No, not Knute Rockne. But that's coming close. I'm talking about a religion ghost in the ongoing saga between the Notre Dame traditionalists who believe the school is losing its soul as it attempts to compete against modern-day collegiate athletic programs and those who believe it's a competitive athletic program that is essential to maintaining the traditional Catholic school's soul.
South Bend Tribune staff writers Jeff Carroll and Bob Wieneke, in a four-part series, laid out the issues so forcefully that the school's football coach Charlie Weis refused to talk to them for a couple of days. Carroll and Wieneke raised tough questions dealing with the ethics of the school's new recruiting practices. They gave a voice to those questioning the school's drive to return to the success it lost over the last decade.
The series focused on the recruitment of Jimmy Clausen, who irked more than a few people by showing up at South Bend's College Football Hall of Fame in a white stretch Hummer limo and saying he would try to win the school four national championships. Something was not right about this scene for Notre Dame traditionalists:
Everyone seems to have an opinion on the Clausen press conference, from those who thought it was a tasteless spectacle in excess to those who saw it as innocent, once-in-a-lifetime fun for Clausen and his friends.
One thing seems certain -- as a result of Clausen's imported LA vibe, staid, stodgy Notre Dame experienced an image shift by association. Where it all goes from here, for both Clausen and the football program, is anybody's guess at this point. Elway? Deion Sanders? Chris Webber? They are all potential checkpoints on the road ahead.
At a Catholic institution with a "touchdown Jesus" mosaic, the fact that the football program comes close to, if not equals, the status of religion is not surprising.
While Carroll and Wieneke do no come right out and say it, the battle for the soul of Notre Dame is an underlying context for the series and the overall debate:
. . . But with Notre Dame ranked No. 1 in more than one national preseason publication, and with Weis recently bagging the nation's top high school senior-to-be, the time is probably just about right to wonder aloud once again: Can Notre Dame, or any school of its kind, maintain a consistent position among college football's elite while still staying true to its stated ideals?
"Without meaning to sound too dismissive or simplistic, to me the answer to that question is no," [Ellen] Staurowsky said. [Staurowsky, a former college athletic director, has written books critical of the commercialization of college sports.] "And the reason why I believe that the answer is sincerely no is that a school cannot continue to keep pace with the escalation of corporate interests, the influence of celebrity and media influences as they're playing out in college sports right now."
I do not envy reporters covering the battle for the soul of Notre Dame.
Fans of the team can be rabid in their support for the program, and will quickly denounce anyone who challenges the school's attempt to resurrect its former glory (even at the expense of the school's longstanding principles). The team will no doubt achieve some level of success over the next few years, but here's hoping that reporters will follow the Tribune's lead and remind readers about the risks of sacrificing principles for fame and glory.