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Coaches at Notre Dame See Rift Over Athletics : Officials Deny De-Emphasizing Sports

December 17, 1987|JOHN LYNCH | Times Staff Writer

Notre Dame High's recent decision to drop Crespi from its athletic schedule for a two-year "cooling-off period" has shocked and disappointed Notre Dame coaches, who claim a rift has developed between the athletic department and the administration.

In addition, coaches and alumni fear that the perception that the school is de-emphasizing athletics might tarnish Notre Dame's reputation and threaten its standing as one of the Valley's leading parochial schools.

"I don't know all the details that went into the decision," said Mick Cady, Notre Dame's basketball coach, of the decision to drop Crespi. "There is a communication breakdown, a misunderstanding between the athletic department and the administration."

Kevin Rooney, Notre Dame's athletic director and football coach, finds himself in the awkward position of straddling the fence between administrators and coaches. Yet he can't conceal his disappointment.

"As the football coach, I'm disappointed," he said. "We like to play local teams and it's a rivalry. We compete well with Crespi. This is an administrative decision. Competition is not a factor."

Notre Dame officials, however, adamantly deny charges that the 40-year-old Catholic school is downplaying athletics.

"The de-emphasis of sports at Notre Dame is a myth," said Dan Pondella, chairman of the school's board of directors. "We're more encouraged about the future in sports than we've ever been. We can't deal with perceptions; we deal with reality."

Sister Christopher Miller, the school's vice principal, defended the school's athletic dedication.

"Academics come first and athletics is not the tail wagging the dog, but I would not say we are de-emphasizing sports. We have 37 boys and girls teams on all levels, and we're thinking of adding girls soccer as well," she said.

Still, the perception persists and is fueled by the Dec. 1 decision to drop Crespi and by the school's move next year from the Del Rey League to the newly formed San Fernando Valley League, a drop in class from the Southern Section 5-A Division to 1-A in some sports. School officials cited the need to play local teams and to enter a league with other coeducational schools as reason for the move.

"People are always coming up to me and asking why Notre Dame is de-emphasizing athletics," baseball Coach Bob Mandeville said. "The school still has a strong tradition in sports and I hope these things wouldn't sway some students from coming to our school. But it may be cause for concern."

Cady contradicted Pondella's claim that the school does not deal in perceptions.

"We deal with how people perceive things and I'm concerned. This perception could hurt the school by detracting some kids who like to compete," he said.

Rich Lawson, the Chaminade football coach, is a 1973 graduate and former assistant football coach at Notre Dame. Lawson said the Sherman Oaks school appears to be downplaying its athletic department.

"As an outsider, that's what it seems like to me," he said. "As an alumnus I'm disappointed in that. Sports provide a sense of pride for a school. I think parent, student and alumni pride will be hurt."

Although many Notre Dame coaches have made their peace with the drop from the Del Rey League, the decision to discontinue the Crespi rivalry prompted staffwide disappointment. Crespi is a fellow Del Rey member and Catholic school in Encino. Notre Dame has an enrollment of 552 boys and 527 girls, and Crespi has 630 boys. Both are four-year schools.

The decision resulted from what school officials called an intolerable level of vandalism and "un-Christian behavior" that they say accompanies the 15-year-old rivalry.

"Athletics are not that important that we act toward each other like we're not even Christians," Miller said. "There has been vandalism on both sides and because of the cost to guard our campuses we want a cooling-off period so people can forget a rivalry that has gotten out of hand."

Miller cited an incident last year in which obscenities were burned into the lawn at Notre Dame. The cost to replace the grass was $3,000. For the week of this season's Crespi-Notre Dame game, the school hired two security guards at a cost of $1,400, Miller said. She also said that two Crespi students carrying paint cans were caught on the Notre Dame campus the week of the football game before they could "do any damage."

Crespi Athletic Director Paul Muff, who had arranged nonleague football and basketball games with Notre Dame for next season before the rivalry was dropped, disagreed with Notre Dame's assessment of the vandalism problem.

"I think those statements are a slap in the face to people at both schools who have made efforts to make it a clean rivalry between two compatible Catholic schools," he said. "In the past five years the problems haven't been that great. In fact, they've probably decreased. We've developed a cooperative relationship with the Notre Dame coaches.

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