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18 Apr 2004

Confessions of a Football Junkie: Irish Football Famine

by Russell Levine

It's always important to consider a writer's bias before giving weight to his opinions, and I'll tell you mine up front. I'm a Michigan grad and a Michigan zealot, so you can probably guess where my feelings lie when it comes to Notre Dame. Let's just say that if Notre Dame is playing the Taliban, I'm probably rooting for injuries.

I think it's important to understand my feelings for the Irish before you read and consider what I have to say about the state of their football program, brought into focus recently by some less-than-enlightened remarks from Paul Hornung. Just because the mere sight of Touchdown Jesus can whip me into a fireball of bitterness and hate doesn't mean that I can't offer an objective opinion on what ails Notre Dame.

Unfortunately for Notre Dame, Hornung has already done just that, telling an ESPN Radio interviewer that Notre Dame can't compete against the national schedule it plays unless it gets "the black athlete," and then compounding that statement by adding that in order to get "the black athlete," the school would have to lower its admissions standards. In other words, Notre Dame is sunk without the kind of elite, black recruit that isn't smart enough to gain admission.

We can only assume that the admissions standards were somewhat more lax in Hornung's day.

When the predictable firestorm of controversy followed the remarks, Notre Dame officials moved quickly to distance themselves from the "Golden Boy," and Hornung arranged a follow-up interview to apologize and clarify his statement. He said that he erred in singling out black athletes instead of all elite athletes, but stood by his opinion that Notre Dame needed to lower its admissions standards.

Even in their ignorance, Hornung's comments raised several poignant questions about the state of the Notre Dame program. Can Notre Dame maintain its current academic standards and schedule and expect to compete for national championships? Which is more important to the university? Should it forego its football independence in favor of joining a conference? If Mickey Mantle had Paul Hornung's liver, would he still be playing center field for the Yankees?

(OK, that last one was just to see if you were paying attention.)

Hornung earned the nickname "Golden Boy" back when he won the 1956 Heisman Trophy at Notre Dame (becoming the only player on a losing team to do so). By the time he had become a star with the Green Bay Packers he was truly living up to the name. There's a passage in David Maraniss' excellent 1999 biography of Vince Lombardi, When Pride Still Mattered (buy it over to the right, and give FO a boost at the same time!), that gives a good account of Hornung's off-field life in Green Bay:

Each morning Paul would get up about quarter to nine and be on the field by nine o'clock. They would practice until twelve o'clock and there would be meetings to three. After three he'd come home, mix a pitcher of martinis and drink martinis until six o'clock with [Packers guard Jerry] Kramer and the others. Then they'd go out to dinner, a group of players. Scotch before dinner. Wine with dinner. Brandy after dinner. Then back to scotch. Every day. I lost count by the time it had reached more than sixty just how many drinks Paul had in that week leading up to the Browns game. Also, he never went to bed before four in the morning, he never went to bed alone, and he never repeated himself.

In his golden years, the "Golden Boy" has re-attached himself to the Notre Dame program, serving as an analyst on the nationally syndicated radio broadcasts of Irish games. So he's at least had a first-hand look at the program's struggles in recent seasons. But that doesn't lend any more credence to his outrageous comments.

Of all the reactions to Hornung's remarks that I've come across, CNNSI.com's Tim Layden put it best when he wrote, "Notre Dame doesn't have a racial problem, it has a football problem."

The school is caught in a conundrum. On the one hand, they do uphold lofty academic standards in the seamy world of big-time college football. Studies have found that Notre Dame is consistently at or near the top of the heap in terms of football graduation rates. On the other hand, the school has made winning a bigger priority on the Notre Dame campus that any football factory school in the country.

How can winning be more important at Notre Dame than at Nebraska, which fired coach Frank Solich after a 9-3 season? Or at Alabama, which has been on probation twice in the last dozen years for extensive recruiting violations? Or at LSU, a public university that pays its head coach, Nick Saban, $2 million annually?

The most obvious piece of evidence is Notre Dame's television contract with NBC. Notre Dame football is the only sports team in the U.S. that has its own television contract to nationally broadcast is games on an over-the-air network. Think about that for a minute. The New York Yankees don't have a TV deal like that. Neither do the Los Angeles Lakers, the Dallas Cowboys or Duke or UConn basketball. Granted, professional sports leagues are governed by collective national television contracts, but still, Notre Dame's NBC deal is a stunning tribute to both the school's popularity and its greed.

Yes, greed. Don't get me wrong, if such a deal were available to other schools, they'd sign it in a heartbeat. They would be foolish not to. Still, the weight of the contract puts a tremendous amount of pressure on Notre Dame to win. NBC has been publicly very patient as the Irish have struggled in recent seasons, but the network won't stand idly by forever if Notre Dame continues to falter.

The other thing the TV contract does is force Notre Dame to play a demanding schedule week in and week out. NBC wants to televise Notre Dame-Michigan or Notre Dame-Florida State, not Notre Dame-North Texas. Most football powerhouses play three or four non-conference games, with usually no more than one of those against a fellow power. A few schools will play two tough non-conference games (Florida State has played both Miami and Florida for years, although Miami will now be an ACC conference foe). Notre Dame has staunchly defended its football independence, often citing tradition as a prime reason, but remaining independent gives the school the scheduling freedom it needs to present an appealing slate of games to NBC.

Many schools give their coaches substantial financial bonuses for achieving certain on-field goals. Saban's LSU contract called for him to make $1 more than the next-highest paid coach if the Tigers won a national championship, which they did in 2003. The same coaches often have a much smaller bonus for academic goals, say graduating a certain percentage of their players. These deals have often been criticized for placing too much emphasis on winning and giving coaches a financial incentive to bend the rules in pursuit of on-the-field success. But whereas a coach may have a six-figure payout riding on the outcome of a championship game, Notre Dame has a $9 million annual contract with NBC hanging over its head. It's important to note that the NBC deal contains no specific language regarding Notre Dame's rate of on-field success, but the unspoken pressure to constantly justify the deal with its play has been felt by Notre Dame coaches and officials since the first contract was signed in 1991.

Joining a conference would help to moderate the difficultly of Notre Dame's schedule, but it's highly unlikely that any conference would allow the Irish to keep for themselves all the money they receive from NBC.

There are other financial reasons to remain independent. You often hear about "bowl payouts" that schools receive to appear in postseason games. What's less-often explained is how those bowl revenues are shared. Most conferences pool the bowl revenues from all their teams that made the postseason, give each school an allowance for expenses, then divide the rest equally among all conference members. In other words, perennial SEC doormat Vanderbilt gets the same bowl revenue as perennial powerhouse Florida. It's true that schools get to keep any portion of the expense allowance that they don't spend, but they are much more likely to come in over budget than under -- sometimes by several hundred thousand dollars.

By remaining independent, Notre Dame doesn't have to share its bowl revenues with anyone. If they go to a $13 million BCS Bowl, as they last did in 2000, they keep the entire payout. Again, by joining a conference, Notre Dame would be forced to share this windfall with other conference members.

On the bowl front, there is an upshot to joining a conference. In the BCS-driven landscape of college football, the non-BCS bowls have rushed to sign affiliate agreements with the major conferences to guarantee them attractive opponents each year. That leaves little room for Notre Dame when it isn't good enough to qualify for the BCS, which it has only done once since the present format went into effect for the 1998 season. The best Notre Dame has managed is to lean on its non-football Big East affiliation to land a tie-in with the Gator Bowl, where it last played following the 2002 season. Compare that to 1994, when the Irish fielded a mediocre team that went 6-4-1 and still played in the big-payout Fiesta Bowl.

To its credit, Notre Dame has maintained tougher academic standards for its football players than most of the schools it competes against. Combine that with the brutal, NBC-pleasing schedule, and it has become very difficult for Notre Dame to remain competitive -- certainly not at the level its vast fan base has become accustomed to.

If we give Hornung the benefit of the doubt and drop the racial aspect of his comments, was he correct? Does Notre Dame need to lower academic standards to compete?

Notre Dame fans and apologists are loath to admit it, but the academic standards weren't always so difficult, and I'm not talking about the Hornung era. Somewhere in between nice-guy coaches Gerry Faust and Bob Davie, both of whom graduated their players but didn't win a whole lot, the university covered its eyes and hired Lou Holtz. On the field, Holtz was a smashing success, rescuing the program from the depths it had plunged to under the overmatched Faust and winning the school's last national championship in 1988.

But off the field, the Holtz era at Notre Dame was less palatable. In the national spotlight afforded the head coach of Notre Dame, Holtz charmed the media with his diminutive size, corny jokes, magic tricks and weekly "we don't stand a chance" speeches. Combine his charm with his obvious ability as a coach -- he won a national title in just his third season -- and people forgot about the fact that he left scandals in his wake nearly everywhere he coached. His two stops prior to taking the Notre Dame job, Minnesota and Arkansas, both spent time on NCAA probation for violations that occurred under Holtz's watch. So too would Notre Dame, albeit for minor violations, after his departure. It was the first time the NCAA had ever sanctioned Notre Dame for violations in any sport.

In the sports world, winning is a paint that can cover just about any color in one coat, and win Holtz did. Under his leadership, Notre Dame mattered again. It was able to exploit its rediscovered popularity to get the unprecedented TV deal with NBC. But Holtz's methods didn't sit well with everyone at Notre Dame. The school had lowered its academic standards to resuscitate its talent level, and it had paid off in a national championship. The starting quarterback on that 1988 team was Tony Rice, a partial qualifier under NCAA standards, meaning he didn't achieve minimum scores on the SAT to qualify for an academic scholarship. (It should be noted that Rice went on to earn a degree from Notre Dame). Holtz also abandoned long-standing Notre Dame policy to engage in football-factory tactics like red-shirting.

By the time he departed following the 1996 season, Holtz had worn out his welcome in South Bend. The school was back to playing a killer schedule after cutting back for a few years in the mid 1990s and his final teams had struggled. But the culprit wasn't tough academic standards -- it was lousy recruiting.

Holtz, his legend in South Bend secure due to the '88 title, got lazy in his recruiting and the program slipped. There was a time when Notre Dame could throw open the doors and welcome top recruits from all over the Midwest. They usually had the pick of the litter from fertile recruiting grounds such as Chicago and Western Pennsylvania. When the NBC contract was signed, it was thought it would give the school an insurmountable recruiting advantage by allowing it to promise recruits' parents they'd see their sons on TV every single week.

But that advantage has been neutralized by the further spread of televised college football. True, no other school has a broadcast deal like Notre Dame's, but many, many programs can boast multiple national-TV games.

One way to view the slip in recruiting is through the prism of the NFL draft. From 1995-2003, Notre Dame produced only three first-round draft picks, all of them offensive or defensive lineman. Compare that to 1993, when the Irish produced four first-round picks, including a quarterback (Rick Mirer) and a tailback (Jerome Bettis). It's the lack of that type of elite, skill-position athlete that has Hornung in a tizzy.

I disagree with Hornung that the school needs to sacrifice any of its academic standards to get back to football dominance. Outstanding players who can meet those standards are out there, maybe not in the quantity to have Notre Dame in the hunt for national titles every single season (as their alumni and fans expect) but enough to make the Irish more competitive than they have been in recent years. That's the mission of third-year head coach Tyrone Willingham -- to get out and sell the program to the elite student-athletes this nation produces.

Notre Dame does need to make a sacrifice, however. As long as the school clings to its outmoded independent status, Willingham and every coach that follows him is likely to fail to achieve the high standards for success that are put forth. It's time for the school to sacrifice the financial greed that has driven its recent decision making and join a conference. Despite being spurned by one invitation to Notre Dame, the Big Ten won't say no if the Irish approach them about joining. It makes too much sense for both sides.

Even in a conference, Notre Dame is going to be on television as much as anyone. With the easier schedule a conference affiliation would provide, the school could replace some of the lost TV revenue with bowl revenue, and it could again be a player on the national stage, all while refusing to sacrifice its academic ideals.

Because love or (as I do) hate them, college football is a better place when Notre Dame matters.

Posted by: Russell Levine on 18 Apr 2004

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