January 26, 2004
To: Trustees, University of Notre Dame
Life Trustees, University of Notre Dame
We are writing this letter because we believe that the pronounced and persistent deterioration of the Notre Dame football program requires a concerted response from concerned alumni. We are appealing to you, the members of the Board of Trustees, because you bear the ultimate responsibility for protecting Notre Dame’s traditions and maintaining the University’s place as an icon of American culture. Part of that responsibility is to take the necessary steps to restore the excellence of the football program.
Our concern is that the importance of Notre Dame football as a source of spirit, pride, and energy for students and alumni is no longer valued among those who are currently in positions of leadership. Notre Dame football provides a legacy that has inspired millions, from aspiring students to admiring subway alumni. It is the basis of a tradition that crosses generations to bind alumni to one another and to the University. We fear that through years of neglect this bond is eroding to the point that current and future generations will lose their rightful link to our University's storied past.
Catholic identity, academic excellence, and championship football are the three pillars on which the University was built. Remove any one of those pillars, and Notre Dame ceases to hold its unique place among American universities. If the football program continues to wither, the University will lapse into a crisis of identity, destined to remain perpetually eclipsed by ill-chosen "aspirational peers."
We are mindful that the last decade has seen Notre Dame make significant advancements in such areas as facilities, overall academics, and non-football athletics. These are laudable achievements. It is dismaying to us, however, that the same Board of Trustees that has overseen so much positive development could remain unmoved in the face of the precipitous decline of the institution that has done so much to elevate the visibility and reputation of Notre Dame.
Under your watch and that of your immediate predecessors, those whom you have entrusted with the day-to-day management of football have proven incapable of running it in a manner worthy of its heritage. Their record of mismanagement is evidenced by a series of mediocre and poorly vetted coaching hires, the subordination of winning to revenue generation, a reluctance to reinvest in the program, NCAA probation, and an alarming transfer rate among scholarship players. On the field Notre Dame has suffered an unprecedented three losing seasons in the past five years and stands on the verge of losing its status as the all-time leader in winning percentage. Finally, the subtle campaign by the Athletic Department to promote conference affiliation in football is perhaps the most disturbing indication that the current leadership’s priorities are misplaced.
Conference membership was never a serious topic from 1940-1993 when Notre Dame was enjoying football success on a regular basis. For the vast majority of alumni, abandoning independence is tantamount to a declaration of surrender by an administration that is unable to address the underlying weaknesses in the program. It would be a grave mistake to assume that those alumni would remain passive and compliant if this option were presented as a fait accompli. Such a decision would be met with intense resistance and evoke various methods of protest, including withheld financial support.
That Notre Dame’s independence is even subject to negotiation betrays the current athletic administration’s mindset that the purpose of the football program is to produce revenues. Rather than address the program’s present woes, they prefer to come up with stratagems that exploit Notre Dame’s storied past. Squeezing revenues from a struggling brand is not a substitute for rebuilding an elite football program. When the football team is strong, ample revenues and a commanding post-season bowl position have always followed. Lamentations that recent changes in BCS selection criteria have made it tougher for Notre Dame fail to address the inescapable truth that Fighting Irish squads in 1998, 2000 and 2002 did not deserve to play in first tier bowl games.
Our current Athletic Director acknowledged football’s importance when he stated recently, "Football is the emotional engine that drives Notre Dame." Unfortunately, he appears incapable of reversing its decline. Lip service will not suffice. Recycling past glory will not mask current shortcomings. Each passing year has rendered the challenge of restoring Notre Dame football exponentially more difficult.
This is not a call to fire Tyrone Willingham. Coach Willingham is a fine leader who represents Notre Dame well, but he has yet to demonstrate the high level of competence that this demanding job requires. Although we continue to support him and hope he succeeds, his performance, marked by unprecedented and humiliating defeats, deficiencies within his coaching staff, and his inconsistent record as a head coach, indicates that he may not. Absent significant progress in 2004, a coaching change will become necessary.
We submit three concrete proposals that would lay the foundation for the resurrection of the football program:
First, the Athletic Director should be given specific expectations and timetables for restoring the football program. The program's status should be the primary basis for evaluating the performance of the Athletic Director without regard to whatever success Notre Dame may achieve in its non-football athletics programs. Thus, the organizational structure of the Athletic Department should reflect the importance of football versus other sports. Responsibilities for other sports should be delegated to enable the Athletic Director to devote appropriate attention to football.
Second, the process of identifying, vetting and recruiting coaching candidates must be reworked. The Athletic Director must have unfettered authority to select coaches who possess the appropriate football knowledge, integrity, professionalism and acumen, subject only to approval by the Athletic Affairs Committee of the Board of Trustees. A broad based selection committee with conflicting agendas, such as the one that produced George O’Leary and Tyrone Willingham, is ineffective and unaccountable. That process should never be repeated.
Third, there is a need for organizational change at Notre Dame such that financial, administrative, and athletic pursuits should be entrusted to persons qualified and experienced in the management of such matters. This could be accomplished by the appointment of a lay person to the currently vacant Executive Vice President position. Meanwhile, the University’s academic and spiritual mission would remain under the auspices of the traditional CSC leadership via the President’s office.
We encourage you to implement this model early in 2004.
We regret the football program has declined to the level that required us to submit this letter, but we fear our silence may be interpreted as tolerance. As alumni who understand football's irreplaceable contribution to Notre Dame's greatness, we could not remain idle as the University's vital third pillar crumbled. We ask you as Trustees to fulfill your responsibilities in this area.
For the purposes of providing your response or engaging in further discussions of this matter, please utilize the contact information for the individuals listed on the attached pages.
Sincerely yours in Notre Dame,
412 signatures followed