Where the heck have I been? As I sat down to the computer with my usual Sunday breakfast - toasted sesame seed bagel (with butter) and a Diet Pepsi - I clicked on my gmail to see what was up and BLAM! Notre Dame Athletic Director Kevin White is leaving Notre Dame for Duke. No matter how you slice your bagel, that's big news.
Rabid Notre Dame football fans have been banging on Kevin White for years about the recent inability of the football team to win a National Championship (or even a bowl game). They have also been very critical of the perceived commercialization of the athletic department generally and the football program in particular. If you have ever spent time trolling Notre Dame message boards like UHND.com and NDNation.com you know that hardcore Irish fans have been living in perpetual fear that White would be installing a "jumbotron" in Notre Dame stadium that would detract from the traditional Notre Dame stadium experience by running a continuous stream of tacky commercials for South Bend used car lots and the like. I must admit the persistent jumbotron rumors actually had me a little worried. I am among those that like the old school football experience that is an afternoon in the "House that Rock Built." If we just do away with TV timeouts it would be perfect.
I've always been a little ambivalent about Kevin White as AD. The hiring of Bob Davie as football coach when Lou Holtz left was, in my mind, the moment when the wheels began falling off the Notre Dame football wagon. Holtz was a top-tier Division I football coach (and a National Championship winner), while Davie was a long-time assistant with no head coaching experience and, we would learn later, no real understanding of or love for the Notre Dame way. Davie was a horrible hire, and the football program has yet to recover. But Kevin White didn't hire Bob Davie, he inherited him. Much is made of the Davie contract extension that White engineered, but that was really just a re-working of Davie's contract so that he could be more easily fired later (which he was). The George O'Leary fiasco was White's aborted baby, although O'Leary must bear much of the blame for that. It's too bad that situation wasn't handled better, because O'Leary has shown since then that he's a heck of a football coach. The Willingham hire didn't turn out well, although at the time I applauded it along with most everyone else. White did oust Willingham after just three years, despite the PR storm that he knew would ensue, although he only did it after he was basically left no choice by influential alumni and a new Administration. And White hired Charlie Weis. Urban Meyer has done well at Florida, but count OC Domer as among those who are glad we didn't bring Urban Liar to Notre Dame.
So Kevin White's handling of the football program has been a bit ham-fisted at times. If that was all there was to the AD job, I'd have been calling for his head too. But football is just one program in the athletic department, and I think White has done a very good job with the balance of Notre Dame's athletic programs. Football aside, I don't think a serious argument can be made that the overall quality of the Irish sports program isn't significantly better today than it was when Kevin White took over. From program facilities, to athletic talent level, to coaching level, to coaches salaries, to overall competitiveness, Notre Dame athletics has seen significant improvement under White's direction. Kevin White was appointed AD at Notre Dame on March 13, 2000. Over the five years prior to White's hiring (94-95 through 99-00), Notre Dame had averaged a 20th place finish in the NACDA Directors' Cup standings, which award points throughout the year to each school based upon how how well their sports teams finished the season. They're probably going to have to re-name the award for Stanford University pretty soon, since Stanford has won the Cup for 13 straight years. During White's eight seasons at the helm (00-01 through 07-08; ND is 15th in the 2008 standings through May 29th), Notre Dame has averaged a 14th place finish. That's a significant improvement, and that's why I have been pretty much neutral on White's performance as AD.
But eight years is probably long enough to accomplish what you can accomplish anywhere as an Athletic Director, so it's probably as good a time as any for White to move on and for Notre Dame to bring in some new blood. I have no idea who might get the job on a permanent basis, but right now the job belongs to Missy Conboy, former Notre Dame basketball player (Class of 1982), who went on to get her law degree from the University of Kansas in 1985. She has worked for the Irish athletic department since 1987. There's a really nice profile of her on the Notre Dame website. It's clear that she's a Domer through-and-through. A true Domer with a law degree, hustle, drive, and plenty of experience. That sounds like a pretty good fit to me. While I would expect the Administration to bring in an experienced AD eventually, I wouldn't mind if Missy is allowed to carry the interim job for a while. I think she'll do a great job.