Have the Fighting Irish gone soft?

Notre Dame is enforcing stricter academic standards in a push to deemphasize football. Why now?

Published November 10, 2000 8:51PM (EST)

For weeks now Alabama football coach Mike Dubose has been telling reporters, "God has a plan," as the Crimson Tide, ranked No. 3 by most preseason prognosticators, got the stuffing kicked out of them by UCLA, Arkansas, Southern Mississippi, Tennessee, Central Florida and, most recently, LSU.

The week before last it seems that plan was revealed when it was announced that Alabama would not pick up Dubose's contract after this season, even if the Crimson Tide should beat arch-rival Auburn in the final game. And so, Dubose at least has the opportunity to atone for his four-year tenure with a perfect season: 'Bama bests Auburn and the coach gets fired. What more could you ask for?

Dubose was the latest and greatest disaster in a long succession of mediocrities that have followed the retirement of Paul "Bear" Bryant from Alabama football. A reliable defensive coordinator promoted well beyond his level of competence, Dubose took one of the greatest recruiting machines in the nation and managed to lose more games than he won. This isn't easy to do when you're producing a bushel of players the National Football League finds talented enough to draft, but somehow Dubose managed to do it.

And just so he wouldn't be judged only by his record as a football coach, he also found time to have an affair with his secretary, lie about it, cause a major scandal and bring disgrace to the university and the football program -- at Alabama, admittedly, it's not always easy to separate the two -- by not resigning. The university board of directors then compounded the offense by refusing to eat the remaining years on his contract and fire him just because he was able to pull it together and win a couple of games. To their credit, the U of A board has now said, in effect, that it's not OK to screw your secretary just because you beat Auburn. You have to beat at least Arkansas and Tennessee. By God, you have to have some standards.

The program that is now trying to enforce the strictest standards in college football, the University of Notre Dame's, isn't quite as bad off as the University of Alabama's. Yet. But what has become shockingly obvious in recent years is that the school most associated with football over the previous century simply can't compete with the major powers. The Irish were 5-7 last year and, with only two losses, look to be much improved this season.

This is an illusion that will be shattered if Notre Dame snags a major bowl bid. Earlier in the season Notre Dame held then-No. 1 Nebraska to a 21-21 tie at the end of regulation time (only to lose in overtime), but only by virtue of the colossal fluke of getting both a kickoff and punt return TD in the same game. In four of Notre Dame's victories this year the Fighting Irish have been outgained. This suggests that the 2000 Irish are a team with heart and spunk. Unfortunately, it also suggests a team with very little front-line talent.

Notre Dame's case appears to be the opposite of Alabama's. The program that once recruited more talent than any other in the nation -- Total Football, the NFL's official record book, records 428 players drafted from Notre Dame into the pros through 1998, compared to Southern Cal's 359, Ohio State's 288, Michigan's 256 and Nebraska's 252 -- is now turning down numerous blue-chippers because of stricter academic standards.

One wants to call this admirable, and on some level it probably is, but to many longtime followers of Notre Dame football (which is not to necessarily say fans), recent developments in policy appear somewhat, well, nutty. In the interests of purifying its program from recent rumors and accusations (nothing, it should be noted, that even hints of blatant wrongdoing), Notre Dame appears to be dedicated to deemphasizing football. The question is, why, and why now, after nearly 75 years of success?

And, sadly, the answer would seem to be integrity. I say sadly because integrity of the kind Notre Dame seems to be striving for is simply misplaced in college sports, or at least at big-time college football and basketball powers.

Big-time college sports are tainted from the start. The players are professionals in every way but one: They aren't paid. The system is rigged against them from the start. They give their bodies for the one-in-a-thousand shot at the carrot on a stick, a pro contract, all the while earning the millions that support coaches and assistant coaches and their families and selling untold tons of T-shirts, sweaters, pennants, etc., for which they are guaranteed exactly nothing in return. Those of us who continue to follow college football do it not because of this system but in spite of it.

But Notre Dame seems to think it can put a gloss of respectability over an inherently corrupt system by at least guaranteeing that its players can read and write, all the while pretending that it can win without being vulgar enough to emphasize winning. And all Notre Dame will ever accomplish with this attitude is to turn out mediocre football teams.

It was a lot more fun in college football when Notre Dame was one of the big boys. It would improve college football for everyone if the university would get off its high horse and lower its standards a bit. They'd do well to heed the words of Kurt Russell's Wyatt Earp in "Tombstone": "I've already got a guilty conscience. I may as well have the money, too."

By Allen Barra

Allen Barra is the author of "Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends."

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