For college football fans, it doesn’t get much better than an Alabama-Notre Dame faceoff for the national championship. The Jan. 7 title game in Miami pairs two of the sport’s iconic programs in a head-to-head showdown.
Notre Dame’s resurgence after years of mediocrity has stirred the Irish faithful from their two-decade-long blue period. But the team’s achievements should stir the rest of us for another reason – and serve as a model for how the University of North Carolina could get its sanctioned football program back on its feet.
Notre Dame has achieved a first: Its football team ranks No. 1 both on the field and in the classroom. In addition to being undefeated, it is graduating 97 percent of its players – the best performance in the nation. Given its well-known commitment to academic excellence, Notre Dame’s success is fresh evidence that fielding a competitive football team and staying true to your school’s academic standards do not have to be incompatible.
UNC forgot that. At one time, Carolina seemed positioned to be like this year’s Notre Dame team: An academically selective university with an enviable athletic tradition and the ability to recruit. In its thirst for football victories, though, it started cutting corners, like allowing students to enroll in nearly non-existent courses to stay eligible.
UNC defenders argue that the school did only what others are doing, and they may have a point. College sports – and in particular football and basketball – are a multi-billion-dollar business. The constantly shifting allegiances among the power athletic conferences these days have little to do with the product on the field or court. They are, rather, about getting the biggest possible slice of the TV revenue pie.
Notre Dame demonstrates how adherence to high academic standards doesn’t have to mean forgoing success on the field. Other schools, like Stanford, have maintained that balance for years. Even Duke, which maintained high academic standards through years of embarrassing football teams, has clawed its way back to the postseason, playing in Charlotte’s Belk Bowl on Dec. 27.
ESPN contributor Gregg Easterbrook points to a telling aspect of Notre Dame’s success: the NCAA and the television networks, rather than trumpeting this grand achievement, have been nearly silent.
“One can’t help thinking the NCAA and its network partners hesitate to draw attention to any big-college football program that does well in the classroom,” Easterbrook wrote. “That only sets the bar high for everyone else, and the NCAA, plus several of the big-money conferences, benefit from keeping the bar low.”
That way, they can make millions off the backs of players without taking responsibility for providing them a real education. We’re not suggesting that every halfback has to be a Rhodes Scholar. But the vast majority of these student-athletes will not make a living playing their sport. Instead of using them to prime the cash pump, schools should use some of that money to hold up their end of the deal.
The disarray of UNC’s football program, after all, suggests that a low bar has its limits.