Originally created 04/02/04

Hornung's heresy on Notre Dame



A great running back ran off at the mouth and got a fight from the Fighting Irish.

Paul Hornung's brainstorm that Notre Dame should dumb down its academic standards, "to get the black athlete," brought a quick condemnation from the school and players - and deservedly so.

Hornung, the 1956 Heisman Trophy winner at Notre Dame and Hall of Famer with the Green Bay Packers, wasn't just politically incorrect in a radio interview. He was unintentionally insulting to black players, offensive to educators, and flat out wrong.

Notre Dame's admissions department doesn't have to give an inch for coaches to recruit black football players. They already have more than most schools.

The spring practice squad has 35 black and 33 white players. Among incoming recruits, there are 12 black and five white players. If everyone suits up in the fall semester, that will make Notre Dame's team 55 percent black. The NCAA Division I average is 43 percent.

More important, black players at Notre Dame graduate at nearly twice the national rate - 82 percent.

Rhema McKnight, a Notre Dame wide receiver who is black, said he completely disagreed with Hornung.

"I personally think I'm an exceptional athlete and I'm getting things done academically here," said McKnight, a psychology major finishing his sophomore year. "I don't think any university should stoop down to forgetting academics and picking out guys who are not going to get it done in the classroom. If this university were to do that, it would devalue its name as a whole."

Players come to Notre Dame, he said, because they feel they can live up to the higher standards that are expected of them. It's the same way at Stanford, Michigan, Duke, North Carolina and several other elite schools that compete for national championships in sports. Southern Cal, the co-national champion in football, is no academic slouch.

"The assumption that to get an African-American player they have to lower their standards is objectionable and offensive," said Richard Lapchick, head of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida.

During a radio interview Tuesday night, Hornung said Notre Dame has to "ease it up a little bit" on its standards.

"We must get the black athlete if we're going to compete," he said.

Other Notre Dame alumni have voiced the same sentiment over the years, but the shame here is that it comes from a legendary and influential former player.

Notre Dame spokesman Matthew Storin responded that school officials strongly disagreed with Hornung's remarks.

"They are generally insensitive and specifically insulting to our past and current African-American student-athletes," Storin said.

Tyrone Willingham, Notre Dame's first black coach, stayed out of the fray for the moment.

Hornung backed off a little Wednesday, saying in an interview with The Associated Press that he changed his mind after being flooded with telephone calls from friends and media.

"I was wrong," he told the AP. "What I should have said is: For all athletes, it is really tough to get into Notre Dame."

Hornung, part of the radio team that broadcasts Notre Dame games, said he had not talked with anyone from the university, but he had heard the school's response.

"I don't know if it was insulting," he said. "It was insensitive because I didn't include the white athletes."

That was big of Hornung, but the notion is still wrong that Notre Dame's academic standards are too high to field a national title contender.

Stanford's basketball program - at times thought to be hopeless because of high admission standards - finished the regular season this year ranked No. 1.

Notre Dame needs better players, whatever their color, to break out of its slump - three losing seasons in five years, 5-7 last year. Teams go in cycles, and Notre Dame has been in a trough for a while. The Irish have gone 15 seasons without a national title, the second-longest drought in school history. The longest stretch was 1949-66.

That doesn't mean Willingham can't turn the Irish around without cutting academic corners.

"Our records show that admission requirements for athletes have remained constant over those years in which we have had both great success and occasional disappointments with our football teams," Storin said.

Willingham proved at Stanford that winning on the field and in the classroom are not mutually exclusive. That's why Notre Dame hired him.

When he arrived in South Bend, Ind., in 2002, his team started 8-0 and he was headed to sainthood. They've gone 7-10 since and the aura has disappeared.

More than 400 Notre Dame alumni signed a letter to the school's board of trustees in January, saying the football program needs to make significant progress next season or "a coaching change will become necessary."

If Notre Dame fires Willingham because of the team's record, whether he's to blame or not, that's the way it goes in big-time college sports.

Coaches come and go. Academic standards should never be compromised.

Steve Wilstein is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at swilstein(at)ap.org