An Irish Wake-Up Call: Grades vs. Gridiron Success at Notre Dame

football dive
Notre Dame Fighting Irish running back Cam McDaniel (33) dives for extra yards in front of Rutgers Scarlet Knights cornerback Gareef Glashen (2) in the third quarter of the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium. Notre Dame won 29-16. Matt Cashore

Is the University of Notre Dame waging the same two-front war that Princeton, Yale, the University of Chicago and even the military academies eventually lost? Or will the Fighting Irish overcome what may be their second football-related academic scandal in the past 15 months and continue to march, unscathed, into the brave, new and ever more lucrative world of big-time college football?

On Friday afternoon Notre Dame announced that four football players, three of them starters, were being held out of practices pending an internal investigation. “(We are) investigating suspected academic dishonesty on the part of several students, including four members of the football team,” the university said in a statement released shortly after 4 p.m.

Two hours later the school’s athletic director, Jack Swarbrick, confirmed rumors that the players being investigated were All-American candidate at cornerback KeiVarae Russell, defensive end Ishaq Williams, wide receiver DaVaris Daniels and backup linebacker Kendall Moore. "At this juncture, no one has been judged responsible for academic dishonestly, and no one has been dismissed from the university," said the Rev. John I. Jenkins, the school’s president. Both Swarbrick and Jenkins are alumni of Notre Dame.

Should the four be dismissed, it would mark the third consecutive semester that a starter for Notre Dame, which only two seasons ago advanced to the BCS National Championship Game, had been suspended from the school for academic reasons. In May of 2013 quarterback Everett Golson, who started as a redshirt freshman in that national title contest defeat to Alabama, was dismissed for using “poor judgment” on a final exam. Golson sat out the Fall, 2013 semester and was readmitted at the start of the Spring, 2014 term.

Golson returned to campus just as Daniels, a starter on the 2013 squad, was leaving. Daniels sat out the spring semester due to poor grades, and was reinstated in time for summer school. (Jerian Grant, the basketball team’s leading scorer, sat out the spring semester for academic dishonesty, i.e. cheating, and was also reinstated.)

Now, two weeks before Notre Dame opens its season at home versus Rice, head coach Brian Kelly may be battling a war of attrition that has nothing to do with the game’s inevitable injuries. He likely will be grappling with the paradox of an academic institution that holds itself to the highest standards participating in a sport where such integrity reaps no reward.

“Integrity is at the heart of our mission,” said Jenkins, “and academic misconduct will not be tolerated at Notre Dame.”

Indeed, at Notre Dame, which perennially finishes among the top 20 national universities in the U.S. News & World Report rankings, where 54% of the undergraduates finished in the top 2% of their high school graduating class, that should be true.

Both the previous dismissal of Golson and the investigation of the four players named today were the result of internal scrutiny. The alleged cheating is not in any way tied to phony or unearned grades or credits, or of faculty or athletic administrators abetting the players. Rather, at the end of the current summer session of classes, “evidence that students had submitted papers and homework that had been written for them by others was initially detected,” according to the university’s statement.

On July 29th, that information was turned over to the school’s compliance department. On Thursday, Swarbrick apprised Kelly of the investigation and his fifth-year coach was, in Swarbrick’s words, “devastated.”

Of course, it would be folly to suggest that Notre Dame does not owe its esteemed national academic reputation at least in part to the aura that its football team, which began winning national championships under the legendary Knute Rockne more than 90 years ago, first bestowed upon it. There are several outstanding liberal arts schools in Indiana and the neighboring state of Ohio --DePauw, Kenyon and Miami, to name three--but none of them have risen to the size or stature Notre Dame has achieved in the past century. The success of the football team is an integral aspect of that --it’s the deal with the devil that the school with the mosaic of Jesus on the side of its 12-story library long ago made.

Other similar institutions long ago raised the white flag on this war. Princeton and Yale, which each won more national championships before the end of the  nineteenth century--and which both are able to boast of producing a Heisman Trophy winner, fled the stratosphere of what is now known as “Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS)” during the Eisenhower era. Princeton, which participated in the first college football game in 1869 (at Rutgers), Yale, Harvard and the other five institutions commonly known as the Ivy League, all find themselves in the top 16 schools in the latest U.S. News & World Report rankings, i.e., the Ivy League comprises half of the top top 16 institutions. But none of them will ever advance to the newly installed four-team college football playoff.

The University of Chicago provided the inaugural Heisman Trophy winner, Jay Berwanger, in 1935. The Maroons were once a gridiron leviathan, founding members of what is now the Big Ten and claimants to national titles in 1905 and 1913 while being coached by the illustrious Amos Alonzo Stagg. Chicago disbanded its football program in 1939 and it remained moribund for three-plus decades. Today the Maroons compete at the Division III level while their world-class academic institution is tied at No. 5, the first non-Ivy League school alongside Stanford, on the U.S. News & World Report list.

Army won a few national championships and even, in the 1940s and 1950s, produced a trio of Heisman Trophy winners. But the Cadets,while still competing on the FBS level, are only a vestige of their former selves. A cheating scandal at West Point in the 1950s rocked that program to its foundation. The United States Military Academy’s post-graduate commitment means that it will rarely lure NFL talent now that the last man on an NFL roster earns at least ten times what a newly commissioned second lieutenant in the Army does.

Whither Notre Dame --and please understand that this writer, a Notre Dame alum, is fully cognizant that stories such as this have been penned going back even before the Rockne era--in this tug-of-war between academic prestige and gridiron lucre? College football itself stands at a crossroads, as this year ushers in the first true playoff, which will translate to even more television-generated dollars to institutions in that most elite valence level. Too, the recent decision in the O’Bannon case augurs a new era of student-athletes potentially being paid beyond their scholarships.

“Students are young people, and young people sometimes make mistakes,” said Rev. Jenkins on Friday afternoon. True. But the mistakes in South Bend seem to be occurring more often of late. And as college football tilts ever closer toward professionalism, do incidents such as Friday’s announcement give Notre Dame’s administrators pause as to how dangerous this two-front battle is becoming?

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