues for the pros. According to The Boston Globe, only three of the teams who played in the 25 post-season bowl games saw even half their players graduate, and, sadder still, the graduation percentages for African-American athletes often run 25 points below that of white athletes.

Sportscaster Pat Hayden had high praise for Notre Dame but added that if the university held visions of a national championship, it could forget about them. No school could boast a high graduation rate and a national championship.

Research done at another quality university about 10 years ago indicated that there were only about 350 athletes in the United States who can meet first tier athletic requirements and sustain high academic standards. Since its founding in 1842, Notre Dame has inched into that top tier. Truth is, today the old Gipper, who partly inspired Ronald Reagan’s run for the gold in 1980, would be drummed out of the admissions office. And, at nearly $30,000 annually for tuition, a bed and vittles, it attracts largely Catholics who have fruit on their kitchen table even when no one is sick. Its 10,800 students are among the best and brightest of the Catholic elite.

Arguably, it could drop interscholastic sports and still survive at a very high level. Tiny but awfully smart Swarthmore has just dropped sports, and the little Ivy League schools are cutting back.

I’m not suggesting that Notre Dame drop it all and take up croquet, only that they consider trimming. Perhaps sometime soon it could take a second look at its schedule and sign only with schools of academic excellence. They would still have the likes of Stanford, Boston College, Northwestern, Duke and a few others that don’t abuse young men who rarely make the pros and end up blowing out glove compartments at a car wash.

I thoroughly enjoyed the day. Notre Dame has been an indelible mark on my soul since I tugged on my mother’s apron and begged her to allow me to enter the seminary of the Holy Cross Fathers. She said no. I was too young. But I married an alumna of its graduate program in fine arts, and we still visit to view the excellent art.

Now, perhaps, it can use its immense influence to clean up the mess that has watered the spark of higher learning and good sportsmanship.

Tim Unsworth writes from Chicago. Send him your thoughts at unsworth@megsinet.net

National Catholic Reporter, February 15, 2002