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Rev. Theodore Hesburgh Balanced Notre Dame Football with Academic Excellence

Keith Arnold@@KeithArnoldNotre Dame Lead WriterFebruary 27, 2015

FILE - The Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C, president emeritus of the University of Notre Dame, talks about his experiences over 90 years of life at his desk in the Hesburgh Library on the campus of the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., in this Sept. 24, 2007 file photo. The priest who transformed the University of Notre Dame into an academic power during his 35 years in charge while also serving as an adviser to popes and presidents died Thursday night Feb. 26, 2015 at age 97 according to University spokesman Paul Browne. (AP Photo/Joe Raymond, File)
Joe Raymond/Associated Press

"Texas has oil. Notre Dame has football. Neither should apologize." 

That quote is one of many great ones widely attributed to Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C., who passed away at the age of 97 on Thursday night. The president of Notre Dame for 35 years and one of the foremost leaders in America as the architect of the groundbreaking Civil Rights Act of 1964, Hesburgh lived a life far from ordinary. 

4 Jan 2002:  Torchbearer Father Theodore Hesburgh carries the Olympic Flame throught the University of Notre Dame campus during the 2002 Salt Lake Olympic Torch Relay in South Bend, Indiana. DIGITAL IMAGE.  Mandatory Credit: Todd Warshaw/Pool/Getty Images
Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

The Rev. John Jenkins, Notre Dame's current president, said of Hesburgh, "With his leadership, charisma and vision, he turned a relatively small Catholic college known for football into one of the nation's great institutions for higher learning."

Hesburgh's balance of academics and football—what Notre Dame was primarily known for when he took over as president in 1952—is nearly as interesting as his many pursuits. While he would come to recognize the place the game held in the university's DNA, it wasn't always that way. 

Take this snippet, from the New York Times' obituary

Father Hesburgh understood the special role football played in Notre Dame’s reputation. But he was not a huge football fan, and he resented the influence that collegiate sports had on higher education. At his inauguration as president in 1952, he was appalled when local newspapers sent sportswriters to cover the event, and he refused to cooperate with photographers who asked him to pose with a football.

“I’m not the football coach,” he barked at the surprised journalists. “I’m the president.”

Hesburgh's battles with legendary coach Frank Leahy likely created this fracture. Hesburgh recommended to Leahy that he retire because of health issues, even after four national championships and an undefeated 9-0-1 season that saw the Irish finish the season as No. 2 in 1953.

Lou Somogyi of Blue & Gold details Hesburgh's conversation with the legendary coach, who had his last rites administered after a halftime collapse in a game against Georgia Tech.

Condoleezza Rice @CondoleezzaRice

Rest well, Father Ted. Your memory & spirit will live on in each of us who had the honor to know and love you. http://t.co/KtGPeHyPOl

"Frank, this is ridiculous," Hesburgh recalled, per Somogyi. "I think you ought to seriously consider retiring, for the sake of your family and your health. But it's up to you, you still have two years to go on your contract, and we'd pay you the rest of it."

Leahy's departure marked the beginning of an eight-year run that still serves as the low point for Notre Dame football. And it brought the critics out in full force, after a university president accused of wanting football to fail. 

Hesburgh took to the pages of Sports Illustrated to talk about Notre Dame's intentions to balance academics and athletics. Penned 61 years ago, much of what he says could've fit in my column from yesterday. 

The fundamental difference between intercollegiate and professional athletics is that in college the players are supposed to be students first and foremost. This does not mean that they should all be Phi Beta Kappas or physics majors, but neither should they be subnormal students majoring in ping-pong.

Once this fundamental principle is accepted three equally obvious conclusions follow as the day the night.

First, any boy who has demonstrated during his high school days that he is quite incapable of doing collegiate work should not be admitted to college, even though he may have been an all-state high school fullback.

Secondly, once a qualified student who also happens to be a good athlete is admitted to college, he should follow the same academic courses, with the same academic requirements as the other students. Presumably he is in college for the same reason as the others: to get a good education for life, and to earn a degree in four years. This means, in practice, no fresh-air courses, no special academic arrangements for athletes.

Thirdly, the athlete should enjoy (and I use the word advisedly) the same student life in college as the other students. He should not be treated as prime beef, should not be given special housing and disciplinary arrangements, made a demigod on a special allowance who is above and beyond the regimen that is found to be educationally best for all the students of any given school. In this connection, I am reminded of the animal who is enthroned and crowned with great ceremony at the annual Puck Fair in Ireland. It happens to be a goat.

Hesburgh followed common-sense logic in all walks of his life. It was why he turned Notre Dame co-ed in 1972 and why he turned over the governance of the university to a lay Board of Trustees, a controversial decision that the Vatican approved in 1967. 

And after a tough run, greatness in football returned to South Bend. The Irish won a national championship under Ara Parseghian, part of three titles won in a 12-year span between 1966-77.  

"The Parseghian family was blessed when he made the decision to name me the head football coach in 1964," the former Irish head coach said in a statement released by Notre Dame. "We will be eternally grateful. Father Ted has touched many lives and we are honored that he made us a part of the Notre Dame family."

Lou Holtz won his 1988 national title a year after Hesburgh retired as president. But that didn't stop the president emeritus from serving as counsel to the former coach. 

Byron Rollins/Associated Press

"If Readers Digest asked me to write about the most amazing person I’ve ever met in my life, my answer would be, without a doubt, Father Hesburgh," Holtz said in the same statement. "I was blessed and fortunate to be under his tutelage while I coached at the University of Notre Dame...Whenever I’m faced with difficult times, I reflect back on Father Hesburgh and how he handled things and his outlook on life.”

Hesburgh's legacy will be about so much more than football. But as he built Notre Dame into America's premier Catholic university and elevated the academic profile of the university to among the best in the world, perhaps this quote best encapsulates his attitude toward the Fighting Irish:

"There is no academic virtue in playing mediocre football."  

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

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