Advancing the Fighting Irish Athletic Tradition
July 3, 2014
By Staci Gasser
The University of Notre Dame has some of the most renowned traditions in sports, and the Joseph T. Mendelson Endowment for Athletics Excellence helps continue the Irish athletic legacy in ways that enhance levels of competitiveness and use breakthroughs in high-performance technology.
Thanks to the benevolence of Joseph and Barbara Mendelson of Santa Barbara, Calif., the Endowment, which was established in 2006, provides incremental and non-budgeted funding for the enhancement of Notre Dame's Olympic sport programs (that excludes football, men's basketball and women's basketball). The fund allows each program to apply for funding in order to take advantage of unforeseen opportunities that cannot be addressed through the regular annual budgeting process.
In other words, Mr. Mendelson has approved and funded numerous projects and initiatives through the endowment that Irish teams would not normally have been able to afford.
"Over time, it's really enabled our coaches to provide feedback and coaching to both teams and individual student-athletes to better improve their performance in both practice and competition," Jim Fraleigh, a co-chair of the endowment's review committee and a deputy athletics director at Notre Dame, says. "Where it has really benefitted is the way technology changes.
"Often times technology becomes available that can be very meaningful to a program that happens outside of the normal budgeting process, so this is a way to really help our teams stay in the forefront of the technological advances that will help them become more competitive and more successful."
This year, Notre Dame baseball, the strength and conditioning program and women's lacrosse most recently received the funding.
"As fortunate as we are here at Notre Dame to have the resources we have, there are still items that are in the marketplace that have tremendous benefits for our student-athletes that are beyond our means to purchase," Notre Dame baseball head coach Mikio Aoki says. "Plain and simple: Joe Mendelson and his wife are huge difference-makers to our programs."
Baseball received a video system called HitTrax, which records and analyzes each player in the batting cages and provides instant statistical feedback to the coaches and players on how to improve their swings. The data that is captured includes pitch velocity, pitch movement and location, ball exit speed and launch angles. The gaming module can put players in competition with one another in a virtual game played in a big league park.
"Technology has, like so many things in life, made huge inroads into athletics from things like video analysis to GPS tracking of athletes during the course of a game to force plates to golf and hitting simulators and so much more," Aoki says. "Without Joe Mendelson we would not be able to provide these benefits to our student-athletes."
The strength and conditioning program will purchase GPS units that will enable coaches to monitor and track the external stresses imparted on the body of the student-athlete. Used primarily by men's and women's soccer and men's and women's lacrosse this coming fall, these units will monitor the yardage players clock in both training and games. This will prevent over-training and allow the teams to gauge their fitness so they can be able to peak at the correct times.
"Joe [Mendelson] is extremely generous to many of our Olympic sports and I know that he has certainly helped Men's Soccer over the years," Notre Dame men's soccer head coach Bobby Clark says. "[In the past,] he enabled us to use the services of a video analysis firm called Prozone. We send out a video of our games and has Prozone break this down within 48 hours and give us a blow-by-blow video and statistical analysis of how the game evolved. We can see the number of passes, the speed of passes, the shots on goal, turnovers, the interceptions, and almost every statistic you can think of. We can look at every player and can pick up every time he was on the ball which allows us to take a player into our office and pull up his involvement in the match and he can see very efficiently what he did well and also where he needs to improve. There is no question this has helped the coaching staff and the players evaluate their performance."
Notre Dame women's soccer head coach Theresa Romagnolo could not agree more. With her first season with the Irish starting in the fall, Romagnolo says the technology provided by the endowment is vital to the improvement of her team.
"What the Mendelson Endowment has meant for women's soccer is keeping the athletes healthier which in turn allows us to get them to higher soccer, strength and fitness levels," Romagnolo says. "With the endowment, we've been able to monitor player output and adjust training in relation to work load which is invaluable in keeping the players healthy and getting the most out of them individually and collectively as a team."
Sometimes it's the little things that need updating.
The Fighting Irish women's lacrosse will receive a variety of different updates on their electronic equipment that will help them with video technology. They will be using SportsCode Film to help break down film of games, put together video packages for the student-athletes to review for their practice habits and game strategies, produce features for social media and assist the coaching staff in the recruiting process. They will also receive a Manfrotto Tripod and a protective case to protect AV equipment during travel.
"The endowment, in my opinion, has brought [the Notre Dame Olympics sports] up to date," Mendelson says. "Some of the things they use, other schools can't afford or other schools that can afford them have a distinct advantage. For instance, the anti-gravity treadmills for the track team--they are very expensive, $80,000 for the men and $60,000 for the women--would not be considered in the regular athletic budget. The swimming team received new state-of-the-art starting blocks."
These starting blocks use fins, which accommodate a track-style start, as well as a Relay Judging Platform. The RJP is connected to the Timing System, and is used to determine whether a Relay Take Off for the second, third, fourth and so on swimmer on a relay is legal.
Notre Dame's prestige often is enough to attract new top-tier recruits to many of its sports programs, but the promise of state-of-the-art equipment is perhaps even a more alluring draw, making Mendelson's contributions all the more important.
"If I was 18 years old now and I saw this technical equipment, I would want to come here," Mendelson says. "We didn't have this in the 1950s. We would go to a school because there was a famous coach there. But now, for instance, you go to the golf course and see the student-athletes with their driving range simulator. Yes, that helps with recruiting, especially from places like California, Arizona and Florida where the good golfers are. Trying to sell warm-weather state golfers on Notre Dame can be difficult."
The simulator has over 80 golf courses from around the world that the players can play on digitally.
It also has the capability to track all shots hit and provide in-depth analysis of each swing through laser technology.
Mendelson has deep ties to Notre Dame and has long served the community, whether as a charter member of the advisory council for Notre Dame's Institute for Church Life, serving as chair from 1980-1986, or on the Snite Museum of Art Advisory Council (1986-89 and 1991-2000). Mendelson's father, Herbert, served on the University's first Business Advisory Council and served during Father John J. Cavanaugh's presidency.
Joe's contributions to campus can be seen every day, like in the Knute Rockne bronze sculpture welcoming visitors at the Stadium's front gate, which he funded. He also has two children (Patrick '84 and Rachel M. Rice '97, '00 MSA) and a stepson (Brian Claassen '07 JD) who graduated from Notre Dame.
Mendelson, himself, is an athlete and track coach (he formed and coached the inaugural NAIA cross-country program at nearby Holy Cross College) and has coached numerous high school and college All-Americans. He knows how important having the right resources are to player development as well as how purchasing the latest technology doesn't always fit in the tight budget constraints of college athletics.
"My best ideas happen when I am running barefoot on the beach. On one of those runs, I realized that Notre Dame was lacking in some, shall I say, up-to-date technical aspects of certain sports," Mendelson explains. "So I floated the idea, it was accepted, we formed our committee, and it went from there."
The endowment meets twice a year after putting out inquiries to each coach of the Olympic sports: baseball, men's lacrosse, women's lacrosse, rowing, softball, men's Fencing, women's fencing, cross-country, track and field, men's soccer, women's soccer, men's swimming and diving, women's swimming and diving, men's tennis, women's tennis, hockey, men's golf, women's golf and volleyball. Mendelson, however, now has the policy of personally speaking to the coaches to stimulate their interests in making proposals, even making suggestions of his own every once in a while.
From there, the Committee evaluates how effective a particular proposal will be.
"Ultimately, it must benefit the performance of a student-athlete on the field and fall in line with the overarching goal that Mr. Mendelson envisions," Fraleigh says.
The Committee, comprised of Mendelson, Fraleigh, co-chair and assistant director Bill Reagen, senior deputy athletic director Missy Conboy, senior associate athletic director Tom Nevala and newest addition Father Peter Jarret, C.S.C, evaluates these proposals, and the funding is distributed accordingly.
Much of Notre Dame's identity is due to the legacies of its all-around elite sports programs, and that is in large part due to the Joseph T. Mendelson Endowment for Athletics Excellence. Mendelson's undying generosity and commitment to the improvement of Notre Dame's athletic programs is matched by the passion and gratitude of the Fighting Irish coaches and student-athletes.
"We just have to stay ahead of the times," Mendelson says. "The athletic scene is continually changing."
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