Fr. Ted stressed academic integrity in athletics
Brian Hartnett | Monday, March 2, 2015
Sixty years ago, well before the advent of ESPN, conference realignment and a playoff, the college football system faced many of the same questions it does today regarding the role of student-athletes in university life, the balance between academics and athletics and the need for institutional integrity in the face of big-time college sports.
Sixty years ago, a university president just two years into his job wrote an article for a fledgling sports magazine addressing such college football-related issues.
The president was Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, the magazine was Sports Illustrated, and the views Hesburgh set forth would come to define his and Notre Dame’s view of intercollegiate athletics for the next three decades of his term and beyond.
In the Sept. 27, 1954, issue of Sports Illustrated — the seventh ever produced for the magazine that now has more than three million subscribers and was the first to feature a college football player on its cover — Hesburgh, who had recently started his term as Notre Dame president in June 1952, penned an article titled “The True Spirit of Notre Dame.”
In it, Hesburgh espoused his views on intercollegiate athletics as a so-called “spectator” of the game, rather than as an expert. Early in the piece, Hesburgh made clear that administrators at Notre Dame are “in favor of intercollegiate athletics,” though with a few caveats.
“I must add that we favor intercollegiate athletics within their proper dimensions,” Hesburgh said in the Sports Illustrated article. “It goes without saying that the proper dimensions should be those of university life and purposes.”
To understand these dimensions, one must understand that college and professional athletics differ because college athletes must be students above all, Hesburgh wrote.
According to Hesburgh, colleges can emphasize the role of the student-athlete by not admitting any student incapable of doing collegiate work, requiring athletes to follow the same academic requirements as other students, taking “no fresh-air courses” and giving athletes the same treatment in campus life matters as they would for other students.
Hesburgh then set forth a framework governing how Notre Dame selects and treats its student-athletes. He noted that entrance requirements for athletes are the same as they are for everyone else at Notre Dame and that “many excellent athletes are not admitted because of their high school deficiencies.”
Tommy Hawkins, who played basketball for the Irish from 1956 to 1959, said the admissions criteria for the University was particularly stringent, focusing on even more than grades and athletic ability.
“That was a very sensitive time because the athletes who were chosen for scholarships were hand-picked at that time,” Hawkins said. “Their families were investigated; they wanted to see that people came from good families.
“It just wasn’t how good you were as an athlete. Nobody said this to me, but I got the feeling that you had to clear the deck on a lot of different levels before you were extended a four-year scholarship to Notre Dame.”
Dave Casper, who played tight end for the Irish football team between 1971 and 1973, said athletes knew of Hesburgh’s standards for them from the start of their careers.
“I know that [Hesburgh] thought it was important to have a great athletics program, just as it was important to have everything … everything should be of excellence,” Casper said.
Once athletes were enrolled at Notre Dame, their major focus was not to simply win a monogram but also to receive a diploma, Hesburgh said. Athletes had to stay eligible in order to do both, which required them to have a 77 percent academic average at the time, even above Notre Dame’s then-passing mark of 70 percent.
Gerry Faust, who coached the Irish football team from 1981 to 1985, said Hesburgh was very resolute in what he considered his top goal for the football team.
“He and [former University executive vice president] Fr. [Edmund P.] Joyce both felt the most important thing was that the young men graduate,” Faust said. “If they didn’t graduate, then they’re not fulfilling what the University is all about, so therefore they never took anybody that couldn’t make it academically.”
The final main tenant on which student-athlete life at Notre Dame was based, Hesburgh wrote, was that athletes should “live a normal collegiate life.” Living such a life required that athletes not be swayed by the promise of illegal deals or recruiting benefits and that the University display integrity in all aspects, doling out the same punishments to athletes that they would to any other student.
Gene Corrigan, who served as Notre Dame’s athletic director from 1981 to 1987, said adherence to NCAA and University rules was something Hesburgh emphasized from his first moment on the job.
“He said to me one time, on one of my first meetings with him, ‘Do you know all the rules of the NCAA?'” Corrigan said of Hesburgh. “I said, ‘Father, I don’t know them all, but I understand them.’ He then said, ‘I want to tell you something. If you or any of your people ever break those rules, you’re out of here by midnight, and I don’t talk to attorneys.’”
Similarly, Hesburgh stressed Notre Dame’s role as an integrity leader in the 1980s, an era when college football was beginning to grow into the billion-dollar business it is today, Corrigan said.
“He felt like we had to be a leader as far as ethics were concerned, as far as doing things right, as far as graduating people, behaving themselves as athletes,” Corrigan said. “He did not want [athletes] to live together. He and Fr. Joyce were adamant that we would not have anything like an athletic dormitory.”
Despite some of his hardline stances, Hesburgh had little involvement in the day-to-day affairs of Notre Dame’s sports teams, mainly leaving that responsibility to Joyce, who Hesburgh described as his “watchdog” in the 1954 Sports Illustrated article.
“I would have lunch with Fr. Ted probably once a year, and we’d just talk about all things that had to do with intercollegiate athletics, what we were doing, what’s going on in the whole country,” Corrigan said. “But that was never his interest.”
While Joyce largely oversaw athletics, Hesburgh wouldn’t hesitate to intervene if he felt athletes weren’t living up to standards, Corrigan said.
“He would get upset if there was a sport where the kids weren’t behaving,” Corrigan said. “That meant more to him. He liked to win, don’t get me wrong, but that wasn’t everything to him, not at all.”
Hesburgh also took a special interest in ensuring some of Notre Dame’s early African-American athletes felt welcome, according to Hawkins. The former basketball player, who was one of just 10 African-American students when he arrived on campus, said Hesburgh personally welcomed him to Cavanaugh Hall at the start of his freshman year and continued to check in on him afterwards.
“He always kept track of me and from time to time, I’d get a message to drop in and see him so he could see how I was doing or if there were things that were bothering me,” Hawkins said. “Amazingly enough, as busy as he was, he always took the time to say, ‘Hello’ and ‘How are you doing? Is everything okay?’”
Hesburgh attended Notre Dame home sporting events, but rarely, if ever, went to away games, according to Corrigan. While Hesburgh wasn’t an overly vocal fan at games, he cared deep down about Notre Dame’s athletic performance, Faust said.
“When we were on the road, he would invite my wife to watch games at WNDU-TV,” Faust said. “My wife said he would never show his emotions in public, but privately, he was rooting right and left all the time.”
After his retirement as University president, Hesburgh took a role in influencing policy on the national college athletics landscape, serving as co-chairman of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics from 1990 to 2001. Hesburgh and co-chairman William C. Friday, president emeritus at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, oversaw a committee that released two reports, one in 1992 and one in 2001. The 1992 report called for stronger presidential leadership and academic and financial integrity in collegiate athletics, while the latter report set forth the academic standards that formed the basis for the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate (APR).
In 2004, Hesburgh received the NCAA’s Gerald R. Ford Award, which is presented to an individual who has provided leadership as an advocate for intercollegiate athletics over the course of his or her career.
Hesburgh’s receipt of the award, which came a half-century after his Sports Illustrated article, represented the culmination of an approach to intercollegiate athletics that often deviated from the norm at the time.
Hesburgh himself recognized the difference in his views compared to others, particularly when he wrote in Sports Illustrated of the criticism that came from his decision to bench a star basketball player for a game against Kentucky for having an average below 77 percent. After the Irish lost to Kentucky by one point in overtime without the suspended player, Hesburgh defended his approach with the following words:
“At times like this, when the walls are falling in on an administrator, it is good to seek quiet courage in the epigram above a hero’s grave: ‘Death is not rare, nor is it of ultimate importance. Heroism is both.’”