“Aspirational Peer.” That phrase hasn’t been used by other programs in reference to Notre Dame football for twenty-five years. And it hasn’t ever been used by other programs except in reference to Notre Dame men’s basketball teams during Digger Phelps’ heyday. Despite these facts, both programs remain mired in mediocrity with no end in sight. The University has settled into, and is okay with, perpetual complacency for its premier athletic brands. While the following statements may once have been blasphemy to any knowledgeable Notre Dame fan, today they are the sad truths of the University’s “forced irrelevance”:
Stanford football is Notre Dame’s aspirational peer (both are private schools focused on academics with undergraduate student populations
between 7,000-9,000). Coach David Shaw has a .768 winning percentage since 2011
(including a 5-2 record against Notre Dame) compared to Coach Brian Kelly’s .585 winning percentage since 2010
(12 wins from 2012 and 9 wins from 2013 were vacated). Consider other coaches whose length of tenure matches or exceeds Brian Kelly: Nick Saban, Dabo Swinney, Gary Patterson and Ken Niumatalolo. Separately, consider coaches whose length of tenure does not exceed Brian Kelly — Urban Meyer and Jimbo Fisher. Brian Kelly may be Jack Swarbrick’s choice, but his program at ND has been mired in arrests, academic scandals and an inability to beat both superior and inferior competition; it shows no signs of being competitive with the likes of Stanford.
Villanova men’s basketball is Notre Dame’s aspirational peer (both are private Catholic schools focused on academics with undergraduate student populations
between 7,000-9,000). Coach Jay Wright has a .716 winning percentage
(including two national championships since 2001) compared to Coach Mike Brey’s .667 winning percentage
(no Final Four appearances, let alone championships). Consider other coaches whose length of tenure matches or exceeds Mike Brey: Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Boeheim and Tom Izzo. Separately, consider coaches whose length of tenure does not exceed Mike Brey: Roy Williams, Jay Wright and Bill Self. Mike Brey may be the nicest person in the world, but his program at ND plateaued years ago and shows no signs of being competitive with the likes of Villanova.
Recalling Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and envisioning Fr. Hesburgh arm-in-arm during a civil rights protest seems apropos at this time. As a diehard Notre Dame fan, I have a dream that the mismanagement of the University’s top two programs will finally end; I have a dream that decision-makers with the shrewdness to hire the next David Shaw and/or Jay Wright — on reasonable contracts with appropriate buy-outs — are finally put in place; I have a dream that Notre Dame football perennially finishes in the top 10 and wins championships again with a new “Ara” at the helm; I have a dream that Notre Dame men’s basketball perennially gets into the Sweet 16, regularly returns to the Final Four and captures its first of many championships with a Muffet McGraw-esque coach at the helm; I have a dream that the University and its faithful demand this level of excellence from its football and men’s basketball programs in the same way that excellence is demanded from other programs like women’s basketball, men’s hockey and fencing; I have a dream that these musings are NOT the dream of one exasperated alumnus/fan but ARE in fact the reality that will arrive presently.
“We shall overcome” and regain the proverbial “mountaintop,” but only if we join together and make clear to the University that we have had enough. It seems that perpetual complacency will continue ad infinitum—as it has for twenty-five years or more — unless a continuous, sustained effort is made to demonstrate that the current state of affairs is unacceptable. Turning campus into “Disney World” for gameday was never a priority on my wish list; being blown off the field by teams like Alabama, Ohio State and Miami was never a remote possibility with Ara roaming the sidelines; just making the NCAA tournament was never a goal that Muffet McGraw set or found acceptable for her basketball teams. Fr. Hesburgh said it best in a Sports Illustrated article addressing the dismissal of Coach Terry Brennan: “As long as we, like most American universities, are engaged in intercollegiate athletics, we will strive for excellence of performance in this area too, but never at the expense of the primary order of academic excellence … There is no academic virtue in playing mediocre football and no academic vice in winning a game that by all odds one should lose … There has indeed been a surrender at Notre Dame, but it is a surrender to excellence on all fronts, and in this we hope to rise above ourselves with the help of God.” (Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., “The Facts of the Matter,” Sports Illustrated (January 19, 1959)).
Why has the Administration abandoned these principles — the Notre Dame standard of excellence — in football and men’s basketball?
Joseph P. Blaney
class of 2003
The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.