Monday, June 16, 2008

Opening the Vault | by Pat

A few days ago, I started to look around for media reactions to Kevin White's jump to Duke from ND. After all, the whole reason this blog was started was to save off for posterity the multitude of opinions in the wake of Ty Willingham's firing.

I didn't get very far before finding about what I expected:

Leaving Notre Dame was inevitable for neutered White
ESPN's Gene Wojciechowski chimed in with his two cents and went with the "ND has sold its soul for football glory" template. To wit, the first, second, and last paragraph of his article.

Notre Dame is looking for a new athletic director today because it neutered the previous one.

The surgical procedure, done without the benefit of privacy or anesthesia, was performed on Kevin White on Nov. 30, 2004 -- the day the school's president and board of trustees ignored White's objections and fired football coach Tyrone Willingham. Ever since then, White has been circling overhead, parachute strapped to his back, waiting for the jump light to switch from red to green.


Notre Dame will be fine. This we know. But it will never be the same.
Now, rather than respond to a cliched article with a cliched rant about the lack of research prevalent in modern sports writing, I figure I'll use Gene's weak attempt at outrage to start a week long look through Sports Illustrated Vault. Recently, SI digitized the entire run of their famous sports magazine and put up the entire thing, free of charge. With articles going back to the 50s, there are some fantastic takes on the Notre Dame teams of yesteryear. And what do ND fans do better than revel in history and nostalgia?

Today's pick is an article from the January 19th, 1959 edition. To set the scene, Notre Dame had just fired Terry Brennan the previous December, four days before Christmas in fact. In the January 6th edition, SI had run an article entitled Surrender at Notre Dame, one of the earlier examples of the "ND has sold its soul for football glory" mantra. Fr. Hesburgh himself wrote a response to the SI article explaining how Notre Dame went about making the decision to replace Brennan and it was printed in the January 19th edition.

Of particular interest, with regards to the Wojciechowski article, was this paragraph.
But still there remains that single nagging fact—we did change coaches. Why? Must there not be something sinister in this? Nothing more sinister than a commitment to excellence, and the judgment that the performance would be bettered by the change. Like all judgments regarding human performance and standards of excellence, this is a fallible one. Many may disagree with it. Yet it was made unanimously by the faculty board in control of athletics at its regular December meeting. The director of athletics, while he does not have a vote in these matters, did agree with their recommendation. Ultimately, I had to approve or disapprove their recommendation. I studied their reasons, discussed them with some trusted counselors here and made my decision on the same basis that I would decide any change in university personnel.
In other words, the decision to replace or retain the football coach at Notre Dame has never been solely the athletic director's call to make. And the AD that didn't even have a vote in the Brennan case was none other than Notre Dame legend Moose Krause. Clearly, college football has changed in the 50 years since that decision, but its financial importance to Notre Dame hasn't, which is likely one reason why such an important decision is one made by those who run the entire University and not the person currently in charge of the athletic department. That's not to say that Notre Dame's modus operandi has always resulted in a smart decision over the years. But it has been a consistent one and the exclusion of Kevin White from the Willingham termination decision was not the break from tradition that Wojciechowski implies.

Moving on, Fr. Hesburgh goes on to layout the criteria for judging new head coach Joe Kuharich. It is hard to read this and not think about the judging and win/loss baselines that will accompany Charlie Weis in 2008 following 2007's 3-9 season.
Despite any syndicated surmises to the contrary, he is not expected to be Rockne, but only Kuharich; he is not to be measured by any nostalgic calculus of wins, losses and national championships, but only by the excellence of his coaching and the spirit of his teams. This is quite different from a philosophy of "win or else." A team can perform miserably and win, and a team can look magnificent in defeat. The won-and-lost record is no ultimate criterion for a reasonable and thinking man. Excellence of performance, spirit and the will to win are really central to any good sport activity and are, I believe, the precise values that have attracted most Americans to cherish competitive sports. Lose these values, or depreciate them, and no game is worth playing.
We have a few more articles lined up for the rest of the week, but if you see anything that catches your eye in the SI Vault, feel free to send along the link and we'll see if we can fit it in as well.