Let me take you back to March 12, 2000. At the Hilton near O’Hare Airport in Chicago, I was interviewing for the position of athletics director at the University of Notre Dame.
After two hours of questions from university officers, trustees and other administrators, the chair of the board of trustees, Pat McCartan, said, “Kevin, do you have any questions for us?”
I responded, “Yes, I do. If I were to be fortunate enough to be offered this position, what is the end game? What are you looking for from the Notre Dame athletics director?”
There was a pause, and then Father “Monk” Malloy, the president of the university, raised his hand and said, “Let me take this one.”
He said, "Kevin, there are a handful of things that are very important to us when it comes to athletics at Notre Dame.
“First, we need to get our football program back to the pinnacle position. We’ve been there before and we believe we can get there again — and that’s extremely important to an awful lot of people at Notre Dame.
“Second, we’ve got 25 other sports besides football, and we think we can be pretty good at the national level in every one of them and win a national championship in one of them every year or two.
“Third, there’s this thing called compliance, and we expect to run our program without any hiccups in that area. We’re going to adhere to both the letter and the spirit of the NCAA rules.
“Fourth, we expect you to run a fiscally sound program — and we actually think there are mechanisms in place so that you should actually be able to pay all the athletics bills and still turn a substantial sum each year back to the university.
“And fifth, when it comes to graduating our student-athletes, that’s simply non-negotiable. We’ve been one of the national leaders in graduation rates and we expect to maintain that standing.
“And beyond that, Kevin, you can do whatever you want to do.”
Now, that always brings a laugh when I tell that story in front of alumni groups, but on a more serious note it actually points out the sorts of standards to which all of us in collegiate athletics are held. Whether it’s Notre Dame or any other institution — that’s where the bar is right now.
Growing up Irish and Catholic in New York, I was not unfamiliar with what Notre Dame was all about. But that meeting in Chicago, quite simply, marked my first “face to face” portrayal of the philosophy of athletics at Notre Dame.
We are expected to win, we are expected to graduate our student-athletes, we are expected to play by the rules and we are expected to balance the budget. And we are expected to do all those things in a much more visible setting than ever before.
Without question, the modern era at Notre Dame has been shaped and influenced by three extraordinary leaders: Father Ted Hesburgh, the president emeritus; Father Ned Joyce, the late executive vice-president; and Father Malloy, the current president. Their carefully expressed vision for this special place is abundantly clear. Moreover, they have over the years set that bar extraordinarily high.
Very simply, with regard to intercollegiate athletics, those non-negotiable expectations relative to stellar academic performance and unconditional integrity, coupled with a strong spiritual dimension — not to mention competing (on game day) at the highest level — distinguish Notre Dame from the rest.
Institutional control of athletics has never been much of an issue at Notre Dame. Why? Certainly, the influence and leadership of Father Hesburgh and Father Joyce for 35 years have been huge. They set the tone and they made sure athletics were run appropriately within the framework of the university. Though it’s been nearly 18 years since they retired, the tenor of athletics at Notre Dame is based on the model they built.
Are athletics visible and successful at Notre Dame? Yes. That’s been true for some time. But perspective always has been in place, dating back to when Father Hesburgh refused to hike a football between his legs at his introductory press conference. He made sure everyone treated the athletics department the same as the English department or the mathematics department. We’re expected to adhere to our budget in the same manner as any other department.
As another example, when Father Joyce established an academic advising program for student-athletes in the early 1960s (no one in the country had one at that time), he maintained its credibility by ensuring it reported through his (and eventually the provost’s) office as opposed to the athletics director’s. The university over time has emphasized the importance of integrating student-athletes into the general student body. To that end, student-athletes live in the same residence halls (there are no fraternities or sororities at Notre Dame and limited off-campus housing), take the same classes and eat the same meals (there has never been an athletics dormitory or training table at Notre Dame).
To further ensure our student-athletes have the best opportunity to be successful in the classroom, our Faculty Board on Athletics has a three-class miss policy — meaning a student-athlete may miss a particular class due to athletics only three times in a semester. That greatly affects our scheduling and travel plans.
Our program may enjoy certain advantages, based to some extent on our history and tradition. But at the end of the day, we’re held to the same standards as everyone else in college athletics. These ways of doing athletics business at Notre Dame have been forever institutionalized and the philosophies that have endured over all these decades won’t change a bit when university president-elect Father John Jenkins comes on board this summer.
In my mind, all of us in college athletics face three primary challenges:
- Balance (between academics and athletics)
p. Moving forward, maintaining to some degree, the notion of a level playing field, may indeed be the most significant challenge we face.
Again, there is a real absence of homogeneity across the collegiate athletics community. To be sure, we have land-grant institutions, elite privates, urban institutions, traditional mid-sized places and a wide array of small colleges. The creation of appropriate standards that meet the various needs and interests of this diverse group will always be most difficult.
p. We all know that the lights have never been brighter as we anticipate the work ahead to meet these challenges. And we all know that, as administrators, the notion of keeping athletics in perspective on our campuses remains, first and foremost, in our hands._p. Kevin White is the director of athletics at the University of Notre Dame.