Living in the Gray ...
by CJC (2011-11-08 12:54:27)

With all due to respect to Jonas and Gary, I'm not talking about 2011, but about the perpetual state of affairs when it comes to Notre Dame football traditions.

EK's piece this morning did a great job of examining some of the straw men that are constantly resurrected in this never-ending debate -- and it is never-ending, out of necessity.

As frustrating and messy as it will be, the real debate will involve subjective judgments about helmet colors, advertising and music. There is no Rosetta Stone the holds the key to a universal understanding of what Notre Dame football traditions are and ought to be.

Mindful of the difficult nature of the subjective and eternal debates entailed here, it would be most helpful to those who are truly interested in honest debate about these issues to recognize some fundamental truths that ought apply regardless of one's perspective on these issues.

First, some commonly-cited false premises:

1. People who resist changes to ancillary items are opposed to all change. There are many variations of this one, but referencing leather helmets is a favorite. I don't know of a single person who is opposed to shamrock helmets or piped in music who doesn't think that building the Gug was an excellent (and overdue) idea -- or that thinks we should be in leather helmets.

2. People who resist changes to ancillary items equate those matters with on-field performance. The corollary to this is that we should be "worrying" instead about what happens on the field, because that is more important. There is some gray here (for instance: how much, if any, impact piped-in music has on crowd noise and in turn on the performance of the team), but putting that aside for the moment, the fundamental premise that one can't be concerned both with how the team performs and the appearance of the helmets betrays fatally flawed logic.

3. Because Rockne was a remarkable innovator and subsequent Notre Dame coaches have innovated with great success to lesser degrees, innovation is inherently good. People who promote this position seem to fail to recognize that Rockne was in a vastly different position as Notre Dame head coach than even Leahy was, let alone Parseghian, Devine, Faust, Holtz, Davie, O'Leary, Willingham, Weis and Kelly. In the same way, Fr. Sorin was in a vastly different position as Notre Dame president than Fr. Hesburgh was, and Fr. Jenkins is.

In other words, because the program (place) is fundamentally different, the role is fundamentally different. It is different to be a builder than it is to be a caretaker. That is not to say that being a caretaker doesn't require vision. Fr. Hesburgh had great vision; Frank Leahy had great vision -- all of Notre Dame's great successor leaders have had great vision, and part of their vision was that they understood that they were building upon something great, not building from scratch.

To be clear, the point here is not to renounce innovation and change, it's to acknowledge what is objectively true -- sustaining is different than building from scratch. The problematic premise is the claim by some that Rockne's program-building approach and success justify a similar program-building mindset on the part of Notre Dame's current leaders.

Here are some essential premises, which I'd argue very closely approach -- but don't quite attain -- objective truth:

1. Notre Dame is different, even in matters non-essential to football success, and there is inherent value in that uniqueness. This is not even to say that Notre Dame is objectively better, although most who invest in Notre Dame clearly think so. It's not morally wrong to change uniforms every week or to sign multiple junior college transfers each season. But it's not Notre Dame.

2. Flowing from number 1, it is never sufficient justification for doing something that somebody else or everybody else is doing it. To be clear, this is not to say that we shouldn't pay attention to what others are doing, or that we should refrain from doing something beneficial simply to avoid imitating others in a specific regard. But all things being equal, we should embrace our uniqueness.

3. Notre Dame is bigger than everyone. It's bigger than Fr. Sorin, Fr. Hesburgh and Fr. Jenkins. It's bigger than Rockne, Leahy and Kelly. Nick Saban perfectly captured this when he acknowledged that Alabama is bigger than him. To the extent that anybody, in any leadership position at Notre Dame, ever believes that his or her prerogative on any matter of substance is significant, it is an abject failure of their stewardship.

I've read recently that by claiming that Notre Dame doesn't belong to its current stewards, I'm in essence claiming that it -- or its important decisions -- belong to me. I really can't fathom that logic, but let me try to be clear, and this especially applies to current student-athletes and students (I'm currently the parent of two in the latter category): Notre Dame belongs to all of us, and nobody has the prerogative to re-make Notre Dame in the image of something else. I want my Notre Dame to be my daughter's Notre Dame. I don't want my daughter's Notre Dame to be Grand Valley State.

I fully realize that's easier said than done, which leads me to that Gray gray area.

Change is necessary. Traditions are important. The more necessary and inevitable change becomes, the more important it is to identify traditions that can be preserved without damaging or hindering the program.

Thus, the remarkable -- and never-ending -- challenge.

Disagreements are unavoidable. Trade-offs are essential. But done within a framework of understanding that Notre Dame is not and should not be Cincinnati or Stanford or Harvard or Michigan or USC will give us a fighting chance to both attain excellence and preserve Notre Dame's uniqueness. Ignoring Notre Dame's identity may bring success, but it will leave Notre Dame largely indistinguishable (in athletic terms) from Texas or Florida or even Stanford.

Above, I alluded to the possibility that piped-in music may invigorate the crowd to the point that it may have a beneficial impact on the play of our team. Although I think history makes clear that excellent play on the field produces a crowd environment more than sufficient to support a championship team, I still recognize this as something within the gray area -- as long as we don't resort to reasoning like, "Michigan does it, and it's awesome," or "The students love it."

Over the years, there have been many conversations here about the rising costs of operating a successful football program. From where will that revenue come? Again, within the framework I have suggested, this is a fair and important conversation. For instance, if we don't want a jumbotron, are we willing to accept "sponsorship" of off-site home games? Similarly, what's an "acceptable" number of games to wear "alternate" uniforms? Zero? One? Two? Twelve?

As much as most of us hate it, there is no escaping the gray area. Given that reality, we'll all be better off if we embrace the gray area, rather than raising and battling straw men around the perimeter.