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Letter expresses alumni discontent

Andrew Soukup | Thursday, February 12, 2004

Several hundred Notre Dame alumni have signed a letter sent to the University’s Board of Trustees harshly criticizing the way the football program is managed, a move the letter writers hope will spark a reorganization at Notre Dame they believe will lead to football success.The letter, which was signed by 412 alumni who graduated between 1949 and 2003 and live in 41 states, was delivered to the trustees before their winter meetings began Feb. 5. It charges that current administrators have “proven incapable” of running the football program at championship-caliber levels.”What motivated us is our feeling of how important championship football is to the environment of kids and education and the bonding of people who go through that institution,” said Tim Kelley, who graduated in 1964 and was one of the letter’s principal authors. He added that the letter grew out of alumni discontent with the fact that the Irish haven’t seriously challenged for a national championship since 1993, not because the Irish finished 5-7 in 2002.University spokesman Matt Storin said it was “unusual” for the University to receive a letter signed by hundreds of people. While Storin said Notre Dame perceived the letter as a “serious substantive message”, since the letter was addressed to the Board of Trustees, “it would be up to the trustees to give an answer.”Kelley said the letter writers had received no response from board members, and Storin said that he did not know if athletics were discussed at the trustees’ meeting. Attempts to contact Board of Trustees chairman Patrick McCartan were unsuccessful.The authors explicitly say that the letter does not represent a call to fire Notre Dame coach Tyrone Willingham, who won his first eight games as an Irish coach but has since gone 7-10.”The issues aren’t with Tyrone Willingham,” Kelley said. “The jury is still out on him, but we wish him all the luck and are behind him.”Willingham, in comments made to a Chicago radio station Tuesday, said the letter didn’t surprise him. “Our alumni are very passionate,” he told WSCR-AM.Instead of criticizing the coaching, Kelley said, the letter is a plea to the University’s highest body to re-organize certain aspects of the University.Notable in the letter is that only Willingham is mentioned by name, which Kelley said was a deliberate move. Kelley said the authors wanted to shed light on their criticism of structural problems instead of attacking athletic director Kevin White or University President Father Edward Malloy.The letter suggests three proposals to fix what the letter writers see as fundamental problems with the football program. First, the authors suggest that the athletic director delegate more authority to focus more attention on football. Second, the letter says the athletic director should have more control – and subsequently be judged by – football coaching hires. Third, the writers call for the appointment of a lay person to the University’s executive vice president, the third-ranking administrative spot at the school that has remained vacant since Father Timothy Scully resigned in June 2002, to improve the school’s “financial, administrative and athletic pursuits”. That would leave the University president, who must be a Holy Cross priest, free to focus on academic and spiritual matters. Currently, Malloy handles the duties of the executive vice president.But associate athletic director John Heisler said that many of the concerns in the letter are already in place in some form in the athletic department.”I think it’s ludicrous to think that football wouldn’t be important in any scheme of things,” he said.Many of White’s duties in terms of overseeing other sports are already delegated, a departmental structure he inherited he was hired in 2000. And while the athletic director has direct oversight of football and both basketball programs, Heisler said a variety of athletic department staff assists in the administration of the football program.”Some of the suggestions could be that Kevin doesn’t pay attention to football,” Heisler said. “I don’t know how anybody could say that who is around here every day. He doesn’t go very long without communicating with Tyrone, and at the end of the day, I’m not sure what else you can do.”Heisler also pointed out that White was responsible for providing the recommendation to hire George O’Leary and Willingham to a committee during the 2001 coaching search. The associate athletic director suggested that some of the sentiment for more power given to the athletic director comes from Gene Corrigan’s relative ease in hiring Lou Holtz in 1985. That decision was made after a four-hour conversation between the two friends, Heisler said, and isn’t possible in today’s complex coaching environment.Heisler pointed to Notre Dame’s commitment to improving its facilities, the increased scholarship Notre Dame provides to Olympic sports and the heightened competitiveness of the non-major programs as significant improvements that occurred in White’s tenure.Kelley also praised those improvements, but said the success of the athletic director should be based primarily on the success of the football program.”It’s got to be 95 percent football,” he said. “We don’t want to hear a thing about the [NACDA] Cup.”The recent struggles of the football team show why the alumni are frustrated, Kelley said. Notre Dame has endured three losing seasons in five years, was placed on NCAA probation for the first time in school history in 1999 and endured an embarrassing coaching search in 2001.Kelley said the letter writers were initially reluctant to release the letter to the media, but the lack of response from the Board of Trustees convinced the authors to make the letter public.And although just over 400 alumni signed the letter – a small percentage of the University’s more than 100,000 alumni – Kelley said the feedback he received has been positive.”We’re being inundated with people who support this,” he said. “The reception to this by alumni has been fabulous. If we ever have to do something like this again, I expect the number to be much bigger.”