An Athlete's Journey Through the Sixties to the Age of Academic Capitalism
Allen L. Sack, and with a Foreword by Ara Parseghian
An Athlete's Journey Through the Sixties to the Age of Academic Capitalism
Allen L. Sack, and with a Foreword by Ara Parseghian
“Allen Sack has lived the dream and yet seen the nightmares of college sport. Understanding the demands upon athletes who also want educations, he seeks intercollegiate reform through athletes’ rights.”
- Table of Contents
- Sample Chapters
Watch an interview with Allen Sack about this topic on Conversations from Penn State.
A leader among faculty fighting back has been Allen Sack, a co-founder of the Drake Group whose writings and public appearances, including work as an expert witness, have gained him wide recognition as an outspoken advocate for athletic reform. This book brings together in a compelling way both his personal story of life as a highly recruited athlete out of high school and a football player at Notre Dame under legendary coach Ara Parseghian and his fight, since then, as a scholar-activist against what he calls the “academic capitalism” of the system under current NCAA rules.
Sack distinguishes his own position, as an advocate of athletes’ rights, from the reformist stance of NCAA President Myles Brand, who believes that commercialized sport and education can peacefully coexist, and the “intellectual elitist” position of people like William Dowling, who would like to see big-time college sports kicked off campus altogether. It is a battle with high stakes for all concerned, not least the athletes whose exploitation by the system has been the motivating force for Sack’s own campaign, now stretching over several decades.
“Allen Sack has lived the dream and yet seen the nightmares of college sport. Understanding the demands upon athletes who also want educations, he seeks intercollegiate reform through athletes’ rights.”
“In Counterfeit Amateurs, Allen Sack craftily integrates his own experience as a high school and college (Notre Dame) football player with the larger story about the professionalization and perversion of intercollegiate athletics. The result is a compelling and enlightening tale about what has gone wrong and what can be done about it. Frankly, I couldn’t put the book down.”
“Allen Sack’s engaging memoir is also a history of the efforts to reform big-time college sports over the past thirty years. Some day, readers of this book will wonder how anyone ever disagreed with him.”
“Exploitation, hypocrisy, duplicity are harsh words yet precisely describe the workings of the NCAA and its member schools in their treatment of college revenue athletes, the young men and women upon whose backs this multibillion dollar college revenue sports empire rests. It is America’s modern plantation.
Allen Sack has been the athlete’s champion his entire working life. His personal story, beginning as a Notre Dame athletic scholarship football player, and his focused, patient, passionate efforts to change this shameful reality of the American sports scene are a terrific story. Counterfeit Amateurs explicitly lays out who the ‘bad guys’ are, how greed tears to shreds academic values, how the athletes are getting shafted, and what needs to be done.”
“Allen thanks me in the book for suggesting that he write Counterfeit Amateurs—a memoir of his football playing experiences at Notre Dame and also a critique of the lamentable state of college sports. After I made the suggestion, I wondered whether he could pull it off, bringing these two different topics together and writing a good book. I am happy to report that he has written a superb book, lively and fascinating, and one that both entertains and educates. He writes about his amazing experiences at Notre Dame and he also convinces the reader that the college sports system is irretrievably broken. Moreover, he has a plausible solution to repair it. Everyone interested in college sports—participants, fans, and observers—should read this book.”
“Counterfeit Amateurs: An Athlete’s Journey through the Sixties to the Age of Academic Capitalism is an important book for anyone participating [in] . . . or studying big-time intercollegiate athletics. It is rare to find a book that seamlessly combines personal experiences, interviews with prominent college sport practitioners, and academic research into a forum that is both comprehensive and understandable. Though Sack’s answers to the problems currently facing intercollegiate athletics may often not be ‘popular,’ there is no doubt that he thoroughly conveys his understanding of recent NCAA history and the importance of each issue to the book’s readers.”
Allen L. Sack is Professor of Management and Director of the Institute for Sports Management at the University of New Haven. He is co-author of College Athletes for Hire: The Evolution and Legacy of the NCAA's Amateur Myth (1998).
Foreword by Ara Parseghian
Part I: College Football in the Sixties
1. Playing Football in Ara's Era
2. Scholastic Sports as a Pipeline to the Pros
3. The Game of the Century
Part II: Linking Sports and Politics
4. Politics, Protest, and the Athletic Revolution
5. Laying the Groundwork for Professional College Sports
6. Taking a Stand at Fort Apache
Part III: Shouting from the Ivory Tower
7. Building an Industry on Athletes' Backs
8. Fighting for Market Share in the 1990s
9. Inside the Billion-Dollar Beast
10. College Sports in the Age of Academic Capitalism
Playing Football in Ara’s Era
I played my last football game for Notre Dame in 1966 against Southern California at the Los Angeles Coliseum. Since then, big-time collegiate sports has morphed into a multibillion-dollar industry. Although rampant commercialism jumps out as the most obvious change in college sports since the sixties, changes in NCAA rules that have blurred the distinction between amateurs and professionals have also profoundly altered the college game. Because my personal athletic experiences serve as a point of reference for comparing college sports, past and present, I have decided to begin my story with a description of what it was like to play football for Ara Parseghian in the 1960s, and to be a student during that turbulent decade. As is the case for anyone who engages in highly competitive sports, I had my share of both success and bitter disappointment.
My Fall from Grace
The most disappointing moment of my athletic career occurred in preseason football practice at the beginning of my sophomore year at Notre Dame. The team had already endured two weeks of double sessions in the stifling heat and humidity so common in northern Indiana in the summer. The Darwinian struggle for survival of the fittest had already given players a good idea of where they stood in the football pecking order. I knew that things were not going well for me on the playing field, and that I would probably be at the bottom of the coaches’ depth chart. Nonetheless, I was stunned by an announcement made just before our nightly team meeting.
Just after dinner, John Murphy, an assistant coach under Ara Parseghian, called about twenty-five players aside in a room just outside the main dining hall. He got right to the point. None of the players assembled in that room, he said, would ever dress for a Notre Dame football game. Our job, he said, would be an important one nonetheless. As members of the preparation teams, we would attend practice, run the defenses and offenses of upcoming opponents, and try to simulate real game conditions. I noted that he did not equivocate. He did not say that we would probably not play for Notre Dame. He said that we would not play. I was devastated. I had honestly never realized that some players who receive scholarships never even dress for a game.
To explain my free fall from a highly touted All-State quarterback from Pennsylvania to a defensive end position on what players humorously referred to as the “shit squad,” I need to backtrack to the beginning of my freshman year. In 1963 the football program at Notre Dame had fallen on very hard times. Between 1959 and 1962, Joe Kuharich compiled the worst record in Notre Dame history by winning only seventeen of forty games, for a winning percentage of .425. Hugh Devore, who had been freshman coach under Kuharich, replaced him as head coach in 1963, with the understanding that he would serve only as an “interim coach” until a full-time coach could be hired.
Devore recruited a freshman class with depth at every position. I was one of seven quarterbacks in the freshman class, and it seemed to me that many of the players I talked to, regardless of position, had been All-State or even All-American athletes in high school. Alan Page, a high school All-American and future inductee into the National Football League Hall of Fame, left a lasting impression on me by carrying five or six glasses of milk back from the milk machine in the dining hall all at once. He was wearing one of the green tee shirts that had been issued to all of us. His massive forearms, imposing six-foot-five-inch frame, and the air of self-confidence he projected left no doubt in my mind that he was destined for stardom. Many of the other players were equally impressive. This was clearly the big leagues.
Even though freshmen were not eligible for varsity competition back then, we were still expected to be on campus a week or so before other students. No sooner had we arrived than the coaches sent us to the stadium to get equipment we would need for a scrimmage with the varsity the next day. I knew that I had come to Notre Dame to play football, but I had not expected to be playing before my bags were unpacked. The equipment manager, a cantankerous older man with silver-gray hair, called Mac, looked as if he had been around since the Rockne era. Not unlike an army quartermaster dealing with recruits who had just arrived at boot camp, Mac made us feel privileged to have equipment at all, let alone equipment that fit.
We were all given heavy green jerseys, apparel far more conducive to weather in late fall than the dog days of summer. Some of the lucky players received helmets comparable to what they might have worn in high school. Others had to make do with leather models not unlike the ones I had seen in pictures of the Four Horsemen. Mac had no sympathy for players who did not like what they were given, often subjecting them to verbal abuse for questioning his judgment. Joe Smyth, a lineman from the Philadelphia area, ended up with an old leather helmet that earned him the nick name “Big Red” after Red Grange, the legendary University of Illinois football player from the 1920s. I lucked out in the helmet category but ended up with pants that kept sliding down below my hip pads.
Dressed in antiquated equipment and with no idea of what to expect, we marched out to the practice field the next day to be used as defensive cannon fodder for Notre Dame’s varsity offense. I am sure that the veteran players saw this as an opportunity to give the freshmen, many of whom had arrived on campus with inflated images of themselves, a much-needed reality check. My first taste of big-time college football came when Bob Meeker, a 240-pound offensive tackle, hit me so hard that I was dazed for a couple of seconds. I was playing safety. I saw a running play developing off tackle, came up to fill the hole, and was pounded by Meeker instead. That was only one of several hard hits I took that day. I survived this rite of passage and left the field feeling confident that I was physically tough enough to compete against players like these.
Throughout the fall, my performance as a freshman quarterback was inconsistent. Some days I felt a little like the cocky young quarterback I had been in high school. A week before the Navy game, I was assigned the task of playing Navy’s All-American quarterback and future Heisman Trophy winner, Roger Staubach, on the game preparation team. I did well, getting a few compliments from coaches. For the most part, though, I felt my confidence slowly slipping away. In high school, pass receivers I had thrown to for years had developed an instinctive ability to run under my passes, even when they were not perfectly on target. I missed these players, one of whom had accepted a scholarship to the University of Illinois. Everything was different, from the way the ball was snapped from center to the way I had to plant my feet when throwing a pass. Adjusting to a whole new system, in addition to handling the pressure of being at Notre Dame, was making it difficult for me to do things that had been second nature in high school. My performance suffered.
At the end of the fall I was still viewed as one of the top three freshman quarterbacks. But the fact that freshmen were ineligible for varsity competition, plus Hugh Devore’s laid-back approach to freshman player development, made it difficult to evaluate player ability. The athletic demands on freshmen in the Devore era were not excessive, thus making the transition to college life a lot easier from an academic standpoint. However, this lack of systematic attention to the freshmen program may also have reflected a certain neglect of the entire football program during this period. Not surprisingly, Devore’s team finished the 1963 season with a disappointing 2–7–0 record, one of the worst in Notre Dame history.
Easing into Student Life
My future as a Notre Dame quarterback remained uncertain in the fall of 1963. My life off the playing field, however, was exactly what I’d expected to find in college. Because there were no “jock” dormitories at Notre Dame, I lived in an intellectually exciting environment, surrounded by students, some of them athletes, with a wide variety of academic interests and life experiences. I had grown up in a Lutheran family, but I was skeptical of all religions by the time I arrived at Notre Dame. Thus I constantly debated topics ranging from how Catholics can be so certain that their moral principles are the only valid ones, to broad philosophical questions such as whether God exists and how that can be proved. Over my next four years at Notre Dame, the topics of debate would expand to race, politics, social theory, and war.
I cannot imagine entering college at a time of greater intellectual, social, and political upheaval. In 1962 the nation stood on the brink of nuclear war as President Kennedy took a stand against the Soviet Union in the Cuban missile crisis. In August 1963—when I was working out to get in shape for freshman football at Notre Dame—thousands flocked to Washington, D.C., for an interracial rally at the Lincoln Memorial, where Martin Luther King delivered his memorable “I have a dream” speech. During a geology class at Notre Dame on November 22, 1963, my professor announced that President Kennedy had been shot. The students immediately knelt down with the professor and prayed. In the evening, just after the assassination, I learned the Hail Mary while standing in the rain repeating it with more than a thousand Notre Dame students and others who had gathered at the Grotto to mourn the president’s death.
My freshman dormitory, Breen-Phillips Hall, was located across a small roadway from the old field house. In the spring semester, Alabama governor George Wallace, a staunch supporter of racial segregation, gave a talk in that field house. In 1963 Wallace blocked a black student, Vivian Malone, from entering a classroom building at the University of Alabama. My friend Chris Siegler remembers a student from Kentucky who lived in his dormitory proudly parading in the hallway on the day of Wallace’s speech, waving a Confederate flag. He also remembers being with students who protested the event by walking out when Wallace began to speak. When the speech was over, Jim Snowden and Richard Arrington, two black players on our team, approached Wallace’s limousine, which was parked just outside my dorm. Snowden pounded on the hood while others looked on. This protest was a precursor of the revolt of black athletes that would explode on campuses at the end of the decade.
Raymond Fleming, a black freshman, describes the Wallace visit as one of his most vivid memories during his four years at Notre Dame. Fleming helped plan the demonstration against Wallace. He participated in the march around the building but did not support disrupting Wallace’s speech inside the field house. What struck him at the time, and still disturbs him today, were the hostile glares and comments directed at protestors by many of the students entering the field house. “In 1964,” says Fleming, “it was difficult to get Notre Dame’s highly conservative student body to take a strong public stand in favor of Civil Rights.” There were very few political activists on campus at that time. By the end of the decade, however, Notre Dame’s president, Reverend Theodore Hesburgh, found himself and his university under siege by student radicals, and made national headlines for the strong position he took in favor of law and order on college campuses.
In 1963 the gap between athletes and other students was not nearly as large as it is today. Average entrance requirements for athletes may have been lower than for other students, but not by much. A comprehensive study comparing the academic performance of athletes and other students over the past four decades was published in 2000. The authors of that study, called The Game of Life: College Sports and Academic Values, found that even at the most competitive academic institutions in the country, including Notre Dame, the gap in admissions requirements and other measures of academic performance for athletes and other students has broadened significantly since the late 1950s. In recent years, the gap between female athletes and other female students also appears to be growing, as women have adopted the same commercial and professional model as men.
When I was at Notre Dame, NCAA rules barring freshman football players from varsity competition not only sent a clear message that education was the primary reason for going to college, it gave athletes a chance to adjust to the academic demands of a fine university. I finished the first semester of my freshman year with a grade point average in the eighty-fifth percentile of the freshmen class. The demands of football and my own desire to excel on the playing field diverted my attention from the classroom. At the same time, though, the freshman ineligibility rule was a constant reminder that education had top priority at Notre Dame.
Notre Dame had no courses reserved specifically for athletes in 1963. I would be less than honest, however, if I denied that I sought out professors who had reputations for easy grading. I was a pretty good student, and I was genuinely excited about some of my classes, but I also engaged in behavior on occasion that played into the “dumb jock” stereotype. One course I took in the first semester was taught by a priest who was known among students as “88 Brennan.” I did minimal work in his course on logic and language but, not surprisingly, received a B. Jake Kline, my freshman math professor, was known as “99 Kline” because he gave nothing but A’s. That I received a B from him says something about my lack of effort in his class. Over the next four years I often took academic shortcuts, doing just what was necessary to get by. Sometimes, though, I actually followed professors back to their offices because I wanted to discuss issues raised in a lecture.
An experience in my freshman composition class highlighted the differences between the lessons learned in sports and those taught in the classroom. Several weeks into the semester, the professor assigned a short essay by E. B. White, a writer for the New Yorker who would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize. The professor and I had a major difference of opinion about what White was trying to say, and the professor brought the matter to closure by asserting that I was simply wrong. I am sure that many students have found themselves in this position, especially in humanities classes, where writers’ intentions are seldom entirely clear. One advantage I had in this instance was that E. B. White, unlike Shakespeare or Milton, was still alive.
After class I decided to contact E. B. White directly to determine once and for all what he was really trying to say in his essay. I told my classmates what I intended to do and they recommended that I go to the library to find his mailing address. I found it and wrote a letter explaining the situation, never expecting to receive a response. Several weeks later, much to my amazement—and to the surprise of my friends in Breen-Phillips Hall—I found a letter from E. B. White in my mailbox. In his short, typewritten note, replete with strikeover corrections of typos, which gave the letter an air of authenticity, White said he empathized with students in my position and appreciated that I took his work so seriously. He then gave a brief explanation of his essay that came much closer to my understanding than to my professor’s. I took the letter to class the next day, and much to my professor’s credit, he read it to the entire class. In fact, he complimented me for the effort I had made.
After that episode, I became increasingly aware that I inhabited two very different worlds at Notre Dame. In my academic world, thinking critically was highly regarded and often rewarded. In this arena, students were expected to question, probe, and analyze, rather than to blindly accept what they were told. Although Notre Dame was a conservative place where ideas that challenged the moral authority of the Catholic Church were often suspect, many professors actually enjoyed having students who had strong opinions about issues raised in class and who critically evaluated ideas and beliefs most people seldom question. In time I came to love the give-and-take of intellectual debates, many of which took place in the dormitories with my friends.
In my other world, the world of college football, there was little time or room for intellectual debate. I learned very quickly to keep my mouth shut and never question the authority of the coach. Athletes were expected to be intelligent—I knew no dumb jocks at Notre Dame—but the important lessons of football, such as self-discipline, respect for authority, maintaining poise under pressure, sacrificing for the good of the team, and striving to succeed no matter what the odds, did not require being immersed in the “life of the mind.” During my years at Notre Dame, I moved back and forth between the athletic and intellectual subcultures on campus, often feeling too much like a jock to be taken seriously as an intellectual, and too intellectual to feel entirely at home in the Spartan world of athletics.
The Beginning of Ara’s Era
Ara Parseghian signed a contract to become Notre Dame’s new head football coach in mid-December 1963. When he finally arrived on campus in early January, the excitement was palpable. Notre Dame had finally hired a coach who could possibly return the Irish to their former days of glory. When Ara was introduced between the halves of a basketball game played at home, the students cheered wildly for at least ten minutes. He received a similarly warm reception when he gave a brief talk from the porch of Sorin Hall on the main campus. There was no mistaking that Notre Dame had hired a charismatic coach who could energize a crowd. Whether he could win games remained to be seen.
He certainly had the background and experience necessary to turn things around. He had played college football at Miami of Ohio. He was later drafted by the Cleveland Browns, where he played for several years for Paul Brown, a coach for whom Ara had a great deal of respect. After an injury cut short his professional playing career, Ara returned to Miami of Ohio as an assistant coach under Woody Hayes. When Hayes went to Ohio State as head coach, Ara stepped in as head coach at Miami, compiling an impressive 39–6–1 record over five years. He was then hired by Northwestern to revive a program that had ceased to be competitive in the Big Ten Conference. He quickly returned the Wildcats to respectability. His four straight victories over Notre Dame during the Kuharich era may have been what gave him an edge when vying for the Notre Dame job.
I was not sure how to react to this coaching change. I had never heard of Parseghian and, more important, Northwestern was one of the few schools that had shown no interest in me as a high school recruit. Duffy Daugherty, Michigan State’s famous coach, had contacted me a number of times. When I scored my one-thousandth point in basketball during my senior year in high school, he sent me a congratulatory telegram. Coaches from the University of Michigan had offered to fly me to Ann Arbor for a campus visit; I was not interested. Coaches from the University of Illinois, another Big Ten school, visited my high school and took me out to lunch. Yet Ara Parseghian, the man about to take over as Notre Dame’s head coach, had not so much as sent me a postcard.
Any misgivings I might have had about Ara Parseghian were quickly dispelled after his first meeting with the team. I had never met a person with Ara’s ability to communicate and inspire. It is no exaggeration to say that the players sat spellbound as he laid out his strategy for how we would win the national championship. I have often told people that after that first meeting, Ara could have told us to jump off the top of Notre Dame Stadium, and many players might have seriously considered it. He had a clear vision of where the program was headed and the charisma to make the rest of us believe in it. In the weeks to come, he also demonstrated organizational skills that would have served him well in a military campaign. He left absolutely nothing to chance. Efficiency and time management were the hallmarks of Ara’s system. The stopwatch became ubiquitous.
On the first day of spring practice, I witnessed how, under effective leadership, a football team can be transformed into a finely tuned machine. When I walked through the locker-room door, I saw a large felt board on my immediate left to which nametags for every player on the team were affixed. The names were arranged in columns by playing position. The first two columns had gold markers above them, indicating first-team offensive and defensive players. The players assigned to the next two columns, identified with the color blue, were on the second-team offense or defense. The fifth and sixth columns were green and red, respectively, representing players on the offensive and defensive preparation teams. The preparation teams ran the offenses and defenses of upcoming opponents during practice to give the starting teams an idea of what to expect.
Some of my friends and I remarked on how closely the depth chart corresponded to our recorded times in the sprints we had run several weeks earlier in pre-spring workouts. I was disappointed but not surprised to find my name in the column designated for the green preparation team. Several other quarterbacks were also in that column. After locating my name on the depth chart, I proceeded to the printed practice schedule that was taped on the wall just below a bronze plaque inscribed with Rockne’s famous “Win one for the Gipper” speech. This daily schedule noted every drill, every scrimmage, and every possible action that would occur in practice broken down into precise time intervals. During my years at Notre Dame, these schedules were followed with clocklike precision.
My next stop after studying the practice schedule was my locker. The assignment of lockers was socially stratified to match the depth chart, with gold teams toward the front of the locker room and prep teams in the back. Having a locker right up front was a sign of prestige. I am sure this was part of Ara’s strategy for motivating players by rewarding excellence. When I went to get my equipment, I saw that things had been upgraded substantially since Ara’s arrival. Helmets, pads, shoes—everything worn in practice and in games was now state of the art. Equipment managers and trainers in Ara’s system were expected to be as efficient and professional as the players and the coaching staff.
In the late nineteenth century, an industrial engineer by the name of Frederick Winslow Taylor developed a system called scientific management to increase worker productivity. Ara must have read his books. Practice always started exactly when the posted schedule said it would. Specialists like kickers, punters, and centers who hiked the ball for them had to be on the field thirty minutes earlier than the rest of us. Ara personally used a stopwatch to time the interval between the snap of the ball and when it was kicked or punted. Every movement was analyzed to eliminate wasted motion. When regular practice started, time continued to be managed efficiently. At intervals perfectly consistent with the schedule posted on the locker-room wall, managers would blast their handheld horns to indicate that it was time to run to another field, another drill, or some other scheduled activity.
Time intervals devoted to conditioning and the kicking game were always scheduled at the beginning of practice. After these, Ara would take his place on a high tower at the center of our practice area to get a better view of practice. He reminded me a little of Napoleon, who would take a position on high ground to watch the progress of a battle. From his perch, Ara could watch players in gold, blue, green, and red jerseys sprinting from one skirmish to another, horns blowing and bodies colliding. No player or coach escaped his gaze. It was not uncommon for Ara to yell down to assistant coaches when players were not doing their job, rather than yell directly at the players. Like loyal lieutenants, the coaches got the troops in order.
After practice, coaches would work late into the evening evaluating player performances on a given day. It was not uncommon for a player who was on the gold team one day to be demoted to the prep team the next. Movement from the bottom up also occurred. Major scrimmages were filmed, and “report cards” rating each player’s performance were taped in our lockers the next day. There was no grade inflation on the football field. Ara’s system was meritocracy in its purest form. The coaches used to say that it was impossible for any player, even one at the bottom of the chart, to hide during practice. Every player’s contribution to the team was closely evaluated. The goal was to use every human and material resource available to maximize efficiency.
In that first spring practice under Ara, my dream of playing quarterback for Notre Dame began to slip away. My lack of speed was part of the problem, but not dealing well with stress was probably what killed me. There is no other way to explain why my tight spirals turned into wounded ducks when Ara was watching, or why on one occasion when he told me to take a snap from center and rifle a pass out to a wide receiver, the ball literally reached the receiver on one bounce. Ara tested me on a number of occasions, giving me every chance to prove myself. I was simply too immature to take the pressure. My quarterbacking career came to an ignominious end one afternoon when Ara totally lost patience with me after I pivoted the wrong way on an off tackle play that I should have had down pat by then. I remember him shouting, “Sack, get off the offensive field and I do not want to see you back here again.” As I changed into my red defensive jersey, I figured there was nowhere to go but up.
Fighting to Regain Some Self-Respect
This brings me back to the fateful meeting at the beginning of my sophomore year, when Coach Murphy announced to a group of us that we would never wear a Notre Dame uniform and play in a game. Even after my disastrous spring, I had hoped that I would at least be able to play defensive back. Coach Murphy’s announcement dashed all my hopes. Coach Paul Shoults saw no role for me in the defensive backfield, and quarterback was out of the question. I had no strategy for how to deal with this setback. What I did know was that I would refuse to take any abuse on the practice field and that I would do whatever was necessary to preserve my dignity. I refused to be a tackle dummy.
Early in the 1964 season I got a break from one of the coaches who still had some faith in me. During practice one day, Joe Yonto, our defensive line coach, called me over and said he wanted me to try playing defensive end. I was six feet three inches tall and only 193 pounds. Nonetheless I was as fast as, if not faster than, many of the linemen, and the thought of beating up on quarterbacks made me feel a lot better about not being one. I was now a member of the “red raiders,” the name we gave to the defensive prep team that wore the red jerseys. And I was in a position where I knew I could improve over time. When Coach Yonto started grabbing me by the face mask and slapping me on the helmet like he did the other linemen, I knew I had found a home.
While I was making my transition to defensive end, the Fighting Irish were returning to glory beyond anyone’s expectations. We were seven weeks into the season and still undefeated. Ara’s system had made us the number-one-ranked college team in the nation. In a stroke of management genius, Ara had chosen John Huarte, a third-string quarterback on Devore’s 1963 team, to be his starting quarterback. Huarte ended up winning the Heisman Trophy. Ara converted running back Jack Snow into a wide receiver, where he developed into a consensus All-American by season’s end. The starting defensive line was composed of four sophomores who had come in with my freshman class. Parseghian’s rational organization of players and resources was moving Notre Dame into contention for a national championship, just as he had predicted at our first team meeting the previous spring.
As the season progressed, I began to gain confidence in my new defensive end position. As strange as it may sound, some of my best performances during this period were in what players humorously called the “Toilet Bowls.” Every Monday, players like me, who did not dress for games, and those who did dress but had not played very much, were required to stay out at practice later than other players to engage in a full-scale scrimmage. The name “Toilet Bowl” derived from the fact that many of the players participating were on the preparation teams, otherwise known as the “shit squads.” Although we joked about them, these Toilet Bowls were deadly serious business because they provided the coaches with a mechanism for developing younger players. It was during these scrimmages that I was able to demonstrate that I had the skill and determination to play football at Notre Dame.
I don’t know if it was a tackle I made in practice or an exceptional scrimmage I had on a Monday night, but something finally moved the coaches to put me on the list of players dressing for a home game, a nationally televised contest against Michigan State. The experience was one I could never forget. When I arrived at the stadium on game day, my helmet was freshly painted and my uniform was in my locker with the pads already inserted. When I put on the lightweight gold pants and blue jersey bearing the number 88, I actually found myself staring at them, finding it hard to believe that they were actually on my body. I cannot remember much about the actual game. I do remember sitting on the bench late in the fourth quarter and hearing Ara’s voice yelling something like, “Sack, where’s Sack? He wants to play football.” In an instant I had my helmet on and was running onto the field to replace Don Gmitter at left defensive end.
Notre Dame was leading 34–7 with only a minute and thirty seconds left on the clock. On the second or third play after entering the game, I came across the line full steam at the exact moment that the quarterback was rolling out toward my side of the field. I hit him so hard that I am sure the sound of contact could be heard in the stands. The time ran out after that play. When I suddenly realized what had just happened, I was euphoric. I remember going back to my room afterward and lying on my bed, staring at the ceiling and finding it hard to believe that I had just dressed for a Notre Dame game and made a tackle on national television. The following Monday, I ran into a professor I knew as I walked across campus. He congratulated me for playing in the game and added that it was an honor just to wear the uniform. I had to agree.
The last game of the year was an away game against Southern California, so I listened to it on the radio while home for Thanksgiving. Notre Dame was undefeated going into the game and would lock up the national championship with a win over the Trojans. With two minutes left in the game, Notre Dame was leading 17–13. It looked as if Ara was about to finish his first year at Notre Dame undefeated. What happened next was tragic, at least from the perspective of Notre Dame fans. Southern California took possession of the ball on its own forty-yard line. Then two long passes advanced the ball to Notre Dame’s three-yard line. With very little time remaining, Southern Cal went in for the score, beating the Irish 20–17. A dream season had ended in bitter disappointment, just seconds short of a national championship.
No sooner had the season ended than I began preparing for the next one. I had to get bigger, faster, and stronger and do it quickly. I understand why steroids are such a temptation for modern-day athletes. In my era, that was not an option. Over the summer I lifted weights and worked out constantly, managing to return in the fall of 1965 weighing 215 pounds. I made the traveling team and started my first game for Notre Dame against the University of Pittsburgh. I broke my jaw in that game, ruining my chances of earning my first varsity letter. Notre Dame, with Bill Zlock as quarterback, ended the season with a respectable 7–2–1 record. The coaches immediately set their sights on 1966, and another run at the national championship.
Finding Time to Be a Student
Although I started only a handful of games while playing for Notre Dame, I often felt totally engulfed by college football. I knew that going to class was important, but my workday really began when I walked through the door at Notre Dame Stadium, checked out the practice schedule, and began putting on my pads. It was possible to cut corners in the classroom, but coaches demanded a total commitment to excellence on the practice and playing fields. From the time I entered the stadium until I arrived back at my dorm, I was part of an athletic system finely tuned for producing a national championship team. Even in the off season (spring and summer), football remained at center stage. For me, it was a challenge to keep much physical or mental energy in reserve to concentrate on schoolwork.
Even with the awesome demands of football, however, I always viewed myself as a student first, and I felt like an integral part of the student body. I did not need the hyphenated term “student-athlete” to remind me why I was in college. In the 1960s there were still NCAA policies in place that served as constant reminders that athletes were students, regardless of the demands of their sport. As noted above, for instance, freshman were not allowed to participate in varsity competition because the university viewed us as students and wanted us to have time to adjust to the demands of academic life. Many athletes did not like the rule, and many coaches, including Ara, opposed it. Nonetheless, the message it conveyed was clear. Education came first.
Freshman ineligibility worked for me. When I began my struggle for athletic respectability, the time and attention I gave to coursework decreased significantly. When I finally got my priorities straight in my senior year, it was my solid classroom performance as a freshman that allowed me to make an academic comeback. Today’s freshmen football players, many of whom are far less prepared for college-level work than I was, are allowed to play their first game on national television before they have even attended a class. I am not alone in supporting freshman ineligibility. Some of the finest coaches in collegiate sports history, including former basketball coaches Dean Smith, John Wooden, and Terry Holland, bemoan the fact that the NCAA abandoned this policy in the 1970s.
Another NCAA policy that made it clear that athletes were students first was the rule that allowed four-year scholarships that could not be taken away because of injury or poor athletic performance, instead of the one-year scholarships that are awarded today. When I was being recruited in high school, coaches were able to assure my parents and me that my athletic grant could not be taken away because of injury or poor performance on the athletic field. Only through failure to maintain satisfactory progress in the classroom could I lose my financial aid. Again the message came through loud and clear that athletes were valued as students, not merely because they could put money in the coffers of the athletic department. When I played, athletic scholarships were educational grants, not contracts for hire.
I am certain that Ara and his staff had serious doubts about my ever playing football for Notre Dame. My freshman year had been a disaster. Yet because they were stuck with me for four years, they had to use their coaching skills to help me realize my full potential. Ara was a strong supporter of four-year scholarships. “My position,” says Ara, “was that it was a four-year deal and it wasn’t anything other than that, even though the rules changed in 1973. I have seen kids come in as freshmen who are awkward, but by the time they are seniors they look like Greek gods. Maturity is important, and even if you think the kid may be a mistake, they may end up being far better than you expected.” Ara also feels that conditioning the renewal of athletic grants on performance damages the image of universities as educational institutions.
When Coach Murphy called the small group of ballplayers together to inform us that we would never dress for a Notre Dame game, I felt like I had been punched in the stomach. I also felt that I had let down the people in my hometown who wanted so much for me to succeed. But the thought of transferring out of Notre Dame to play football elsewhere never entered my mind. Coaches did not pressure me to transfer to another institution, as often happens today. My scholarship was secure, and the coaching staff was committed to making me as good an athlete as I could possibly be. College football was extremely important to me, but unlike so many of today’s players, I was not in college primarily to play football.
Compared with corporate-driven college sports in the new millennium, my early experiences at Notre Dame seem quaint. We played a ten-game schedule and did not attend bowl games. Playing games on weekdays was incomprehensible, and education had not yet been reduced to an exercise in maintaining athletic eligibility. The lessons and values of the gridiron were often quite different from those associated with critical inquiry and intellectual growth. Yet athletes had not yet been transformed into skilled specialists, cut off from mainstream college life and receiving spoon-fed lessons in elaborate, athletically controlled counseling centers. There was still a clear line between collegiate and professional sports. Although big-time college sports in that era had its share of scandals, the NCAA was holding on, albeit tenuously, to the amateur traditions it had espoused since its founding in 1905.
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