Notre Dame Coach Brian Kelly rekindled an eternal debate this summer with comments about his players’ academic abilities. (Jon Durr/Getty Images)

There’s that Notre Dame again, bobbing back upward into relevance, holding a No. 8 football ranking with No. 14 Georgia Tech inbound for a big hubbub on Saturday, and stirring an occasional, inveterate discussion:

Just what is an American university?

The topic doesn’t rage or overwhelm here in September — football tends to do those things — but it does maintain a long history of turning up.

“We talked about it as undergraduates 15 years ago,” said Brian Adams, the president of the Notre Dame Alumni Club of Washington. “It’s not a new question, but it is sort of an ever-present question.”

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The question got a fresh turn of conversation last June upon Coach Brian Kelly’s remarks in an interview with Eric Hansen of the South Bend Tribune. As the university had strived to cope with its season-long suspension of five football players last season for academic shortcuts, Kelly had wondered out loud about how to help them more.

“I think we recognized that all of my football players are at-risk — all of them — really,” Kelly told Hansen. “Honestly, I don’t know that any of our players would get into the school by themselves right now with the academic standards the way they are. Maybe one or two or four players that are on scholarship. So making sure that the rigors that we put them in — playing on the road, playing night games, getting home at 4 o’clock in the morning, all of the demands that we place on them relative to the academics and going into an incredibly competitive academic classroom every day — we recognize this is a different group.

“And we have to provide all the resources necessary for them to succeed and don’t force them into finding shortcuts. I think we’ve clearly identified that we need to do better, and we’re not afraid to look at any shortcoming that we do have and fix them, and provide the resources necessary for our guys.”

That observation did get the club softball team chattering, Adams said. It didn’t necessarily generate much talk among the students Dan Sehlhorst knows, but as the current chief of staff of the Notre Dame student government, Sehlhorst has known some conversations about the $400 million stadium expansion for the stadium, the video board and for adjacent student and academic buildings, which cuts to the same issue of football’s place on campus. Gary Gutting, the Notre Dame Endowed Chair in Philosophy who has written critically of the “student-athlete” concept, wrote in an e-mail of Kelly’s remarks: “I was not surprised by what he said, but I was pleasantly surprised at the fact that he said it.”


Notre Dame’s famed golden dome. (Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

As the only known country that routinely shoehorns 80,000 (or more) people into the sporting events of college students, the United States is a lone harbor of a discussion of whether universities’ athletic systems cheapen their principal mission. Sehlhorst thinks it “very healthy” when the discussion happens at Notre Dame, where, he said, “Notre Dame students are very intellectual and like to discuss issues, and I think a lot of issues such as, ‘What is a university?’ are very common.” Adams recalls “fun debates” in undergraduate years, “sort of getting into, ‘What’s the purpose of a university?’” Other alumni would rather not get into the topic: “Thank you for your e-mail, but the Dallas [alumni] club has no comment.”

Gutting wrote in an e-mail, “I think most students and alums are content with the University’s position that things are fine because a high percentage of our athletes (even in football and basketball) do ‘earn degrees.’ This is true in the sense that they show up for classes, turn in work, pass courses that are not especially designed for them, and have standard majors. All of this is in contrast to many other Division I schools, and it’s to the University’s credit.

“But at Notre Dame, as at almost all colleges, there are courses where anyone who shows up and does the work will get a respectable grade, and there are majors that can be quite undemanding. … Athletes also have access to all the tutoring and other outside help they may need, and there are some faculty willing to give special attention to their needs. None of this need involve deceit or corruption. But it’s a clear subordination of academic values and standards to the demands of athletic programs, and I think that’s wrong at an elite educational institution.”

He concluded, “There are applicants who could have gotten far more from an Notre Dame education than the athletes who were admitted instead of them.”

In Washington, the alumni conversation last June, Adams said, became mostly “a Rorschach test” on people’s views of Kelly, the sixth-season coach who led Notre Dame to the 2012-13 national championship game. Some found the comments refreshingly blunt; some found them dauntingly blunt. (Some worried it might hurt recruiting, which doesn’t seem to have occurred.) No one seemed surprised at the content.

“I think we’ve all sort of come to accept the fact that there are different students,” Adams said. “And I think part of it is, ‘Yes, there are different students but there aren’t zero standards.’”

Adams doesn’t overlook the towering money involved, and he certainly hears the questions about the wisdom of TV games that spread across the week, but he values the diversity that football infuses. He mentions it as embodying a multi-pronged mission alongside the academic and the spiritual. He notes that applications to George Mason University mushroomed by 350 percent after that school reached the 2006 men’s basketball Final Four.

“I think there are big structural problems,” Adams said, “but given the situation the world’s in, I think it’s just fine to have a little lower threshold [for some athletic admissions]. It does add to the diversity and vibrancy.”

Sehlhorst, a senior from Ohio, sees football as “a huge social opportunity for students” and “almost really part of the rhythm of the fall.” He said that in his endeavors as a campus tour guide, he had learned of the admissions department’s emphasis on “the whole student,” be it somebody who “wrote a novel at 15,” or “an incredible musician,” or an incredible football player. He admires the athletes in his classes for their management of time demands unfamiliar to others.

“Students at Notre Dame take a lot of pride in the fact that we’re an elite academic institution and they very much want to ensure that this continues,” he said. “They also love football and I would say by and large” students see the two as complementary. “It’s part of what makes Notre Dame Notre Dame.”

Sehlhorst will walk into Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday in search of fun and memories and maybe even goose bumps, just as Adams did for every home game, including the one 15 years ago on Sept. 9, 2000.

Nebraska came to town that day, and Adams, native of Omaha, stayed neutral. He remembers that just beneath him, the Nebraska quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Eric Crouch scored the winning touchdown in overtime. Those memories remain almost inconceivably clear.

He remembers vividly what he wore: a white T-shirt bearing the words, “Traditions Collide.”