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The Facts Of The Matter
Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C.
Several years ago SPORTS ILLUSTRATED kindly invited me to express some convictions (SI, Sept. 27, '54) regarding intercollegiate athletics. In a recent SPORTS ILLUSTRATED article entitled Surrender at Notre Dame (SI, Jan. 5) you say that I have found it impossible to live with these convictions at Notre Dame and have reversed myself, or allowed myself to be reversed albeit reluctantly. If I read the article correctly, and separate the fact from the fiction, your conclusion is derived from the single fact of our having changed football coaches.
Here are a few more facts and convictions that may suggest an alternate, although perhaps less colorful, interpretation of that single fact. My primary conviction has been, and is, that whatever else a university may be, it must first of all be a place dedicated to excellence. Most of my waking hours are directed to the achievement of that excellence here in the academic order. As long as we, like most American universities, are engaged in intercollegiate athletics, we will strive for excellence of performance in this area too, but never at the expense of the primary order of academic excellence. This you may take as gospel truth and the deep conviction of our total administration and faculty.
Now as to official university policy. Our new coach, Mr. Kuharich, will be governed by the same articles of administration for intercollegiate athletics that governed Mr. Brennan during the past five years. I wrote the latest revision of these articles some years ago, and can assure you that there shall be no changes in the strict rules and regulations governing athletics at the university: no softening of admission standards, no lowering of scholastic average for eligibility each year, no amending of scholarship requirements or numbers, in a word, no university athletic policy change at all. I shall personally assure the new coach that excellence of performance within this traditional framework is what we seek at Notre Dame. Winning by means outside this framework of academic control would be without honor or glory in a university, and winning in athletics or anything else is both fortuitous and meaningless unless it is a reflection of excellence in performance to the full measure of one's ability, good training and the will to win. We do want to win this way–but no other way–and we make no apology for the will to win, as long as it keeps faith with the honor and integrity that should characterize an educational institution.
DOWN WITH NOSTALGIC CALCULUS
Now for a few more facts to dispel a few current myths. As much as one might enjoy being a martyr, I have not been the victim of alumni pressure. If I must be a martyr to something, let it be pressure for excellence, and that mainly in the academic order. Our alumni contributed more than $500,000 to the university last year. I know of no contributions directed by alumni toward athletics or athletes. As a matter of public policy, such contributions would not be welcome here, and if anyone has any doubts in the matter, let this enlighten him. I received a total of two negative communications from the alumni regarding football this past year. This fact alone must be something of a record as a university president's mail goes. I take all this as an assurance that our alumni are more interested in the academic advance of the university, for this indeed is the main import of their letters, and the prime purpose toward which they enthusiastically contribute both time and money.
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.
Once the decision was made, I discussed the timing of the announcement with Terry. We mutually decided to make it before Christmas rather than after the new year. This was decided mainly in the interest of the assistant coaches, considering the present availability of other coaching positions that might not be available later. Salaries for all are, of course, continued for three months or until they are placed.
I fully realized at the time that this would not be at first glance a popular decision.
But then, most difficult decisions are not popular, and most decisions relevant to excellence are difficult. We could, for example, greatly improve the whole structure of American education tomorrow if we would make a few difficult and unpopular decisions. In any event, the important factor for an administrator is to be convinced that he is acting reasonably and rightly. With this conviction, I approved the recommendation of the faculty board, and frankly did so with mixed emotions–reluctance, if you will, because Terry Brennan is an attractive young man, a good friend of mine from his student days and my personal choice for head coach five years ago.
So there are the facts of the matter. We do have a new head coach but within the same framework. I have no fears about Joe Kuharich misunderstanding this framework, for he, too, is a Notre Dame graduate who continued studies here towards a master's degree. He was a varsity player of distinction and a freshmen football coach during his days of graduate study. He understands what we stand for, and he has our confidence. 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.
One last word. While I can appreciate the wide national interest in sports, I think it somewhat of an inversion of values that a university can appoint 20 distinguished professors, make broad and significant changes in academic personnel to achieve greater excellence, without attracting more than a slight ripple of attention. But let the same university make a well-considered change in athletic personnel for the same reason, and it sparks the ill-considered charge that it is no longer a first-rate academic institution and must henceforth be considered a football factory.
It seems to me that a little more thought is in order regarding what makes an institution academically first rate. What has relevance here is of a different and higher order–the quality, maturity and seriousness of its students, the intelligence and dedication of its faculty, the significance of its research, the condition of its facilities and, most important, the total and primary commitment of the whole university program to academic excellence. What the university does athletically, assuming it to be in a proper framework, neither adds to nor subtracts anything from these relevant and all-important academic facts. There is no academic virtue in playing mediocre football and no academic vice in winning a game that by all odds one should lose.
It could be and indeed is tragic, however, when a university or a nation puts the greatest importance and interest in those things that are less important in the total scheme of national life. The good need not be, but often is, the enemy of the better. At least in this, we are grateful that SPORTS ILLUSTRATED and others are so interested that we keep our goals in proper perspective.
There has indeed been a surrender at Notre Dame, but it is a surrender to excellence on all fronts, and in this we hope to rise above ourselves with the help of God.