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No Longer The Gold Standard

By Sally Jenkins
Friday, December 10, 2004; Page D01

I have an announcement to make. I am removing myself from consideration for the Notre Dame job. I grant you, I was never actually invited to apply, but because the line of people who don't want the position is longer than a freeway guardrail, I figured I would join it. And frankly, the Irish are so desperate for a football coach at this point, it's not unlikely that my phone could ring, or yours.

Whoever said geography is destiny had to be a Notre Damer. That's the only way to explain the conviction on the part of the Fighting Irish that anyone and everyone must want to go there, in the face of quite persuasive evidence that most of us do not.

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The list of people who don't want to be the next head coach at Notre Dame now includes Jon Gruden of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Steve Mariucci of the Detroit Lions, Jeff Tedford of Cal, Mark Mangino of Kansas, Bobby Petrino of Louisville and Urban Meyer of Florida, formerly of Utah. What's making people turn away from the storied 150-year-old university in such droves? It's worth suggesting that the reason so many people have steered clear of this so-called dream job is that they got a look at the people they would be working for, and under what circumstances.

First, Tyrone Willingham gets fired after a meeting of seven Notre Dame power brokers, and then two of those seven -- outgoing president Edward Malloy and Athletic Director Kevin White -- disavow the firing. Malloy this week, suddenly and belatedly, bemoaned the school's loss of core values.

"In my 18 years, there have only been two days that I've been embarrassed to be president of Notre Dame," Malloy said during a panel discussion at the Sports Business Journal's Intercollegiate Athletics Forum. Malloy added: "Notre Dame will get a coach. I hope that person does well. But I think the philosophical hit that we have taken is a significant one. I am not happy about it. And I do not assume responsibility for it."

Now, the only thing that has taken a hit here is Notre Dame's affectations. Malloy's statement begs the question: If the school president isn't responsible for Willingham's firing, then who is? In the last day some people, including NCAA President Myles Brand, have congratulated Malloy for saying what he did and called him courageous. But I, and the other non-candidates for the job, have to wonder if this pale after-the-fact confession is what passes for administrative support at Notre Dame these days. Malloy's statement was easy enough to say a week later and 700 miles away. He was in the room where Willingham's fate was being determined. But he deferred, citing his impending retirement.

White has also implied that he was not complicit in the firing of Willingham. White's comments on the day the firing was announced were, like Malloy's, admirable in their honesty but appalling in their content. His riff about Willingham being admirable "Sunday through Friday" but not getting it done Saturday made you want to say, "So then why are you firing him?" The question remains: If the president and the athletic director didn't fire Willingham, then who did? The answer is a couple of guys you never heard of, men with no fingerprints who were allowed to hijack an entire university administration. Sorry, but I like to see the people I work for.

Notre Dame has become a creaking old fraud. That's why people don't want to go there anymore. Its integrity is based on yellowing old cinema reels. Its facilities are outmoded (although it does still have that stadium.) Its recruiting pitch is no longer persuasive: as a destination for coaches and blue-chip recruits, its appeal falls somewhere between those of sleek warm-weather football schools, and the more elite educational institutions such as Stanford and Duke. It's not just old; it's cold.

Notre Dame has got all the same problems other football schools have, without the friendly weather. In 1998 the school was sanctioned by the NCAA when a female booster, Kimberly Dunbar, admitted giving players gifts, trips and cash with some of the $1 million she embezzled from her employer. In 2002 four football players were expelled after they were accused of rape.

But none of that seems to have bothered the trustees nearly as much as the fact that the Irish have struggled on the field for nearly a decade and a half now. It's been 16 years since they won the last of their record eight titles, and 10 seasons since they won a bowl game. They've lost four straight to Boston College, three to Tennessee and two in a row to Purdue. And they've had just two NFL first-round draft picks since 1999 -- compared with nine for Ohio State and 21 for Miami.

Can Notre Dame win again? Sure. And it will. Its academic standards are higher than a lot of places, but not so high that Lou Holtz couldn't live with them and win a championship after the 1988 season. Back then, everyone said the same things after Gerry Faust's tenure: The school was archaic and academic standards were too high. Then Holtz turned out Tim Brown, Rocket Ismail, Andy Heck, Ricky Watters, Todd Lyght and Jerome Bettis, and put together a string of 11-1 seasons and bowl victories.

It can be done -- all the Irish need is a smart coach with an eye for NFL talent. As Malloy says, they will find one somewhere. Officials were preparing to meet with Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator Tom Clements, an alum, about the vacancy as of Friday morning. Maybe he'll take it.

Is there anything to recommend the Notre Dame job these days, anything that sets it apart from any other? Some things. Cool helmets. They do still have those. Also, they have the most enduringly romantic stadium in all of football. And they have a truly national following; when they're not competitive we miss them, all that golden swaggering moral superiority. But those things are just a matter of paint.

The actor Pat O'Brien recited these lines in the film "Knute Rockne, All American": "We believe the finest work of man is building the character of man. We have tried to build courage and initiative, tolerance and persistence -- without which the most educated brain in the head of a man is not worth very much."

Andrew Zimbalist, author of "Unpaid Professionals: Commercialism and Conflict in Big Time College Sports" recounts the lines. And then he adds this: "Yes, performed properly and in moderation, competitive team sports can possess these virtues; so can other activities, such as joint science projects, jogging or listening to Bach."

So I'm withdrawing from consideration for the Notre Dame job. My candidacy has been a learning experience, and an amusing one, but I must step aside and open the way for someone else. Someone who buys all that junk.

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