Notre Dame: What Convicts Can Teach Catholics

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Ezra Shaw / Getty

Jimmy Clausen #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in action during their game against the Stanford Cardinal at Stanford Stadium on Nov. 28, 2009 in Palo Alto, California.

I'm from Indiana, I'm Roman Catholic, and I love football. That's not a lame personal ad; it just explains why, when it comes to the big-time college game, I root and always will root for Notre Dame. But I'm embarrassed by the Fighting Irish these days. Not because they just finished another disappointing season; but because their unseemly desperation to find a coaching messiah has begun to taint the image of one of America's best universities. Now that an expensive new savior has been anointed — Brian Kelly, who replaces the expensive failed savior Charlie Weis — here's an urgent message for Notre Dame's football faithful: Let it go. The glory days are gone, and accepting that reality is a good thing, not just for Notre Dame but for higher education in the U.S.

I know that sounds as heretical to Notre Dame fans as filet mignon on Good Friday. But here's another sacrilege for Irish ears: Notre Dame needs to act a bit more like the school it once disparaged, the University of Miami. That's right, the University of Miami Hurricanes, who used to symbolize so much that is wrong with Division I college football. Until a few years ago, the Hurricanes had an all too often deserved reputation for thugball — a brash, smash-mouth style that mirrored the Miami Vice era both on and off the field. Some recruits had rap sheets longer than their high school transcripts. Whenever Notre Dame played the Hurricanes, Irish fans billed the game as Catholics versus Convicts. Sports Illustrated even urged UM's president in 1995 to shut the notorious football program down.

Because the Hurricanes won so many national championships, a lot of South Florida sportswriters still celebrate thugball as an oh-so-misunderstood facet of the Magic City's rambunctious charm. Fortunately, the university's current president, Donna Shalala, former President Clinton's health secretary, and the Hurricanes' coach, former UM player Randy Shannon, have set the program and the school in a new and more mature direction. By putting academic stature before gridiron grandeur, Shalala has moved Miami, once known as "Suntan U," into the top 50 of the U.S. News & World Report national university rankings. Shannon, meanwhile, has proved that you can build a winning Division I football team with more role models than ruffians. When ESPN recently made a documentary about the thugball days, which it will air this weekend, the university declined to take part.

The really remarkable thing is that Miami fans, who once cared even more about Hurricane football than about condo-flipping, don't seem all that sunburned about the fact that their team isn't playing for national championships these days. Its win-loss record this season was 9-3 and it finished a very respectable No. 15 in the national standings. But for once the U.S. News standing seems just as important, especially as the recession suddenly makes education a priority in a city that for too long disregarded it.

That's why the Catholics could learn a thing or two from the Convicts right now. By once more making such a hysterical search for the reincarnation of Knute Rockne — and by paying Weis an obscene $15 million or more to go away — Notre Dame loyalists risk looking like the petty boosters of a football factory instead of the thoughtful backers of an elite university that regularly cracks the academic top 20 today. And the country today needs Notre Dame the university far more than it needs Notre Dame the football team. That fact shone like the school's Golden Dome this year when Notre Dame defied the intolerant (and rather un-Catholic) objections of pro-life activists, and invited President Obama to South Bend to promote a rational (and genuinely Catholic) discussion about abortion and other difficult moral issues.

Notre Dame's brainy standards are a big reason it can no longer recruit as many blue-chip players. Even so, diehard Irish fans argue it's important to the student-athlete ethos that top schools be able to compete in Division I football. But they're assuming a real student-athlete ethos still exists at that level, or that Division I football is still a respected institution. It isn't — especially when it chooses its champion via the opaque and convoluted Bowl Championship Series. That's why other prestigious universities that have Division I programs, like Stanford and Northwestern, no longer lose sleep over the fact that their teams aren't in the trophy hunt. Win or lose, their devotees fill the stadiums each Saturday because they enjoy a premium college football game. But they don't suffer existential meltdowns if the team fails to reach the Meineke Car Care Bowl.

Nor should Notre Dame's. It's great that NBC still broadcasts every Irish home game; it indicates a nostalgic hunger out there for a less cynical college football tradition. But Notre Dame today has an obligation to put its scholarly tradition on its highest pedestal — higher than even its football coach messiahs.