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Commentary : Notre Dame Mystique Loses a Little of Its Luster

July 27, 1987|JOHN McGRATH | Times Staff Writer

If I could retreat and do one thing differently in my life, I think I'd attend Notre Dame. Not for four years, not even for a full semester. Maybe for a week, that's all--or, better yet, a weekend.

Yeah, that's the ticket: An all-tuition paid weekend under the same blue, gray October sky where the Four Horseman rode, where Rockne implored the necessity of winning one for the Gipper, where Lujack and Hornung and Montana and a host of others made South Bend synonymous with college football.

I'd go to the Friday-night pep rally, of course, (can there be anything on earth quite as exhilarating as a Friday night pep rally in October?), and to the football game the following afternoon, wholly confident that my hoarse, coarse voice was doing its part to wake up the echoes. Then I'd excuse myself and disappear, to resume the business of my otherwise contented life.

The first time ever I saw "Knute Rockne--All American," I envisioned going to Notre Dame. It was a Friday night in (when else?) October, cool and clear. Perfect. Outside, on the street curb, a pile of burning elm leaves was producing, oh, maybe the most enriching scent known to mankind.

Imagine a certain milestone in your youth, the time the chasm is crossed between not having yet heard of Knute Rockne or George Gipp or the Notre Dame Victory March--and then hearing of them. Gulp. Like that, your perspectives are set, your dreams defined.

As I got older and began to understand the unpleasant realities of college sports, I discovered Notre Dame had a mystique quite a bit different and more compelling from the smell of a Friday night bonfire. I discovered Notre Dame embodied all the virtues other institutions could only wax emptily about: A big-time program in which cheating isn't tolerated, which combines a tradition of unsurpassed athletic excellence with an enlightened, modern-day acknowledgement that young men are not to be exploited like so many disposable components off an assembly line.

Not that Notre Dame hasn't endured some lean years along the way--the Gerry Faust Debacle, for instance--but even then, Faust's contract was honored. Promises were kept. The experiment of hiring a high-school coach to assume the nation's most coveted college coaching position boomeranged into a potentially disastrous situation, but in the end, the school refused to compromise principle for expedience.

Why? Because it is Notre Dame, that's why. Because above and beyond athletic prowess, Notre Dame is supposed to stand for integrity and compassion and fairness and fortitude.

How curious, then, the recent news that wide receiver Alvin Miller, considered to have All-America potential himself despite suffering a serious knee injury last season, was declared ineligible after signing with sports agent Norby Walters--only for the school to initially insist that it was Miller's knee, rather than his ethics, that engendered his undoing.

About six weeks ago, Miller was determined to be physically unfit to play this fall. Or so Notre Dame would have you believe. His condition was disclosed in the wire services' "Transactions" column: "Alvin Miller, Notre Dame senior wide receiver, will sit out season with knee injury."

In truth, Miller's knees are fine. In truth, he was subpoenaed by a federal grand jury in May. The grand jury is investigating the illegal activities of sports agents such as Walters. Rather than divulge his involvement with Walters, Miller told Coach Lou Holtz that he was too hurt to play.

"Let's have you tested," Holtz said. Miller passed, and in time bared all his secrets.

Instead of facing the unseemly publicity that results when any Notre Dame player has been ruled ineligible, somebody apparently told an outright lie, at worst--or failed to follow the school's consistently upstanding code of conduct, at best.

Gene Corrigan, the outgoing Notre Dame athletic director--he's bound for the Atlantic Coast Conference, where he'll replace the late Bob James as commissioner--maintains that at first, he had "no direct knowledge" of Miller's involvement with an agent. According to The Atlanta Constitution, when Corrigan heard the real story, he asked, in so many words, "Why drag the kid through any more mud?"

Why? Because, again, it is Notre Dame, that's why. Because however unpleasant and untimely it may be, there is no substitute for the truth.

No, it certainly wouldn't have been Notre Dame's proudest hour had Corrigan or Holtz called a press conference to publicly disclose that a professional agent had infiltrated the previously sacrosanct corridors adjacent to The Golden Dome. It simply would have been the honest and decent thing to do at a place where honesty and decency are espoused as the essential fundamentals of everyday life.

Instead, the school came clean about Miller only when it had no other recourse, only when perpetuating the Myth of the Wounded Knee would have constituted a full-scale coverup. As a consequence, Notre Dame stands as a little bit less than a paragon of virtue right now.

When you are the best, you act like the best. From adversity to embarrassment to disgrace, you stand tall.

Not because it looks right.

Because it is right.

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