Looking Into the Mystique of Notre Dame Football
Excellence transcends the football field for the famous Fighting Irish, and this commitment to quality incorporates a strong component of Catholic faith.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — The University of Notre Dame is second to none when it comes to rich football tradition.
This is made clear by glancing at the records of just three of the school’s coaches, the legendary Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy and Ara Parseghian. They have a combined 287 wins, 40 losses and 18 ties at Notre Dame (an .857 winning percentage), along with nine national championships.
And it will add another title in 2013, if this year’s unbeaten Fighting Irish squad can overcome the powerhouse University of Alabama team in the Jan. 7 BCS Championship Game in Miami.
Notre Dame’s excellence doesn’t end on the football field, however. In fact, its football team’s athletic achievements may even pale in comparison with its academic ones. Since 1962, Notre Dame has graduated an amazing 98.74% of its football players in four years, the highest mark in the nation.
Holy Cross Father Willy Raymond said this has not happened accidentally, but by design.
“Notre Dame has a long history of high academic standards,” said Father Raymond. “The school was established in 1842, and the football program only came along 45 years later, in 1887. There are plenty of other sporting teams and, of course, plenty of academic disciplines that most people are not familiar with. Yet football is the most common way the average person knows about the school. That’s the entry point, but there is so much more beyond it.”
Father Raymond related how head football coach Frank Leahy put together a successful program in the 1940s and 1950s, but at a price, according to some administrators.
“Frank Leahy was a great coach,” Father Raymond acknowledged. “His teams won plenty of games and four national championships. However, there was a feeling among the school’s administration that he was independent of them. They wanted him to realize he was part of the university and that football came after academic and spiritual pursuits.”
Continued Father Raymond, “Father Theodore Hesburgh, who was the university’s president from 1952 to 1987, set out to put football in its rightful place. This brought about enough tension for Coach Leahy to resign in January of 1954, even though he had two years left on his contract.
“The two men had their differences, but would eventually reconcile before Leahy’s death, in 1973. Father Hesburgh was even present with Coach Leahy during the last two days of his life.”
The Ara Parseghian Era
Some thought after Leahy’s departure from Notre Dame in 1954 that the football program itself had seen its last days of success. “The emphasis on academics would not allow Notre Dame to recruit the top athletes, they thought,” Father Raymond explained. “The football team didn’t do too well for a decade after Leahy left, but that turned around with the hiring of Ara Parseghian in 1964.
“During his tenure, the program posted a record of 95 wins, 17 losses and four ties, with no loosening of academic standards. The belief that you can’t have both top students and top athletes was proven false.”
Parseghian was thoroughly aware of the importance of recruiting young men who were skilled both physically and mentally.
“The coaching staff knew that Notre Dame was first and foremost an institution of higher learning,” the 89-year-old Parseghian told the Register. “The central purpose of attending the school was to become educated in a specific discipline. Football was strictly secondary. Contrary to what some might think, this really did help us. Players like Joe Montana were great not from a sheer physical standpoint, but primarily because of their minds.”
When a player’s mind was not on academics, he was certain to hear about it from the coaches.
“If someone didn’t attend class, we were all over him,” Parseghian noted. “There was no tolerance for taking schoolwork lightly. Most of the time, this wasn’t an issue, though. When you have rigorous entry requirements to begin with, chances are very good that you’ll do well once you’re attending the school. The pre-entry screening process was very helpful.”
Something else that proved helpful for Parseghian’s teams was spending the night before home games at Moreau Seminary, located on the other side of St. Joseph’s Lake on campus.
“The first year I was at Notre Dame, 1964, we found that the seminary was spacious enough to house the football team, in addition to the seminarians who were already living there,” he recalled. “I was pleased with this, because the atmosphere of the seminary was so tranquil. It was very conducive to getting a good night‘s rest.”
The next morning, the entire team, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, would attend Mass and receive a blessing from a Holy Cross priest. Blessed medals were handed out to players and coaches as well.
Parseghian, who is not Catholic, appreciated this spiritual component to Notre Dame football: “There was always an underlying spirituality to whatever happened at Notre Dame. That was one of the main reasons I enjoyed being there so much.”
Parseghian chose to stay in South Bend despite offers to coach in professional football. He found the area to be a great fit, especially considering his children’s ages at the time. “It was perfect for my family. The spirituality, the smaller town, the dedication to learning — it all came together so well. It was better to be there than to have gone to a larger city, which would have been necessary if I had accepted a position in pro football.”
Summed up Parseghian, “I appreciate my years at Notre Dame, not just from a professional standpoint, but from a family one as well.”
A Player’s Perspective
Anthony Brannan, a linebacker at Notre Dame from 1996 to 2000, also has a great appreciation for his experience in South Bend. The dedication to academic and athletic excellence impressed him, but most impressive was the spirituality encompassing his collegiate years.
“The academic standards at Notre Dame were very high, from gaining admission to attending classes to actually graduating,” Brannan remembered. “On the recruiting trip, you’re likely to talk with more advisers than coaches, and once you’re in school, the coaches made sure you attended classes. I recall seeing assistant coaches at classroom doors to make sure we players were there. It wasn’t just support staff, but the coaches themselves who were present.”
It was clear to Brannan that playing football came second to earning a degree. However, excelling at football was also expected, a reality he enjoyed. “In my first year on the squad, I had the opportunity to play for Lou Holtz, who was upbeat, energetic and goal-oriented. He was very much into the game and wanted to get the best performances out of his players.”
Brannan remembered that Holtz’s perspective didn’t end on the football field: “He took it all into context. Before games, he would say, ‘Gentlemen, remember who you’re playing for: Our Lady on the Golden Dome (there was a large statue of the Blessed Virgin atop the Main Building on campus) and Our Lord.’ That was just one example of how spirituality was to be found nearly everywhere on campus or at university-related events.”
Impressed by Knute Rockne
Holy Cross Father Paul Doyle will be among those hoping the Fighting Irish do well against the University of Alabama Crimson Tide for the national title. Father Doyle is the home-game chaplain for the team, which is appropriate, considering how he learned of the university in the first place.
“My father was attending Mount St. Mary’s in Emmetsburg, Md., in the 1920s,” Father Doyle explained. “At the time, Knute Rockne was doing a fine job of coaching at Notre Dame, which brought a lot of attention to the school. That impressed my father, and he was determined that his future children would attend Notre Dame. My three brothers and I ended up doing just that.
“I was also ordained a Holy Cross father and spent my first nine years in parish ministry. Then I returned to campus and have been here ever since.” In fact, Father Doyle doesn’t even leave campus for road games; he lets another priest take care of the team away from home.
On campus at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, Father Doyle offers Mass the morning of home games, with all the players and coaching staff present. At the end of Mass, the Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary is prayed, a relic of the true cross is venerated, and team members receive a blessed medal of a saint.
“The traditions surrounding Notre Dame football have largely remained unchanged,” Father Doyle said. “We’ve had Mass for the team on game days since the 1920s at least, and the medals have been a part of it for as long as I can remember. We give inexpensive oxidized medals of a different saint to the players and coaches before every game, along with a short catechesis on the saint. We explain why that particular witness of God is relevant to them today.”
Father Doyle said he tries not to repeat a saint within a four-year cycle, so everyone will have a new medal to add to his collection each week. While this year’s squad is just under 50% Catholic, players and coaches tend to cherish the medals, regardless of their religious affiliation.
In the locker room just before the game, Father Doyle leads the team in prayer. An Our Father is prayed, and Our Lady of Victory is invoked. The whole team is blessed, and, shortly afterward, they take to the field with a sense of purpose and a perspective that extends beyond football.
While the best-known aspect of the University of Notre Dame is its football team, the school is not devoted to the sport at the expense of its founding principles. The academic and spiritual components of student life are generally seen as superior to, and also helpful for, athletic pursuits.
Success on and off the field are interconnected in South Bend, and most fans remain steadfast in their loyalty to the nation’s best-known Catholic college. Football unites them, but something greater than the game unites them even more.
Father Doyle believes the major unifying principle is tied in with the founding of the school itself.
“It ultimately goes back to the purpose behind the school’s origin — to recognize not just the laws of nature, but the Author of those laws; not just the history of nations, but the Lord of those nations; not just the truths of philosophy, but ultimate Truth Itself,” Father Doyle said. “No one has done this better than Our Lady (translated ‘Notre Dame’ in French), so it is fitting that the school is named after her. The mystique of anything good here in South Bend is inevitably associated with Our Lady.”
Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.