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Friday, December 03, 2004

Choosing Florida over Notre Dame

Suppose you're a HS kid. You're a good student, involved in activities, have a good SAT score. You're very motivated, and you are ambitious.

Now, in all likelihood you'll apply to a bunch of colleges, and you'll select them based on a variety of criteria. I'm not going to begin to point out what those are, but certainly the overall prestige of the school has to be one of them. Certainly the trademark of the school and what it will mean on your resume will matter to you.

Unless you're from Florida, have a parent who went to Florida, have a parent who is on the faculty at Florida, somehow get a full ride (or otherwise great aid package) o Florida or as a Floridian are considering your home-state school because of cost, you probably won't be considering The University of Florida at Gainesville. No offense to fans in Gatorland, but if you're that kid you'd probably want to leave the nest to pursue your higher education elsewhere -- unless one of those circumstances exists.

Because, if you're that kid, you'll gravitate toward the places where the best students go. Again, that's how the selection process works, and that's not to say, by the way, that Florida doesn't get good students, because to a certain extent it does, and for a variety of reasons. But we're talking about the hypothetical kid here, so let's keep on that train of thought. This post isn't meant to mean any disrespect to the University of Florida; it's just trying to put some things in perspective. And that perspective is that if you are to name the Top 25 academic schools in the country, Florida clearly won't make the list (and it probably won't make the list if you're trying to name the Top 25 academic schools in Division I-A, either).

Anyway, one of the schools that kid might consider is Notre Dame. Why? It's an excellent school, and if you're Catholic and want an all-American and Catholic experience, Notre Dame will be on your short list. It offers some fine extracurricular activities, has high standards, and offers a top-notch education. Few will quarrel with choosing Notre Dame, as it has its priorities in order.

So, if the hypothetical kid would choose Notre Dame fairly easily over the likes of a Florida (I am, of course, not making money the primary criteria here, as there's some room for this kid to get his folks to spend some more money or to take out a few more loans in order to pay for the Notre Dame experience -- and going to Florida as an out-of-stater cannot be cheap), what about the hypothetical coach? What would he do? And why?

It's surprising, to say the least, that Urban Meyer chose Florida over Notre Dame, and it's surprising for a variety of reasons. Here are a few of them:

1. Meyer had an out clause in his contract at Utah that would have enabled him to go to Notre Dame.

2. He was once an assistant at Notre Dame, and Notre Dame thought long and hard about hiring him when it hired Ty Willingham.

3. Notre Dame really wanted him badly, and Notre Dame alumni and fans viewed him as the answer to Notre Dame's current football woes. Very few people ever are wanted like that for a job in their lifetimes.

4. Notre Dame is a unique place, has a great football tradition (albeit a slumping one lately), and, yes, let's take the gloves off here, is a better school with better priorities (I'd stack up Notre Dame's graduation rate against that of virtually any other DI school). Sometimes when you write you have to make the call, and that call is not that hard to make.

5. Florida is in the seemingly "win at all costs" SEC, just canned a coach whose crime was that he didn't win the way Steve Spurrier did. Last year, a rival hoops coach told South Carolina coach Dave Odom that because of the way schools in the SEC did things, his school would only consider scheduling four SEC schools! The SEC has its eligibility mills, as it were, and the methods of some of its schools from time to time are questioned. By the NCAA, no less.

So, Notre Dame is struggling to find a football team that the school can once again be proud of, while the average SEC school is struggling to find a school that the football team can be proud of. That's a bit harsh, of course, a throwaway line, as it were, but here are some reasons why a football coach would choose Florida over Notre Dame:

1. It is in the SEC, which is one of the best football conferences in America. The quality of the football is excellent.
2. The admissions standards at Florida are (sufficiently) lower than those of Notre Dame, thereby enabling you to recruit from a larger pool of outstanding players.
3. The State of Florida is one of the most fertile recruiting grounds for college football programs.
4. They offered you $14 million over 7 years, a figure that not even Notre Dame can match.
5. It's easier to keep players eligible at Florida than at Notre Dame.
6. You have a better chance to win a national championship at Florida than at Notre Dame.

It's hard to figure out what goes through a football coach's mind, especially one who was comparing Notre Dame to Florida and then making a choice. If you're choosing solely on football grounds, the choice is easy. If you're an educator/coach, the choice probably presents some dilemmas. Needless to say, the factors that run through a coaching candidate's head are different from those that run through the head of that hypothetical HS kid seeking the best education possible.

But that statement, in and of itself, speaks volumes. It says that Notre Dame fans should take a deep breath and realize that there are other coaches that can fill the bill there. It says that Notre Dame fans should realize, if they hadn't already, that they cannot look to a football coach as a savior, only as a football coach. It says that Notre Dame might have been focusing its attention on the wrong guy, because typically you wouldn't say Florida and Notre Dame in the same breath. Even if you're a football coach.

And, to an extent, it says that lower admissions, lower eligibility standards and winning ten or more football games a year are more important than the lofty aspirations of Notre Dame. At least for Urban Meyer.

And, it also might say that Notre Dame has to make a choice -- stick to your standards, and be lucky to hit the Top 25 every year or lower your standards, win more games, but then change what you're all about. The University of Chicago has the first Heisman Trophy winner about 70 years ago in Jay Berwanger, and while Amos Alonzo Stagg coached there at one time today its a DIII school where some of the brainiest kids you'd ever met go. The Ivies were once at the top of the college football heap -- over 70 years ago. But not any more. They're in Division I-AA. And Army and Navy played some classic games over 50 years ago. Today the games are still fun, but those schools are not vying for the national title. And some would argue those schools should be in Division I-AA.

Can Notre Dame continue to wake up the echoes? Can it somehow achieve what looks now to be one of college sports' Holy Grails -- be in the hunt for a national championship and still graduate almost all of its players with meaningful degrees? Or should it give up the ghost and realize that it has a better chance to win a hoops national title because of its high standards, that it should try to replicate Duke and Stanford with hoops and make football a lower priority?

I, for one, hope that Notre Dame doesn't give up, and I also think that Notre Dame can pull it off.

Notre Dame alums and fans, of course, will never quit on their football program. Like the Little Engine that Could, they're determined to help their program get back to the pinnacle.

But it won't be easy.

And, there are worse things in life than being put in the same category with the University of Chicago, the Ivies, and the service academies.

Such as being perennially on the list of Top 10 party schools, being on NCAA probation at least once a decade, and have a 20% graduation rate for your scholarship athletes.

Just win, baby?

How about giving our kids an excellent education in an increasingly competitive world?

That's where everyone should be cheering for old Notre Dame.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Unless there is something that has not yet come out, Notre Dame has already decided that its "lofty aspirations" are not what it is after. Why? The fired a coach who they admitted was top-notch Sunday through Friday -- a class act who represented the school well and by all reports cared about the players as students as well as athletes. The canned him before his first recruiting class could even make a contribution to his revamped offensive scheme.

It seems as if they fired Willingham so they could take a shot at Meyer. Then they lost. I think it serves them right. Unless of course they are admitting that they are just like Florida when it comes to the football program, and all that matters is winning.

I am no Notre Dame fan, as the last two syllables of my monicker below indicate. There are many across the U.S. reveling in the seeming hypocrisy of the Willingham firing.

(Congrats though to the Notre Dame women's soccer team, who won in a shootout against UCLA. And congrats to the Princeton women's soccer team, who made it to the Final Four, only to lose to UCLA.)


9:33 AM  

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