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White keeps ‘unique’ role in mind

Ken Fowler | Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Editor’s note: This is the third story in a four-part series looking at Notre Dame’s athletic department under the direction of Kevin White as he enters his eighth year at the school.

In a market where a conference of one often draws more attention than a conference of 10 or 12 or 16, Notre Dame Athletic Director Kevin White takes a measured approach to all his public comments out of necessity.

Last May, White met with media members on campus to talk in detail about the athletic department’s “master plan” for new facilities and opened up questions on an array of subjects. One of the first was about his media access and public persona. White only occasionally holds press conferences and is not the main person reporters who cover Notre Dame sports call for comments. That role is often filled by Associate Athletic Director John Heisler, whose primary responsibilities include media duties.

Some interpreted from White’s answer in the session that he would rather not discuss every detail about the athletic department. But in an interview with The Observer, White stressed that his availability isn’t primarily a personal choice but a decision based on his unique role and standing among the nation’s athletic directors. A case in point is the Bowl Championship Series’ committee, which includes the commissioners of the 11 Division I-A conferences and White, who is the only member representing just one institution.

“What I tried to say to the media on that given day is that I’m not going to chase every issue because of the unique position we’re in, especially in the sport of football – we’re sort of in a conference of one – and it’s just not in our best interest for me to take strong positions on lots of issues,” White said. “But if it’s an issue that warrants a strong position, I’ll take it.”

For White, the benefit of his backing – and thus the force of the University’s support – would have to outweigh the cost of responding and perhaps appearing defensive. Among the things that would meet his criteria for a public response would be a challenge to the tax-exempt status of university athletic departments.

After Alabama hired former Louisiana State and Miami Dolphins coach Nick Saban for a $4 million annual salary, interest about the possibility of revoking the not-for-profit status of college sports piqued in Congress.

Within a day of Saban’s hiring, White responded in a statement about the fear of college sports losing its non-profit status.

“At some point, there was some concern that the academy itself, that the University, wouldn’t catch the virus from athletics … and there might be some attempt at Congressional intervention,” White said, explaining his decision to vocalize his opinion on the issue. “If we were to lose our non-profit status … it would be highly problematic as it relates to intercollegiate athletics.”

A response’s value

But there are other times when a cost-benefit analysis says that putting the effort into responding to criticisms from afar isn’t worth the benefit. And most of the criticism of Notre Dame is directed at its football operation.

White has sealed deals (either initial contracts or extensions) with four football coaches in his seven-plus years at Notre Dame – one with Bob Davie in 2000, one with George O’Leary a year later, at least one with Tyrone Willingham and two with Charlie Weis.

Some columnists criticized Notre Dame for signing a 10-year contract extension with Weis in 2005 after he started 5-2. They pointed to Willingham’s 8-0 start three years earlier and said it was inconsistent that Notre Dame would reward Weis and not Willingham.

But Notre Dame’s contracts have mutual confidentiality clauses, which opens up possibilities of gray areas and unannounced contract details. For instance, Weis’ extension has been the subject of great speculation, its total compensation estimated between $20 million and $40 million.

“I think all the indicators there were when we hired Charlie – and certainly shortly thereafter – that he is going to be, I think, an outstanding college football coach. He is going to be a tremendous recruiter. And he really does all understand all the uniquenesses of Notre Dame, and he has the ability to market the tradition and culture,” White said last month. “And if that’s the read you make, then you want to protect your investment, and you want to make darn sure that the person that you just evaluated in that way is here for the long term. It’s very simple.”

When asked last month if any commentators criticizing Weis’ deal had asked if Willingham received an extension, White declined to comment on the issue as a whole. Like in other cases, White had to decide if defending Notre Dame – and himself – from written or verbal attack would only fuel the fire, or if a response could be worthwhile.

At least in part because of Notre Dame’s independent status and history of success, the University is a large target for pundits, White recognized.

“I listen to the conversations on the other side of the table. I knew how people felt about Notre Dame – I kind of had a good sense before coming,” White said. “If I went public with everything I think or feel, it wouldn’t be very smart. It would not be very bright.”

Public image at ND

But there have been times when White has been forced into a much more visible role, and for an athletic director, that often indicates hard times for a program. In December 2001, after Notre Dame finished 5-6 in football, White fired Davie as head coach 12 months after signing him to a multi-year extension.

When White announced O’Leary as a successor within 11 days of Davie’s dismissal, things seemed to be under control. But five days hence, O’Leary admitted to lying on his résumé – he falsely claimed to have earned a master’s degree from New York University and said he was a three-year letterman on the New Hampshire football squad, though he only attended New Hampshire for two years – and promptly resigned.

With national attention fixated on Notre Dame once again, White issued a brief statement on December 14, 2001.

“I have accepted the resignation of George O’Leary as head football coach at the University of Notre Dame,” White said in the statement. “George has acknowledged inaccuracies in his biographical materials, including his academic background. I understand that these inaccuracies represent a very human failing, nonetheless, they constitute a breach of trust that makes it impossible for us to go forward with our relationship.

“I intend to restart our search for a new head football coach immediately.”

It was the measured response that has became a trademark of White’s tenure at Notre Dame.

Two weeks later, on Jan. 1, 2002, White introduced Willingham as Notre Dame’s new coach. That marriage lasted for three seasons, and White was faced with another tough challenge.

“To the people at the NCAA he’s a man of impeccable integrity,” White said of Willingham at the coach’s introductory news conference. “To the recruiting gurus, he’s among the very best in attracting talent even while maintaining the highest SAT scores in the nation, he’s a disciplinarian whose players love him.”

Those virtues were not questioned in 2004, but Willingham’s ability to lead the Irish to football success was. White walked a fine line between presenting a positive image of the University while not unnecessarily insulting Willingham.

“But I think I need to say, as I was thinking about it this morning, from Sunday through Friday, our football program has exceeded all expectations in every way,” White said in the news conference to announce the firing. “The academic performance is at a fever pitch; it’s never been better. Tyrone has done some wonderful things.

“But again, on Saturday, we struggled. We’ve been up and down and sideways a little bit, a little bit inconsistent. I think the program is closer than when he arrived, and I think we were making progress, by my view and view of the University, just doesn’t make enough progress.”

The “Sunday through Friday” comment struck some – both inside and outside Notre Dame circles – and critics of the school claimed it indicated the University was compromising its academic values in pursuit of football success.

Since then, White has been vocal in his support for the job Weis has done with the football team on the academic side – the athletic department has boasted about all-time-high team GPAs under Weis. Nevertheless White’s words have been used against him.

But that’s life as Notre Dame’s athletic director.

“Whenever you throw something out there, just because it’s Notre Dame, it’s going to realize a pretty loud sound,” White said. “Had I been at Arizona State, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

“You make the very best decisions that you can with all the information that’s in front of you, and you just work really hard to make those decision work out in a successful way and do everything you can to support the decision you made. That’s what you do because that’s what your competitors are doing. This is not a precise or exact decision-making profession. A lot of variables, lots of elements to weigh in a decision.”

Worry about “our competitors”

White’s decisions, perhaps more than those by any other athletic director’s in the country, receive an unwavering level of scrutiny. There are complaints by columnists and commentators, message board posters and letter-writers about everything from scheduling considerations to basic word choice. But that’s what happens at the highest-profile athletic department in the nation.

“To respond to every little issue, all I would be doing all day long – I would be in a responding mode, I would be in a defending mode. Sometimes if you let yourself get into that mindset, you fall into a state of paralysis. And we’ve got a lot of things to do here,” White said. “Our competitors are USC, Michigan, Syracuse. We’ve got to spend our time and energy on people to compete with. That’s what I think our coaches try to do, and that’s what I think our administrators have to do. And not get into those conversations when you don’t get a lot of return on investment. Maybe that’s an arrogant way of saying it, but if there’s not a lot return on investment, I’m not going to spend a lot of time worrying about it.”

What he is worried about is increasing the success of Notre Dame’s 26 sports teams – something that has happened under his watch to a level never before seen in school history.

In 2006, Notre Dame finished an all-time best No. 6 in the Director’s Cup, which measures success based on point values for finishes in all NCAA sports. Notre Dame has won four national titles under his leadership – women’s basketball in 2001, fencing in 2003 and 2005 and women’s soccer in 2004.

The hockey team reached No. 1 for the first time ever this season, which was the second for coach Jeff Jackson. Women’s tennis has established itself as a national power, and men’s soccer reached the national quarterfinals for the first time in 2006. Football has been to back-to-back BCS bowl games, and the men’s and women’s swimming squads have combined for more than a dozen Big East titles.

But challenges remain ahead, the biggest of which may be in terms of facilities.

Part IV of the series will look at White’s “master plan” for Notre Dame sports facilities, and what the future may hold for the athletic department and White.