I have to be honest. I love see Notre Dame suffer. It’s got nothing to do with Charlie Weis, although his ego is only rivaled in size by his belly. It’s also got nothing to do with the classless way Notre Dame pulled the rug out from under Ty Willingham. While I think that the color of his skin made it easier for the trustees to send him packing before he crossed that fifth year threshold every other Irish coach had been afforded to that point, I don’t think race was the reason he was fired. A factor? Sure, but not the reason.
My hatred of Notre Dame goes way back and has cultural implications. I grew up in the Cleveland area. Catholic high schools dominate the football landscape throughout Ohio but in Cleveland they seem untouchable. Somehow the Catholic schools always had the best athletes in every sport. Cleveland St. Ignatius high school was among the top five ranked high schools in the country for five years straight.
To those from outside the area the run seems impressive but people living in Cleveland understand the corruption involved. Football is a big deal in that part of the country and every year there’s a scandal involving some outstanding player changing schools. Public schools have to follow pretty strict rules regarding sports recruiting but Catholic schools are private entities who do not answer to public administration. It’s no secret that these schools offer scholarships to standout players but it goes deepe: parents are offered administrative jobs, siblings get scholarships and other financial considerations are presented.
Although he didn’t play football, Lebron James was implicated in a high profile example of this sort of tomfoolery. James didn’t come from a family that could afford parochial tuition but somehow he managed to attend Akron St. Vincent St. Mary’s for four years. Before he signed an NBA contract, James drove to school in a brand new Hummer. The car was in his mother’s name but his team…his high school team…was traveling around the country playing in NBA venues to sold out crowds. His school got a huge portion of the gate. Even with such a remarkable player most public schools would not be able to absorb the expense of marketing their basketball program and if they did it would draw the attention of public officials. A Catholic school, however is part of a much larger organization that doesn’t have to answer to the same people. In the end the diocese invested in marketing Lebron James and reaped massive financial rewards. Make no mistake, they paid him. They had to. Good luck proving it.
High school football players are rarely so publicized but the top recruits heading to big time college ball seem to come from large catholic schools. In Cleveland you’ll see kids transfer from a rough inner city high school to a posh Catholic campus just weeks after completing a break out season. Sometimes the transfer will entail a move of 40 or 50 miles. Where does a family scraping by on food stamps come up with the money to make that happen? Other private schools join the fray as well but in the Midwest the Catholic schools have a stranglehold on athletics.
This is a big part of the reason Notre Dame was so successful. NCAA recruiting rules are designed to level the playing field and give each program a fair chance to make a pitch to a promising high school athlete but for decades Notre Dame had its hooks into the very best players long before any other college could consider them. By using the Catholic diocese to funnel top athletes to Catholic high schools, Notre Dame was able to exploit the hierarchy of the Catholic Church to contact players about playing for Notre Dame.
Notre Dame saw its fortunes turn for the worse when the NCAA imposed scholarship limits on the major programs. That leveled the playing field. Before those scholarship limits were imposed players prestigious programs could hide great players on the bench strangling other schools. Well endowed schools could offer countless scholarships while less known programs scraped by. Now those lesser programs are starting to shake things up. That’s why Boise State and Rutgers are suddenly contenders while Notre Dame struggles to establish some consistency.
Another factor in Notre Dame’s demise is that the NCAA is allowing for much earlier contact between high school players and college coaches. Players are verbally committing as juniors and contact can start as early as junior high school thanks to skills camps and other events coaches are allowed to participate in. Notre Dame has lost its advantage. The Catholic high schools are no longer a safe haven for Notre Dame recruiters.
Notre Dame’s biggest problem is that its trustees refuse to change with the times. They still approach recruiting as though Notre Dame is doing the athlete a favor. While it’s true that Notre Dame does have more stringent academic requirements, the problem is that Notre Dame is arrogant enough to believe that its legacy sells itself. That is no longer the case. Today’s players don’t care about Knute Rockne, Bear Bryant or Woody Hayes. And they shouldn’t because it ancient history. They care about playing time and media exposure. Nobody wants to sit on the bench for three years…not even if its at Notre Dame.
The final problem Notre Dame faces is the expanded media coverage. Notre Dame enjoyed a national television contract and gleefully crammed its product down the throats of a sports-watching public that simply didn’t have a choice. Now there’s plenty of choice. Credit the Big East and the MAC for leaping at the opportunity to play weeknight games on ESPN. Now they have an advantage in recruiting players because they get prime time exposure. Notre Dame and other traditional powers balk at the idea but a high school player dreaming of playing on Sunday would be wise to eschew regional coverage on Saturday for prime time coverage on Thursday. It won’t be long before USC loses a top recruit to West Virginia and then you’ll see the mad dash for weeknight games.
Notre Dame used to be the only show in town, now Saturday is a blitz of intense coverage. Games are analyzed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Fans aren’t easily fooled and everybody knows Notre Dame isn’t the best show in town. Fans are smart and they are getting smarter. Failing to recognize the changing market place has put Notre Dame at a severe disadvantage. People are no longer enamored with the Irish.
And I’m loving every minute of it.