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More Reasons to Dislike the Irish

With a Southern California birth and a youth spent in North Texas, I grew up pulling for USC and Southwest Conference teams. To a kid like me, Notre Dame embodied evil. No matter who they played, I pulled against them. Over the last twenty years as ND waded through many mediocre years, my hostility dampened quite a bit. However, an article in last Saturday's new Weekend Edition of the Wall Street Journal sent me back in time. The WSJ's Chicago Bureau Chief, Bryan Gruley, wrote on "Why Root for the Irish." Ironically, his appeal for more Irish rooters highlighted both fan-level and economist-level grievances against such an appeal.

For example, Mr. Gruley observes

"Today there's only one school -- my alma mater -- that plays a genuinely national schedule ... and continues to aspire to high academic standards while chasing a national title. There are no names on jersyes, no "football dorms," no corporate boxes."

First off, on a purely factual basis, no schools utilize "football dorms" anymore. They were legislated away by the NCAA. More to the substance of his "ND is different" point, though, is the blindness to the hyper-commercialized nature of ND football in spite of a few superficial elements to the contrary. They may not have corporate boxes, but they still have the only single-school national television contract. When the contract with NBC began in 1991, it sent reverberations through the college football world for its go-for-the-$ emphasis. The official ND athletic website openly recruits corporate sponsorships and alliances. Team clothing advertises corporate logos. The Rockne Heritage Fund utilizes ND athletics to raise money from donors. The point is not that this is good or bad but that it is right down the line with other college athletic powers -- the differences are only in superficial matters.

He continues by saying

"Some people ... have suggested Notre Dame must lower its academic standards to attract blue-chip recruits...There are other schools -- Stanford as an example -- that achieve both on the field and in the classroom. But they can't claim 11 national titles and seven Heisman Trophy winners."

The implicit assumption that Mr. Gruley makes is that Notre Dame's academic standards are a constraint, albeit one that he thinks they have and can overcome. I don't have hard data, but I'm willing to make a strong statement anyway. If one took the top 40 players on ND's team, their average SAT scores would be much closer to those of players at Florida or Clemson than they would to the average ND undergrad. Look, Paul Hornung, Mark Bavaro, Tim Brown, Michael Stonebreaker, Bobby Taylor, and most of the other ND football All-Americans were not at ND because of their 1300 on the SAT. The schools that have undergrad SATs in the ND level but really constrain their football athletes to levels anywhere near the general student body -- schools like Duke or Rice -- have the (poor) football records to show for it. The 11 national championships is, itself, prima facie evidence that ND has not held their football athletes to the standards of the general student population. Moreover, the schools where intercollegiate athletes are genuinely similar to the rest of the campus -- places like Washington University -- play Division III football. Again, one can view this as good, bad, or neutral, but my point is that ND is not different, just pompous.

Mr. Gruley also makes the point that the hullaballoo surrounding the dismissal of Tyrone Willingham before his contract was up is evidence that ND is held to and holds itself to a higher standard. That's nonsense. The degree of attention given to it is because ND has a national presence and because there were racial overtones, at least in the eyes of some, that made the firing very politically incorrect. Eyebrows are raised and scuttlebutt spread even places as far down the pecking order as Western Kentucky when coaches are dismissed after relatively short stints. The only difference is that the discussion appears only in the Bowling Green Daily News and not the New York Times or WSJ.

Furthermore, this idea that ND lives in a pristine world and expects so much from its coaches is laughable. Yes, they expect wins, but the character or methods of the coach are not nearly as scrutinized as Mr. Gruley might want to believe. Lou Holtz, for all of his self-demeaning and humorous schtik, is a win-at-almost-any-cost sort of coach. The stories wafting out of South Bend, one of which made it to Sports Illustrated, during his stay were none too lofty. Even without the resume tampering, George O'Leary's reputation as an abusive coach would best be described as one notch beyond Holtz.

Had Mr. Gruley made his appeal based solely on the real source of ND's troubles -- a series of really poor coaching hires starting with Gerry Faust and interrupted by only Lou Holtz -- I could have at least agreed with him. As he noted, ND has not been much fun to pull against in recent years. Whether Charlie Weiss solves their problems or not, I'm geared back up to pull against the Irish at any and every opportunity. Go SC!