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A foreign new policy

Tim Dougherty | Monday, January 25, 2010

A spectre is haunting Notre Dame —the spectre of defeatism. And it seems all the powers of old Notre Dame capable of exorcising it have been turned out or tuned out with no trace of the spirit of their once-contagious commitment to excellence.

There once was a time when the concept of Notre Dame passing on a highly-ranked team evoked memories of Dorais to Rockne or Hanratty to Seymour. Now the words regularly appear in news clippings about abortive scheduling efforts from the athletic directors of Alabama and Miami — or even Wisconsin and Minnesota. Just last week, Irish Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick confirmed in an interview with the South Bend Tribune’s Eric Hansen that Notre Dame is more interested in playing Duke and Wake Forest than, say, Texas or Tennessee.

Although this recent philosophical shift is marketed as a symbolic effort to be a shining light atop the hill for college athletics by playing teams that “look like us,” ostensibly it’s a retreat to a perceived position of greater convenience. After more than a decade of mismanagement of the football program, it rings of (this might sound familiar) an ordinate fear of the imagined cost of football excellence, a crisis of confidence made even more grave by the covert pessimism of Notre Dame’s leaders. And more importantly, it cowers to the false choice that Notre Dame football has forever dedicated its existence to reject.

Notre Dame football was once a witness to the fullest measure of its university mission as an unabashedly religious university committed to excellence in all its endeavors, both academic and athletic. Although it’s true that the Big XII and SEC powers have never fully embraced both missions, neither have Duke or Wake Forest football. (And it’s worth noting that Duke already uprooted its religious origins.) But the tradition of Notre Dame football — a tradition that arched the back from which a world-class academic institution later spread its wings — was built by a champion spirit that established and defended its excellence by challenging and defeating the best teams in the country. The legacy began with its first game against regional power Michigan in 1888 and the historic trip to West Point in 1916. In addition to its traditional rivalry games, the indomitable spirit manifested itself in the first famed Game of the Century at Ohio State in 1935 and by ending the sport’s longest winning streak in 1957 at Oklahoma. It was that spirit Lou Holtz credited for outdueling Miami in 1988 and that upended an irreverent Seminole squad in 1993.

To adapt a phrase from Fr. Hesburgh, there’s no academic virtue in beating teams that don’t make the same commitment to football as in academics, and there’s no academic vice in whipping a top-ranked team that eschews its educational responsibilities. In fact, there is no greater testament to the success of our university’s mission than to do just that, as Notre Dame has done throughout its existence. That is, unless the virtue of strongly standing across from one’s opponents that was boasted about last May applies only to politics.

In between building straw men out of its critics’ passionate but reasoned objections, the Notre Dame athletic administration has preoccupied itself by pulling the wool over the eyes of its faithful by building up the merits of the MAC like Moody’s propping three As under a mortgage-backed security. In part, it’s an inevitable public relations necessity of supporting a short-sighted 7-4-1 scheduling model that — apart from cowardly attempting to schedule success instead of earning it — leaves no room for the intuitively exciting national matchups that were and will still be necessary to maintain a thriving national product. What is the purpose of Notre Dame’s treasured independence when the only flexibility in its schedule lies in which also-ran to fill its “buy” games? After such an abrupt retreat from the deep-rooted confidence in our institutional values that other Irish athletic administrations ensured were exemplified through the success of the football program, one can’t help but wonder if the entire goal of this endeavor to make us ask that question.

While Notre Dame’s savvy sports marketers imagine themselves to be the next George Strickler or Roger Valdiserri, our financial leaders seem oblivious to the fact that as they slash and burn through their “college football landscape” in the effort to maximize revenue they are slowly destroying the game’s most valuable brand as they allow the virtues that formed its foundation to crumble from within. It won’t happen overnight, but sooner or later, they will run out of suckers willing to hand over their cash for a cut-rate commitment to football excellence. They can just as easily find that at Duke or Wake Forest.


Tim Dougherty is an alumnus of the class of 2007 and a former Observer sports writer. He can be reached at [email protected]

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