Notre Dame football: Finding the right combo of brains, brawn

SBT Correspondent

For many years, there has been the notion that Notre Dame couldn’t win consistently because its academic standards were too high. Recently, however, Stanford came along and won big, Notre Dame made it to the national title game last year, and Vanderbilt and Duke are enjoying renaissances.

So can the two concepts co-exist and produce sustainable winning football programs? Is the notion that Notre Dame’s standards are too high overrated?

In order to combine brains and brawn, universities must find the right coach and the right system that fit smart players. Furthermore, the coach must be fully committed to developing players. Enter coaches such as Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw (Stanford), Brian Kelly (Notre Dame), and David Cutcliffe (Duke).

“I want tough gentlemen,” Kelly said this week. “Tough guys on the field, gentlemen off the field. We are trying to build that on a day-to-day basis.”

Perhaps equally as important as having the right coach is updating academic standards to allow for more aggressive recruiting. For teams like Notre Dame and Stanford, mediocrity on the football field and the accelerated recruiting calendar helped nudge them into more advanced recruiting efforts.

During my recruitment out of high school, Stanford would not offer anyone until that recruit got accepted by the university. Former Stanford and then ND coach Tyrone Willingham did it like Stanford (used to do) and waited until the athlete was accepted.

At Notre Dame, the switch started with Charlie Weis. Weis was able to offer and accept players that Willingham was not allowed to recruit. Now, the recruiting process is sped up. Coaches are able to offer and accept verbal agreements dependent on the athlete passing the SAT/ACT.

It is also important that the whole university is committed to having and creating a successful football program. For example, when David Cutcliffe arrived at Duke, there was not an indoor facility or a full-size practice field (only 50 yards). That, however, has since changed.

Also, at Stanford, the stadium was re-done to better fit the program’s needs. Lastly, at Notre Dame, new practice fields, a new weight room and a new locker room have all been added.

Full university commitment in all aspects is required, perhaps more so for “academic” football programs than others.

It may not be what people want to hear, but not every athlete who plays football for Notre Dame is some sort of brilliant scholar, and many have made huge mistakes off the field. Also, it’s not fair to say every kid at every other school is an idiot criminal.

Sweeping generalizations are necessary in order for a moral high ground argument to be made. The worst kid in the world can and often does succeed in a program that has specific rules, emphasizes morality and preaches academic achievements.

It can be all too easy for the Notre Dame community to reference the fact that the majority of Notre Dame players are of high integrity — as if players can’t be good guys and good football players at the same time. They can, and they are.

Remember, these athletes are 17-21 year-olds. They grow up in college. If these athletes get put in places with the right priorities, the right coach, and a university that supports its football program, they will mature into the type of player/person that breeds a balance of brains and brawn, much like the current recipe at Stanford and Notre Dame. Go Irish!

In addition to his weekly column, former Notre Dame quarterback Evan Sharpley previews upcoming games each Friday at 7:50 a.m. on WSBT’s JT In The Morning Show (960 AM and 96.1 FM). On Mondays, Sharpley co-hosts WSBT’s Notre Dame Football Final, which airs from 9-10 a.m. He’ll also be an occasional contributor to WSBT’s Weekday SportsBeat and Gameday SportsBeat radio programs. He serves as the director of fitness at the Eastlake Athletic Club in Elkhart.

Stanford's head coach David Shaw prepare to run on the field with his team prior to an NCAA college football game against California in Stanford, Calif., Saturday, Nov. 23, 2013. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)