Having spent most of my undergraduate years in Southeastern Conference towns, I have never been a fan of Notre Dame football. But on Jan. 7, I will be rooting for the Fighting Irish to whip their SEC opponent in this season's Bowl Championship Series game.
I will be rooting for Notre Dame because the university is doing what all schools with football teams should be doing: caring as much about its players' academic success as it does about winning on the field.
These priorities consistently pay off for everyone involved.
Notre Dame's football program is the first to be ranked No. 1 in the BCS standings while having the nation's highest graduation rate. This is a great accomplishment when big-time college football is rightly being accused of lowering or ignoring academic standards for winning seasons.
The fighting Irish's most recent NCAA graduation rate was 97 percent, 20 points higher than the other top BCS programs. I learned about this achievement in a Chronicle of Higher Education interview with the Rev. John I. Jenkins, Notre Dame's president.
In my view, all college presidents should heed Jenkins' advice and study his observations.
He said that on-the-field and off-the-field success can be seamless if there is "real commitment up and down the line." When recruiting, college coaches must emphasize this approach with high school coaches, school staffs, parents and players. At Notre Dame, once players are on campus, they receive help from a dedicated support staff and professors who see them as students first.
"If all those parts are working — and if you get good kids — then you can do it," Jenkins said.
Brad Wolverton, the Chronicle's interviewer, asked if Notre Dame gives itself an advantage at the outset by recruiting fewer players who will fail academically.
Jenkins acknowledged that some students lack academic preparation to succeed at Notre Dame. It would be unfair, he said, to the student and disadvantageous for the team to bring in those who will fail in the classroom.
"Our admissions staff looks at SATs and preparation, but there is also an element of character," he said. "It's not as much about smartness. It's commitment. If a kid is committed to do the work, that kid, if he has the basic ability, can succeed."
He said a president's personal involvement is the key to the dual success of winning on and off the field: "The role of the president in any area is to just set the tone and expectations, and hire people who buy into the right values and hold them accountable for results. But if your rhetoric is belied by how you reward people and how you hold them accountable, it will be empty."
He said the players' graduation rate is part of the athletic director's compensation package, and the AD has to make sure the coaches understand that high graduation rates are essential.
"Frankly, I don't think it makes much difference what I say to players," Jenkins said. "What makes a difference is what coaches tell them."
The obvious question was asked: Do Fighting Irish players consistently have high graduation rates because they take those mythically easy courses like basket weaving and physical education?
Players take the same rigorous courses other students take, and they have the same majors, Jenkins said. In fact, Notre Dame does not have PE or recreational-development majors. And it is not a fluke that Andrew Hendrix, the quarterback, is a premed major.
Jenkins said he understands public cynicism about college sports, especially lucrative football programs. For too long, too many schools have ignored academic success to win games. He said that if colleges disregard the connection between academic success and winning on the gridiron, they become "a lesser version" of professional sports.
"What makes college athletics interesting is that the kids are students," he said. "That's why it's so important across higher education for us to bring those two things together."
No matter which team puts the most points on the scoreboard Jan. 7 in Miami, the Fighting Irish will be victorious.