Hesburgh certainly took us through periods of de-emphasis but only to maintain a balance he saw to be necessary. I have little doubt that if NDN existed decades ago may of us would have been very unhappy with Fr. Ted.
Make no mistake, unlike his successor, he understood better than anyone football's place and the three pillars. He even spoke of them clearly in "God, Country, Notre Dame". More importantly he was not embarrassed by it in the least. Furthermore, Hesburgh was incapable of disgracing himself by doing something such as openly talking down Notre Dame under Fr. Malloy to other university leaders.
My favorite Hesburgh quote regarding football: "Texas has oil; Notre Dame has football; Neither should apologize."