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Former athletes respond to letter

Andrew Soukup | Wednesday, March 17, 2004

More than a month after several hundred alumni signed a letter to Notre Dame’s Board of Trustees criticizing the way the football program is managed, a group of former Notre Dame athletes responded by saying the letter shouldn’t have been released to the media because it damaged Notre Dame’s image.In a letter obtained by The Observer, the Board of Directors of the Notre Dame National Monogram Club said the decision to make the alumni letter public created a “media frenzy” which hurt the University’s image, impeded the overall administration of the University and athletic department and negatively affected revenue resources and athlete recruitment.”It is our opinion that although the authors … have a right to their opinion and although they may have been well intended,” the letter states, “the content of their letter contained assertions that rendered it detrimental to Notre Dame.”The letter also praised the Notre Dame athletic department and said that many of the claims in the alumni letter were wrong.The Monogram Club is an organization composed of Notre Dame alumni who earned a monogram during their tenure in South Bend. The club’s board contains nine former football players, and the president, Dave Duerson, played football and is a member of the University’s Board of Trustees.”We don’t want to get into a media fight with this group,” said Michael Heaton ’68. Heaton formerly served as the head of the Chicago Alumni Association and now is the club’s legal counsel. “We consider it a family issue. We want to keep this in the family. We want to deal with this in-house.”Heaton criticized the authors of the original letter for releasing the letter to the public without having discussed their concerns with the Monogram club or other University representatives.”If you’re telling me that they had gone to the University and had been rebuffed time and time again, then perhaps you could go public,” he said. “Since that didn’t occur, I can’t see what good is coming from it.”Tim Kelley, one of the principal writers of the original letter, declined to comment on the Monogram Club’s response. But in a previous interview, Kelley said the group only decided to release the letter to the media when it received no response from the Board of Trustees.Notre Dame athletic director Kevin White said his department has a policy of responding to every inquiry it receives. But since the alumni letter wasn’t addressed to him, he did not contact its authors.”We respond to every inquiry, every letter and every e-mail, and we’ve done that since I arrived,” White said. “I’ve never seen the letter, and I can say that in good faith.”In an interview a month ago, Kelley said the decision to write a letter grew out of a decade-long discontent with how the University managed its football program and was not directly related to Notre Dame’s 5-7 2003 season. The letter, he said, was intended to express dissatisfaction with the internal organization at the University and not head coach Tyrone Willingham. The letter also was an attempt to emphasize the importance of football success to the trustees.The original letter also charged that current administrators had “proven incapable” of running the football program at championship-caliber levels, a charge Heaton vehemently denied. “The letter indirectly criticized a lot of people,” he said, later adding, “Nobody is more passionate about football than [White].”Heaton also disputed the alumni authors’ claims that football, along with Catholic identity and academic excellence, formed the three pillars on which Notre Dame was built.”I don’t think I would take it to that level, and I don’t know if any of the other players would do it,” said Heaton, who won a national championship while playing for Ara Parseghian. “We think football is very important, but nobody told us that it was the third most important thing at the University.”The Monogram Club’s letter did not specifically address the concerns raised in the alumni letter, which called for the athletic director to be evaluated based on the success of the football program, more leeway in selecting football coaches and the appointment of an executive vice president.But Heaton said that many of the letter’s original claims contained factual errors that contributed to increased misperception, including minimizing the role of White in overseeing the football program, an oversimplification of a complex athletic department and assuming that football is not a high priority in the administration. The Monogram Club, he said, is in a better position based on its close relationship with athletic department officials to understand the department’s inner workings.”We agree it’s important, we agree it’s successful,” Heaton said. “But I think they don’t understand the athletic department and the Monogram Club. To that extent, they’re raising an issue they have strong feelings about, but the insinuation and the innuendo is not true. All you have to do is meet with the people in charge and you’ll know it’s not true.”Heaton also said that the letter writers timed the release of their letter at a time that could have had negative financial effects on Notre Dame. When the letter was released in early February, he said the Irish were still hammering out details related to the NBC contract and the future of the Bowl Championship Series. “The more we have dissention in our own group,” Heaton said, “the more they can do with us as they wish.”The original letter submitted to the Board of Trustees contained 412 signatures, although the Web site ndnation.com says that number has since grown to over 2,200. Heaton said, however, that he thinks other alumni have been upset by how the matter was first raised in the media.”People say to me, ‘What’s going on down there?'” he said. “It’s a negative on the University.”We don’t want to fight with these guys. We want to bring them back into the fold and to ask us what we know and to show them that we’re going to address the issues they find important.”