Reflecting on Father Hesburgh's impact on the ND sports scene

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Editor’s note: Notre Dame president emeritus Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh died Thursday night, a university spokesman has confirmed. He was 97.

The following is an excerpt from the 2004 book Notre Dame Stadium Stories by Tribune sports writer Eric Hansen in which Hesburgh reflects on his time as ND’s president, his impact on the Irish sports scene and his relationship with late Notre Dame executive vice president Father Edmund P. Joyce.

The sound of the phone ringing was more annoying than alarming at first for the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh on the morning of Sept. 20, 2002.

The Notre Dame president emeritus was enjoying sleeping a little later than usual in his 10-foot-by-12-foot room in Corby Hall, his place of residence for more than half a century. He didn’t even hear the sirens from the ambulance or the commotion in the hallway. He didn’t smell the fear.

The voice on the other end of the phone shook, but the picture was clear. Something terribly wrong had happened to Hesburgh’s right arm in business for so many years and his best friend in life, the Rev. Edmund P. Joyce.

“They found him on the floor in his room,” Hesburgh reflected. “It was a sad thing.”

Joyce, ND’s former executive vice president and 85 years old at the time, had suffered a stroke.

It would be weeks before he could move a foot on the paralyzed side of his body and even longer until he could move his hand. But Hesburgh made a point of visiting the Notre Dame vice president emeritus every day until Joyce’s passing in early May of 2004 and making sure Joyce knew that their bond was as strong as ever.

They would talk about how divergent their political views still are and what wonderful journeys they took together both in endeavors on campus and on working vacations around the world.

They would reminisce about how they rose to the top of the University of Notre Dame leadership in the summer of 1952, when they were both 35 years old, and how they figured they’d serve a six-year term and move on with life. And then they’d laugh that it wasn’t until 1987 that they finally walked away.

“We figured after our six years were up, we’d go back and teach,” Hesburgh said. “It’s like meeting a guy at the tape after he’d just run 100-yard dash and telling him to keep running.”

Former Notre Dame athletic director Gene Corrigan came to admire Joyce and Hesburgh too, for whom he worked seven years in the 1980s.

He had gotten to know Joyce a little bit while Corrigan was serving as Virginia’s athletic director, prior to taking the Notre Dame job. But he had never met Hesburgh. And his first impression of the university president was a lasting one.

“My first meeting with him came during what constituted my job interview,” Corrigan recalled. “Father Hesburgh explained to me that I wouldn’t be making reports to the board of trustees, as I had at Virginia.

“That took me aback, and then he said, ‘If I let you report to them, they’re going to think you work for them. You work for Ned (Father Joyce) and me. And if you don’t do your job, we’ll fire you.’ He said, ‘I don’t want you worried about what other people think about your job. How about that?’ ”

The normally unflappable Corrigan was reverent, moved and knocked back a bit on his heels all at the same time.

“So Father Hesburgh says to me, ‘Do you know all the rules of the NCAA?’

“And I said, ‘Father, nobody knows all the rules, but I understand the principle behind them.’

“And Father Hesburgh said, ‘That’s what I mean. So let me tell you something. If you or any of your people ever violate those rules, you’ll be fired. Period. You’ll be out of here by midnight.’

“And that’s how he was. That’s how he would deal with things. Father Joyce shared that same pride about staying within the rules. He would make the point so strong and so carefully that everyone had that same sort of enthusiasm for not breaking the rules.”

Hesburgh brought that same kind of passion to everything he did — from serving on the U.S. Commission for Civil Rights during four presidential administrations to heading the college athletic reform movement of the 1990s as the co-chairman for the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics to reading three books a week for most of his adult life to playing bridge well and to playing golf poorly.

And to simply being a priest.

“From the time I was old enough to think about the future, I wanted to be a priest,” Hesburgh said. “And that’s all I ever thought about doing. As I grew older, I learned about other careers, but I only wanted to be a priest. And that’s all I want to be today.

“When you’re a priest, you belong to everybody. You do what you can to help everybody. I didn’t aspire to be the university president, but that role allowed me to get jobs in the government, which in turn allowed me to help even more people. But the thing I’m most proud of in my life is simply being a priest.”

Hesburgh grew up with that aspiration in Syracuse, N.Y., the second-oldest of five children and the son of a manager of a plate glass company and a housewife.

Hesburgh, who speaks six languages adeptly and can read eight, graduated from Gregorian University in Rome. He was ordained in 1943, then received his doctorate from Catholic University in Washington, D.C., two years later.

Shortly, thereafter, he arrived at Notre Dame as a Religion teacher. He quickly moved into the Notre Dame administration, becoming executive vice president and chairman in control of the board of athletics. He served in that role for three years before succeeding John J. Cavanaugh as president.

At the time, Hesburgh’s youngest brother, James, was a sophomore at Notre Dame and was said to have some ambivalent feelings about his brother being president.

Notre Dame was enjoying a national success and acclaim in its sports across the board when Hesburgh and Joyce started their reigns, particularly in football and basketball — the two most visible sports.

Basketball hadn’t had a losing season since Walter Halas’ squad 30 years earlier and the Irish would go on to play in their first NCAA Tournament that 1952-53 season.

In football, Leahy recovered from a 4-4-1 campaign in 1950 to post back-to-back 7-2-1 marks before breaking through in 1953 with a 9-0-1 mark and a Heisman Trophy for halfback John Lattner. That, however, would be Leahy’s last season. Heath problems forced him to retire, never to coach again after that 1953 season.

Hesburgh and Joyce’s first major hire, thus, was 25-year-old Terry Brennan, a star halfback for Leahy with limited coaching experience. It showed as the years went on.

And the two administrators fired the father of four just before Christmas five years later when he refused to resign. Brennan was replaced by Joe Kuharich, who had played for Frank Layden in the late ’30s and who came with pro coaching experience.

However, it proved to be another poor fit, as Kuharich and his interim successor Hugh Devore combined to go 19-30 over the next five years without a winning season.

Basketball moved into a down cycle too. Its 9-15 showing in 1955-56 was its first losing season in more than 30 years. It was followed by another losing season in 1958-59 and then the first back-to-back sub-.500 campaigns (1960-61 and ’61-62) since just before Keogan began his stellar 20-year run in 1923-24.

Hesburgh and Joyce were sharply criticized and accused of de-emphasizing athletics, this even after they hired Ara Parseghian to replace interim coach Devore in football.

Parseghian was well thought of in coaching circles, but some Irish fans couldn’t get past his deceptive 36-35-1 record in eight years at Northwestern.

Many blamed academic standards for Notre Dame’s fall from football’s top echelon, a familiar refrain that resurfaced at the end of both the Gerry Faust (1985) and Bob Davie (2001) football eras. Some Notre Dame followers felt the structure of having two priests run everything at the university, including athletics, had become an outdated arrangement.

Hesburgh, in particular, came under fire for being too spread out in his duties — traveling when he supposedly should have been sitting in his office, and too focused on his passion in boosting the Civil Rights movement and his other outside ventures.

The clamoring began to subside when plans were unveiled to build the Athletic Convocation Center and when Parseghian started visiting dorms on campus prior to the magical turnaround 1964 season, giving the students a first-hand look at just what a dynamic leader they were getting.

“I’d have to say hiring Ara was one of the smartest things we did,” Hesburgh said. “But Ned’s ideal of athletics’ place in the academic model and mine had never wavered. People might have just thought it did. We always believed athletics were subsidiary to academics.”

Ironically, as Parseghian dramatically directed the program back to the pinnacle of college football, Hesburgh and Joyce were soon being accused of putting too much emphasis on winning, just as they had during the latter stages of the Leahy Era.

“We never apologized for winning,” Hesburgh said. “We want to be the best at everything. We had some great coaches and we had a few who weren’t that great, but we survived them and somehow the world went on.

"And the other fellows who weren’t spectacular were still good people. That’s important.”

Joyce was as adept in business as he was in legislating morality. The Honduras native and Spartanburg, S.C., product was a Certified Public Accountant for the first eight years after he graduated from Notre Dame in 1937. He carried that with him when he was ordained as a Holy Cross priest on June 8, 1949 and moved into the Notre Dame administration three years later.

“As the years went on, I don’t think Ned had one bad financial year,” Hesburgh said. “One year he told us we were under water a little bit, but I think he was just trying to scare us.”

Joyce himself never seemed to be scared about anything, much less the sprawling growth the university underwent between 1952 to 1987 in terms of budget, buildings and philosophy. When Hesburgh presented Joyce with his first operating budget to balance, it was roughly $9.7 million.

Upon their retirement it was $176.6 million. The university’s endowment had swelled from $9 million to $350 over the same time frame. The research funding went from $750,000 to $15 million. Student enrollment nearly doubled to 9,600. And women were admitted as undergraduates in 1972. Joyce and athletic director Moose Krause launched the first women’s athletic programs two years later.

Joyce was also a visionary, especially when it came to the way athletics and dollars related to one another. As early as 1955, he was publicly chafing at the NCAA control of televised football games -- an ideal that decades later led to Notre Dame withdrawing from the College Football Association and signing an exclusive contract to have NBC televise its home games.

Joyce also researched and wrote about how college athletes generally evolved into solid citizens -- not because of their physical skills, but because the lessons they learned in athletics.

Joyce and Hesburgh learned those lessons right along with them, including deciphering when it’s time to step out of the spotlight. They decided to do it together, retiring on June 1, 1987.

The two then toured the continental United States and Alaska over the next year in a mobile home, logging some 16,000 miles.

“Neither of us had ever been in one of those,” Hesburgh laughed. “And what was more challenging, here we were both 70 years old and neither of us knew how to cook or do laundry or all that stuff, but we survived it.”

They then survived a 2,500-mile trip down the Amazon, then a tour around the world aboard the Queen Elizabeth II, then a cruise from the southern tip of South America to the Antarctic.

“When we got back, we worked on a number of things together and took vacations together and looked back together,” Hesburgh said.

They both had retirement offices issued to them on the 13th floor of the library that bears Hesburgh’s name and features the noted mural known as Touchdown Jesus; now just Hesburgh spends his days there. But his thoughts are never far from Joyce and the memories of their collaborations still inspire him.

“His mind is still very clear,” Hesburgh said of Joyce. “Of course, he always was good with numbers. But most importantly, he is a good person, a true gentleman and a true friend.”

Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., who died Thursday night at age 97, is pictured here looking on during a Jubilee Mass to mark the anniversaries of religious vows of various members of the Congregation of Holy Cross inside the Sacred Heart Basilica on the campus of Notre Dame on May 24, 2013 in South Bend. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)