Irish need to maintain standards
By BILL HART
Associate Sports Editor
PALO ALTO, Calif.
As Stanford head coach Tyrone Willingham headed off the field after ending his team's regular season on a positive note, a renowned former Cardinal came up to congratulate him — professional golfer Tiger Woods.
It was an almost ironic turn of events — a current leader in one sport reveling in a victory over a similar pacesetter in another, the Fighting Irish football team.
Many Notre Dame fans would not probably use that word to describe this year's Irish. After all, this was a season which started with such high hopes, only to end with a seven-loss season, their first since 1963.
But for head coach Bob Davie, the final results overshadowed the team's real play.
"I'm encouraged by the character of this team," he said. "They fought their butts off, and it's unfortunate that the seniors have got to leave 5-7."
It is true that the Irish had to overcome numerous obstacles throughout the season, some of which turned out to be insurmountable.
The regular season schedule included eight bowl teams, including Rose Bowl-bound Stanford and probable Orange Bowl pick Michigan.
Throughout the regular season, the Irish struggled with numerous injuries that weakened positions that were already shallow and experienced. Those injuries became even more serious with losses due to conflicts off the field.
This season also displayed the consistent threat of NCAA sanctions and probation from the Dunbar incident, which hung over the team like a dark cloud and remains unresolved even after the season has ended.
Between all these factors, it seemed like the fabled "Luck of the Irish" disappeared. Eight times this season, Notre Dame played a game down to the wire. Six of those times, things didn't go its way.
"The one thing I've seen from this season," Davie recollected. "When you turn the ball over, and can't cover, and give up passes ... it doesn't matter how good you are, you can't win."
But the greatest problem that the Irish faced this year, as it has been the case for many years, is the conflict between keeping a football powerhouse intact while maintaining the academic and ethical standards of Notre Dame.
By holding to these standards since the 1930s, the Irish have not only made themselves a household name both on and off the field, but also possibly saved collegiate sports as we know it.
During the scandalous postwar years when basketball fixing and football cheating were rampant, the ideal that Notre Dame presented kept big-time college sports intact.
But in today's overcommercialized collegiate world, where the defending national football champions have a 27 percent graduation rate since 1991 and the current top-ranked basketball team has not had a player graduate on time in the past 10 years, it looks as if for some schools the current credo is "victory at any cost."
This phrase, however, could never apply to Notre Dame.
As a new century of collegiate athletics is set to dawn, Davie must regain the confidence of Irish fans by returning the Irish to college football's elite, while maintaining Notre Dame's ironclad standards.
Some may question whether these objectives are conflicting, but being the head coach under the Golden Dome isn't the most pressure-filled job in collegiate football for nothing.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
All Sports Stories for Tuesday, November 30, 1999