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Father Ted Hesburgh Influenced Collegiate Athletics Fit on Campuses Nationwide

March 1, 2015

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A Tribute to Father Ted

They all could tell virtually the same story.

Terry Brennan and Ara Parseghian.

Digger Phelps, Gerry Faust and Lou Holtz.

Many of those destined to become a head coach at the University of Notre Dame spent some time in the office of Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., as part of the formal interview process.

Father Hesburgh's message during the 35 years (1952-87) he served as University president proved rather simple, yet it perfectly represented his take on intercollegiate athletics.

As Holtz or Phelps would confirm, Father Hesburgh began by suggesting that he wasn't likely to end up in any coach's office on a Monday morning, dictating what plays to run or who should be playing offensive tackle or point guard.

And he generally believed the resources were in place for Irish sports programs to be successful and even win a championship here or there.

But, he made one particular point quite clear. Breaking NCAA rules earned a one-way ticket on the next train out of town.

Hesburgh and Notre Dame Football

Father Hesburgh took great pride in Fighting Irish sports success, yet he never really lived and died with Notre Dame athletics. He understood the front-porch nature of public relations opportunities relating to wins over losses, yet he had more pressing challenges in front of him as he worked to build the academic credibility of a medium-sized all-male Midwestern Catholic institution.


Father Hesburgh presided over a landmark decision in 1969 when the University lifted its 45-year-old postseason football "bowl ban" - and the Irish then played top-rated and unbeaten Texas in the Cotton Bowl at the end of that 1969 season.





"I asked if they wanted to talk about education...well, then this news conference is over. I'm not the football coach."
Father Hesburgh


At the 1952 press conference announcing Father Hesburgh's appointment as president, the new head man at Notre Dame was asked by photographers to hike up his cassock and pose with a football. He refused, asking, "Would you ask the president of Yale to do that?" Many sportswriters attended his early out-of-town press conferences, asking about prospects for Frank Leahy's Irish football teams. "I asked if they wanted to talk about education," said Father Hesburgh. When the answer was no, Father Hesburgh offered, "Well, then this news conference is over. I'm not the football coach."

In 1961, in the third of five consecutive football seasons without a winning record, Notre Dame kicked a controversial, last-second field goal to defeat a 10th-ranked Syracuse team. Longtime Notre Dame public relations executive Matt Storin, then a sophomore student manager sitting in the bleachers that day, recalls running into Father Hesburgh returning to the Notre Dame Stadium stands after the game as the students rushed the field.

Said Storin, "I surmised that he had run on the field with the same emotions as any other fan, but once he got there, said to himself, `I'm the president of the University. What am I doing out here?' and hustled back to a more dignified vantage point."

When Notre Dame's football team survived the ice and cold of Dallas to come back from a 24-point deficit to defeat Houston in the 1979 Cotton Bowl, Father Hesburgh advanced to the field and led the Irish band in a rendition of the Victory March. Offered Father Hesburgh, "There's a time and place for everything, and that was the time and place for that."

A Commitment to the Student-Athlete

Surrounded by former Notre Dame athletics director Kevin White, athletics department staff members, coaches and student-athletes, Father Hesburgh was honored by the BIG EAST Conference in 2007 for his contributions to the achievement of girls and women in sports.
Surrounded by former Notre Dame athletics director Kevin White, athletics department staff members, coaches and student-athletes, Father Hesburgh was honored by the BIG EAST Conference in 2007 for his contributions to the achievement of girls and women in sports.

More than anything, Father Hesburgh believed steadfastly in the student-athlete concept. He was confident athletes could and should be students and should routinely be expected to earn degrees--and he took advantage of his platform to espouse that mission on many occasions.

Father Hesburgh's experience at carving Notre Dame's philosophy on athletics actually began when he served as the University's executive vice president (1949-52). His predecessor as president, Rev. John Cavanaugh, C.S.C, asked him to author a new set of administrative rules for the conduct of intercollegiate athletics at Notre Dame. Father Hesburgh also hired Edward Krause as athletic director in 1949--and "Moose" held that position for three decades.

During Father Hesburgh's tenure as president, Irish teams were not permitted to routinely red-shirt players. Only due to injury could a player possibly compete in a fifth season--and even then it generally was expected that the player had graduated in four years. The University's longstanding requirement that an athlete maintain a 2.0 grade-point average each semester to be eligible for the following semester was far beyond any NCAA academic requirement.

In Michael O'Brien's 1989 book "Hesburgh: A Biography," former Notre Dame athletic director Gene Corrigan was quoted as saying, "In (Father Hesburgh's) view there are certain evils connected with athletics, and delaying someone's graduation is an evil. When Father Hesburgh thinks something, we all think it."

Long before the NCAA began publishing graduation rates, Notre Dame opted to list its own research in football. In fact, it was under Father Hesburgh's direction that longtime University executive vice-president Rev Edmund P. Joyce, C.S.C., asked Notre Dame fencing coach Michael DeCicco to create an academic advising program for student-athletes. DeCicco assumed he could take a survey of other schools and locate a handful of programs to emulate. He never found any. So, Notre Dame started its own, which soon became a model for others to follow.

Notre Dame's institutional research showed that virtually all scholarship football players who stayed at least four years received their degrees. In one 35-year period from 1962 through the entering freshman class of 1996, 864 of 871 football players (99.19 percent) earned their diplomas. Father Hesburgh took great pride when Notre Dame won a consensus national championship in football in 1988 in the same year it received the College Football Association Academic Achievement Award for ranking number one in that organization's graduation rate survey.

Phelps, the Irish men's basketball coach for 20 seasons beginning in 1971-72, recruited 55 scholarship players during that time who concluded their careers at Notre Dame. All 55 graduated, including Gary Brokaw and Adrian Dantley who left early for the NBA and returned to campus to finish their degree requirements.





"Those who favor intercollegiate athletics praise it out of all proportion to its merits. And those who decry sports in college are quite blind to the values that do exist on the playing field."
Father Hesburgh


Just two years after becoming the Notre Dame president, Father Hesburgh authored for Sports Illustrated a September 1954 piece on college athletics philosophy ("The True Spirit of Notre Dame"). He wrote, "It takes some doing to conduct intercollegiate athletics in a collegiate framework." Later in the piece, Father Hesburgh offered comments that probably attached themselves to his legacy more than any others he spoke regarding athletics: "Those who favor intercollegiate athletics praise it out of all proportion to its merits. And those who decry sports in college are quite blind to the values that do exist on the playing field."

Two years after that, in September 1956, that same magazine ran a two-part series that featured a Notre Dame survey of its 1,412 living athletic monogram winners, 485 of them football players. The University's department of education conducted the survey, received about a 50 percent return rate, created a statistical analysis of the answers--and then provided Sports Illustrated with all the returned questionnaires. The magazine suggested that never before had an institution conducted such a self-study of its former athletes.

Sports Illustrated took on "the popular notion that stardom on the gridiron is often followed by failure in life." The magazine created a fictional character who starred in college football, never earned a degree, played professionally for eight years, then ended up driving an ore carrier through mining tunnels.

Said the magazine, "The average Notre Dame player is not merely as well equipped to make a success in life as the average college graduate--from the record of his post-collegiate performance it seems that he is better equipped by a good measure. Notre Dame's executives don't have to guess about this. They know that it is so."

Ten years later, just after Notre Dame finished the 1966 football season ranked number one, Sports Illustrated ran the same essay that Father Hesburgh had provided to The Scholastic, Notre Dame's undergraduate student magazine, for its annual football review issue. Titled "The Football Season: Fantasy and Reality," it contained plenty of Father Hesburgh's perspective:

"I would hope that in the larger university community in America we might see the football season, with all its appeal to young and old alike, in the perspective of a larger meaning of learning, and education, and life. . . .

"Kept within proper bounds of time, place, and emphasis, I believe strongly that the football season is indeed worthwhile. The noise is ephemeral and does die away. The display, the spectacle, the color, the excitement lingers only in memory. But the spirit, the will to excel, and the will to win perdure. These human qualities are larger and much more important than the passing events that occasion them, just as the ebb and flow of all our daily efforts add up to something greater and more enduring if they create within each one of us a person who grows, who understands, who really lives, who does not merely survive, but who prevails for a larger, more meaningful victory in time and, hopefully, in eternity as well."

Gene Corrigan (center), who served as Notre Dame's director of athletics from 1981-87, on the Notre Dame Stadium field with Father Hesburgh and Father Joyce prior to the start of an Irish football game.
Gene Corrigan (center), who served as Notre Dame's director of athletics from 1981-87, on the Notre Dame Stadium field with Father Hesburgh and Father Joyce prior to the start of an Irish football game.

A Dedication to Education

Speaking at the annual National Football Foundation and College Football Hall of Fame induction event in New York in 1975 on the occasion of his selection as NFF Distinguished American, Father Hesburgh opined (according to O'Brien's book) that a university is "first, foremost, and always dedicated to higher education. That is why it was created, why it exists, why it does everything else, including football." In the early 1980s longtime Sports Illustrated staffer John Underwood, who had covered college football for the magazine and also was a frequent critic of college sports, found himself challenged by Father Joyce to come to campus, examine any and all files--and then explain how Notre Dame athletics does business. That resulted in a piece entitled "Casting A Special Light" that ran in the same January 1983 issue that featured Penn State's football national championship on the cover.





"A university is "first, foremost, and always dedicated to higher education. That is why it was created, why it exists, why it does everything else, including football."
Father Hesburgh


In that piece, Father Hesburgh reiterated his traditional, two-minute "presentation" to prospective coaches:

"The one I gave Gerry Faust is the same one I gave Ara Parseghian and Digger Phelps and Dan Devine. I say, `You've got five years. We won't say boo to you if you lose. I think you'll have the tools here to win more than you lose; it seems to work out that way, but if you don't, you won't hear from me. You will hear from me if you cheat. If you cheat, you'll be out of here before midnight.'"

Faust came under fire in his third season as Irish football coach in 1983 after his team lost two of its first three games and then dropped its final three regular-season contests.

Father Hesburgh picked up the phone and called Corrigan. "How long is Gerry's contract?" asked the Notre Dame president. "Five years," said Corrigan. "Well, unless he dies, he will be here five years. We promised him five years, and we're going to give him five years," said Father Hesburgh.

Underwood's story closed with a reference to a full-page ad in Time magazine that the author recalled from the second decade of Father Hesburgh's term as president. The ad featured an image of a football, with this caption: "If that's all you know about Notre Dame, you have a lot to learn."

In many ways that summed up Father Hesburgh's approach to all athletics at Notre Dame.

In his autobiography "God, Country, Notre Dame," Father Hesburgh wrote: "Sports are an important microcosm of life, for on the playing field all the important values of life come into play in a tightened, heightened framework called the rules of the game. You win or lose on the playing field in front of thousands of spectators and they see, too, how you play the game."

Father Hesburgh presided over two landmark decision related to sports in South Bend:

  • The first came in 1969 when the University reversed a 45-year-old policy that had kept the Notre Dame football program out of the postseason bowl process. The philosophical shift enabled the University to fund minority scholarships to the tune of $300,000 based on proceeds from its appearance in the 1970 Cotton Bowl.
  • Three years later-in 1972-the University made the decision to admit undergraduate women for the first time. That resulted in the beginning of a varsity athletic program for women, as tennis attained varsity status in 1976, followed by fencing and basketball in 1977. The list of women's varsity programs eventually grew to its current list of 13--and many of those sports proved capable of competing at the highest level. Irish women's teams won NCAA titles in fencing in 1987 (plus four other NCAA titles in 1994, 2003, 2005 and 2011 that featured combined men's and women's results), in soccer in 1995, 2004 and 2010 and in basketball in 2001.

The Knight Commission

In 1989 Father Hesburgh co-founded the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, which studied reform in college sports and played a significant role in advancing the positioning and expectations of college sports within higher education. He stepped down from the position in 2001.
In 1989 Father Hesburgh co-founded the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, which studied reform in college sports and played a significant role in advancing the positioning and expectations of college sports within higher education. He stepped down from the position in 2001.

Yet the most significant national impact Father Hesburgh produced concerning sports came following his 1987 retirement from Notre Dame. In 1989 he began service as founding co-chair of the Knight Foundation Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, which studied reform in college sports from 1990 to 1996 and again when it reconvened in 2000. That influential commission played a noteworthy role in advancing the positioning and expectations of college sports within higher education. Father Hesburgh stepped down from that position in 2001. Under Father Hesburgh's leadership (and that of co-chair William C. Friday, former president of the University of North Carolina), the commission successfully advocated for presidential control of intercollegiate athletics, rigorous academic standards for athletes--and a certification process requiring athletics departments to prove they were running fiscally responsible, equitable and ethical sports programs. Longtime Notre Dame sports information director and associate athletics director Roger Valdiserri worked hand in hand as executive assistant to Father Hesburgh in conjunction with the Knight Commission.

"Father Ted always knew what was going on athletically, not only at Notre Dame, but nationally," said Valdiserri. "Father Joyce would always keep him attuned and he (Father Hesburgh) would add a strong voice on some decisions or independently take a stance when he felt his voice and prestige was needed to help endorse a solution. Father Hesburgh's voice was overwhelmingly strong in the hiring of Ara Parseghian. "During the Knight Commission's deliberations, Father Hesburgh became a star, as did Bill Friday. They exhibited great leadership and wisdom and stood out among a panel of bright people, corporate leaders and educators.

"Father Ted had such great presence--he was greatly admired and respected. Though, considering all his presidential appointments, including chair of the Civil Rights Commission, that was hardly surprising."

Hesburgh and College Athletics

Father Hesburgh's philosophical influence on intercollegiate athletics has been duly noted.

In 2004, the NCAA presented him with the inaugural President Gerald R. Ford Award--in honor of an individual who has provided significant leadership as an advocate for intercollegiate athletics on a continuous basis over his or her career.

"Rev. Hesburgh's 35-year career as president of one of the most prestigious universities in the country enabled him to be a major influence on the evolution of higher education in the last half of the 20th century," NCAA president Myles Brand said. "He also is one of the strongest advocates for the contribution intercollegiate athletics can make to the academy. "The first Knight Commission report (`Keeping Faith with the Student-Athlete: A New Model for Intercollegiate Athletics') was an important impetus to the academic reform movement within intercollegiate athletics that has taken place over the last dozen years," Brand said.

A year later the College Sports Information Directors of America presented Father Hesburgh with its 2005 Dick Enberg Award, given annually to a person whose actions and commitment have furthered the meaning and reach of the student-athlete while promoting the values of education and academics.

A Notre Dame Institution

In 2007 Father Hesburgh was feted in the book "Thanking Father Ted" that celebrated 35 years of coeducation at Notre Dame and featured letters to Father Hesburgh from more than 150 alumnae and others, including a number of student-athletes.

Despite his often hectic schedule through the years, Father Hesburgh remained surprisingly available in his office, once in the Main Building and then on the 13th floor of the Hesburgh Library.

While his macular degeneration at some point made it impossible for him to see what was happening on the field of play while watching an athletic event, Father Hesburgh never lost his touch with the sports scene at Notre Dame.

Former Irish quarterback Terry Hanratty often stopped by to say hello when he came to campus. That happened frequently when his son, Conor, played for the Notre Dame football squad from 2011-14.

Former Irish basketball All-American Tom Hawkins, the first black basketball player to earn All-America honors at Notre Dame, receives his bachelor's degree from Father Hesburgh at commencement ceremonies in 1959.
Former Irish basketball All-American Tom Hawkins, the first black basketball player to earn All-America honors at Notre Dame, receives his bachelor's degree from Father Hesburgh at commencement ceremonies in 1959.

Former men's basketball All-American Tommy Hawkins connected with Father Hesburgh a few times per year and once sent him a framed salute titled "House of Hesburgh" that featured verse from Hawkins' 2012 book of poetry.

Hawkins, one of two black students admitted to Notre Dame in 1955, recalled when a local pizza parlor refused to seat him because he "didn't have a reservation." Other Notre Dame students eating there walked out and Father Hesburgh put the establishment on a list that Notre Dame personnel could not patronize. Said Hawkins, "Father Hesburgh said that until I was given a public apology, no Notre Dame student or personnel could go there, and that anywhere that Notre Dame minority students aren't welcome, neither was Notre Dame." The apology quickly appeared and Father Hesburgh removed the restaurant from the list. Hanging today in Hawkins' Malibu, California, home is a framed photograph of Father Hesburgh handing Hawkins his Notre Dame diploma. Hawkins calls it his "all-time favorite picture."

Current Irish women's basketball coach Muffet McGraw fondly recalls being invited to dinner by Father Hesburgh and Father Joyce after her Notre Dame team won the 2001 NCAA title. She has a framed photo in her office of Father Hesburgh and Martin Luther King Jr. that she asked Hesburgh to autograph for her.

Current vice president and athletics director Jack Swarbrick has on his office wall a frame with autographed, side-by-side covers from two issues of Time magazine--one from 1962 features Father Hesburgh; the other from 1964 features Parseghian.

"One of my fondest memories as an undergraduate at Notre Dame was an evening during my senior year spent in conversation with Father Hesburgh," said Swarbrick, a 1976 Notre Dame graduate.

"And the greatest privilege during my time as Notre Dame's director of athletics was the opportunity afforded me to seek his counsel. On each of those occasions I was struck by his faith, his humility and the generosity of his spirit. "It is hard to overstate the impact that Father Hesburgh had on the landscape of American higher education and collegiate athletics. In regard to the latter, Father Ted's leadership in the areas of civil rights, gender equity and presidential control of college athletics changed college sports for the better and created a road map that we at Notre Dame continue to follow to this day."

Longtime Notre Dame swimming coach Tim Welsh (his neighborhood parish in Syracuse, New York, was the same one in which Father Hesburgh grew up) recalls being invited to Father Hesburgh's office in the fall of 1992, some months following the January 1992 bus accident that took the lives of two members of the Irish women's swimming squad as the team traveled back to campus from a meet at Northwestern.

"He encouraged me to carry on, to keep the faith and to trust in the good things that could come from carrying on in the most affirmative way possible. It was a very supportive, powerful and moving meeting," said Welsh. "Then, when we had finished speaking, he invited me to stay for Mass. There were only three of us there, including Father Hesburgh. I will always treasure that--it was very, very special."

Current Notre Dame freshman football player Jerry Tillery (he enrolled in January) took the recruiting process so seriously that, before he came for his official visit, he researched the most noteworthy people from the University. He came across Father Hesburgh's name time after time, so Tillery asked if he could meet him during his trip to campus. "I just wanted to talk to everyone considered important from Notre Dame," said Tillery matter of factly. "So, why wouldn't you try to meet him?"

Current Irish football sophomore wide receiver Corey Robinson met Father Hesburgh during Robinson's first summer on campus, on an invitation from football team chaplain Father Paul Doyle who was having lunch with Father Hesburgh.

"His office alone was amazing--gifts and trinkets from foreign dignitaries, past presidents and heads of state from around the world. Photos of him with Martin Luther King Jr. and with the pope," said Robinson.

"I was blown away by the gravity of such an accomplished and respected individual. He was extremely nice and genuinely happy to hear how summer training was going. Meeting Father Hesburgh and talking with him was truly inspirational--by far the highlight of my Notre Dame career."

Father Hesburgh stands with members of the Notre Dame rowing team after having a boat named and christened in his honor.
Father Hesburgh stands with members of the Notre Dame rowing team after having a boat named and christened in his honor.

On the Role of Collegiate Athletics Today

They all appreciated Father Hesburgh's perspective on the role of athletics in today's intercollegiate environment.

Really, it was quite simple:

If you were an athlete, compete as hard as you could both on the court and in the classroom. Understand that athletics likely would not end up defining your life.

If you were a coach, play by both the letter and spirit of the rules. Understand how athletics were designed to fit on a college campus. And, know that the degrees your team members earned were more likely to help them in life than the athletic monograms they received.

In his autobiography Father Hesburgh laid out his vision, as articulated through the Knight Commission work, for three regulations to which college athletics departments should hold:

  1. Academic Integrity: The college must graduate at least the same percentage of student-athletes as it does students who are nonathletes.
  2. Fiscal Integrity: All funds derived from athletics (tickets, television, contributions of boosters) must go directly to the university and be dispensed only by the university.
  3. Continuous Auditing: Just as academic programs are checked and accredited, just as university financial accounts are audited regularly, there shall be a continuous, ongoing audit by an outside agent, under the NCAA, with an annual report on the state of athletics from an academic, financial, and moral point of view. Thus can the public have confidence that colleges are doing what they say they are doing."

That was the credo of Father Hesburgh, who would have turned 98 in May.

Those same general principles guide Notre Dame today--and no one expects them to change any time soon.

-- by John Heisler, senior associate athletics director

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