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Presenting last year’s ‘Bonehead’ awards

Gary Caruso | Thursday, January 13, 2005

January brings with it an end to the previous year and a fresh start on the calendar. As the winter solstice fades into the fog of the holiday season, nearly everyone resolves to achieve that which has alluded him in the past. This year, many members of the Notre Dame Board of Trustees simply need to ask themselves, “What have I done?”

Seldom in Notre Dame’s history do the impulses of a few power-drunk Donald Trump “Wonna Bees” ride roughshod over the institution with such bone-chilling effects. The “retirement” of University President Monk Malloy behind closed doors could be publicly explained as the passing of a torch after his substantial service. The premature public firing of the first-ever ethnic minority head coach of any Notre Dame athletic team wins for the trustees the 2004 Bonehead of the Year Award.

Last year, Notre Dame was not alone. The administrations, boards of trustees and athletic departments of other major universities ran closely behind Notre Dame for the title of “Bonehead.” These institutions need to reexamine how their actions sent horrible messages to their alumni and the American public in 2004. Unfortun-ately, both of my alma matters ranked first and second last year – the University of Notre Dame and the University of Pittsburgh.

Be it resolved for the coming year that the majority of followers on the Notre Dame Board of Trustees note and never more repeat their leaders’ pressuring of the athletic department on such an ill-advised public relations disaster as the firing of the head football coach before his contract expires, especially if that coach is a “first ever” at the University. In 2004, Notre Dame announced to the world that academics no longer rank over athletics and the business considerations with its large sums of bowl money.

Notre Dame also showed the world that it never was serious with coach Tyrone Willingham. He was always their second choice as a result of the athletic department’s fiasco with the on-again, off-again hiring of a head football coach whose incorrectly listed details on his resume eventually led the university back to Willingham. As a result, Notre Dame proved that it is not tolerant enough to allow its “first ever ethnic minority head coach of any university sport” to prove himself within the allotted time of a five-year contract. Had it honored all five years of the contract, the University could evaluate the coach on a season of play operating entirely with his recruits in his own system.

Ironically, a decade before when Notre Dame tried to rhyme its reputation into a graduate research university with a new slogan, it did fulfill its half of the five-year contracts of two prior failed head football coaches – one, an assistant with no college head coaching experience and the other, a high school coach also with no college head coaching experience. The incoming head football coach may resolve for 2005 to change the term “contract” to “covenant” on his agreement with the university so that the Holy Cross order recognizes its fine print.

To the fans and administration of the Bonehead Award runner-up, the University of Pittsburgh where I earned a masters degree, be it resolved that you soul search your conflicted minds in the coming year. Never has any university gone from such lax academic standards as when it won a football national championship in the mid-1970s to such strict academic standards in recent times. As a result, the athletic standings of its teams suffered for decades.

Now that Pitt has balanced high academic standards for its athletes with winning teams, why not give the next head football coach what you refused to allow the departing coach – the entire season before complaining. The efforts to remove Walt Harris in midseason was a disgrace, especially in light of his dramatic wins and selection in a major bowl. Be it also resolved that you stop acting like a wife abuser and enjoy your successful football and basketball teams, not to mention your professional Pittsburgh Steelers.

For the future, Notre Dame trustees also need a reality check to avoid repeating new pitfalls in 2005 and beyond. As it stands, Notre Dame will never win a national football championship without going undefeated, so the athletic director needs to examine future schedules with an eye on pacing the team through its premier match-ups each season. With a playoff system, Notre Dame’s odds of competing in a national championship game dramatically increase, so the new University president needs to push for the “plus one” bowl format. Of course, if academics still rank above athletic wins and revenues, simply honor athletic contracts while scholars research their projects.

Gary Caruso, Notre Dame ’73, served as a legislative and public affairs director in President Clinton’s administration. His column appears every other Friday. He can be contacted at hottline@aol.com.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.