Monday, November 30, 2009

Walking the Walk...

As a college football fan and a Notre Dame supporter (I remain a sucker for tradition), today is a sad day. It is a sad day because a college football program that once stood for so much has become just like the rest of them. Until today, Notre Dame had been an institution that prided itself on high standards on and off the field. They prided themselves on ensuring their student-athletes met the same entry standards required of the rest of the student body and enjoyed great success in ensuring these same student-athletes met the same graduation requirements at the end of the South Bend experience.

At a press conference today (transcript), Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick announced Notre Dame had fired their coach, Charlie Weiss, and in doing so, showed the world that Notre Dame no longer values the very standards that once separated them from the rest of the field. After clearly stating that it was time to "move the program into another direction," he went out of his way to point out "...Charlie did win a National Championship; he won a National Championship when his football program finished first in graduation success rate this year, and that is an important contribution and one which we value very highly." Most thought the firing was a foregone conclusion due solely to the record on the field, which was 6-6 this year and included two losses in the last three years to the US Naval Academy. Other fools, like myself, held out hope that Notre Dame would continue to stand for something more.

I must admit, I am not a Charlie Weis fan, but liking the man is not relevant to the discussion. The unique challenge (the fact it remains unique is of concern) at Notre Dame is they have not lowered their student-athlete standards in order to compete at the highest level. Instead, standards are continually lowered by those with whom they are expected to compete. Many college football fans will tell you Notre Dame has not been relevant since 1993 when they finished 11-1 and won the Cotton Bowl. I would argue that it is there adherence to meaningful academic and conduct standards that has made them irrelevant in the minds of the same people. It is the same reason the service academies are not expected to compete in the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) and likely never will. What is often lost on too many is that college (a term to denote a degree-awarding tertiary educational institution) is not about athletics. Yes, college sports can generate a great deal of money, they are a great deal of fun for both the participant and the spectator and yes, many life lessons are learned on the athletic field, but college is about so much more and the measure of success is the degree that documents the journey.

While Mr. Swarbrick thought enough of the fact Notre Dame is graduating football players at a 96 percent rate (tied with Duke and slightly ahead of Navy (93%)), he still recommended the University "move the program into another direction." Suffice it to say that those schools at the top of the BCS rankings are nowhere near that percentage. Where Duke, Navy and the other schools at the top of the graduation list get it right is that they acknowledge they are playing in a different league. They play college football, while the others play minor league football. They produce college graduates, while the others produce a few professional athletes and exploit the rest of their rosters. They schedule games against like minded institutions with a few "stretch games" each year (Navy played Ohio State this year) to push the boundaries of the possible. I am not saying a school and a coach cannot work together to maintain high entrance standards, high graduation rates and enjoy success on the field of play (Coach K at Duke proves that point each year), but more often than not, there is an inverse relationship between meeting even minimal academic entry requirements (let alone graduation standards) and competing at the highest levels on the field.

Notre Dame wants to "move the program into another direction," rather than celebrate the reason their days of dominance on the gridiron are behind them is a direct result of the high character of their leadership and commitment to the prime directive of a learning institution...preparing students (in partnership with their parents) for the next phase of their personal growth journey and ultimately delivering contributing members to society.

Though most of us are far from the gridiron, the dichotomy between what we claim as values and what our actions demonstrate is not always as small as we would like to think. Where do we place more value in our lives?

Educators/Students: The grade on the report card or what one learned?
Employers/Employees: The time spent at work or the value created while there?
Parents: The fact our "husky" child cleaned their dinner plate or the reality it was a McDonald's Happy Meal, again?

Are we walking the walk, merely talking the talk, or completely ambivalent? Appears Notre Dame is no longer walking the walk. Welcome to the rest of the NCAA, Irish...

3 comments:

  1. Sean, you and I have had a conversation or two about my beloved Fightin' Irish, but I think you have it wrong here.

    The athletic director wants the football program to go in another direction. I'm pretty sure he means toward the top of the BCS rankings, not the bottom of the graduation rankings. ND has succeeded on the field AND graduated a higher percentage of football players than any other major school before.

    The Fightin' Irish can excel in football and academics. They have before and they will again. I wouldn't take the AD's statement as indicating any lowering of standards. We won't know until we see grad stats in the coming years, but the school and their very involved alumni expect and demand excellence in both areas.

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  2. That is exactly my point, the direction the AD wants to go is first and foremost toward the top of the BCS rankings and it clearly trumps other publicly stated values. Only time will reveal the sacrifices Notre Dame leadership will make, as they embark on the journey from strong STUDENT-ATHLETE and good football to that of strong student-ATHLETE and high BCS rankings. I hope you are right, but the point of the post is that to say finishing first in graduation success rate is something "we value very highly" and then fire the man responsible for both the recruiting and retaining of the STUDENT-ATHLETES who made it possible, demonstrates a conflict between words and actions. Don’t state you value something and then punish somebody who achieves the very objective you celebrated. We have already seen our Navy lower standards to achieve other objectives. I just hope Notre Dame can find a way to return to the days of glory on the field without exhibiting the traits of the football programs that are currently at the top of the polls.

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  3. We're in violent agreement. I don't take the decision to fire Weis as betraying their words relative to the importance they place on STUDENT-ATHLETES. Notre Dame's leadeship (to their great credit) demands a coach who can do both.

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