May 25, 1917.
Father Theodore Hesburgh provided vision and leadership to Notre Dame during his tenure as president from 1952-87.
Four days prior to the birth of John F. Kennedy, one of Notre Dame’s three most pivotal leaders in its 170-year history was born in Syracuse, N.Y.
Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, C.S.C. celebrates his 95th birthday today. Along with Rev. Edward Fredrick Sorin C.S.C., and Knute Rockne, Hesburgh comprises “The Big Three” who have had the broadest range of influence while making the University of Notre Dame one of the preeminent names in spirituality, athletic lore and academic renown.
If there were a Notre Dame Mount Rushmore, Sorin, Rockne and Hesburgh would be the first three faces carved — and the fourth could be Rev. Edmund Joyce C.S.C., who served as Hesburgh’s right-hand man in the 35 years they guided Notre Dame.
Rev. Sorin not only founded the University in the 1840s, but it was his resilience that rebuilt the institution after an 1879 fire had ravaged the campus and all but destroyed the college. He claimed the fire — which claimed no lives — was necessary to show him that he hadn’t dreamed big enough. Thus, upon the new, rebuilt administration building was included a Golden Dome atop which stood a statue of Our Lady, so that future generations would know from whence the school’s greatness came.
Rockne cultivated a national following unlike anything seen heretofore in American sports annals during his tenure as the football coach from 1918-31. Notre Dame went from a small, Catholic school in the Midwest to the original “America’s Team.”
Finally, there is Hesburgh, whose sphere of influence nationally — he held 16 presidential appointments and earned the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor — authoritative leadership and dedication combined Sorin’s ambitious, unrelenting vision with Rockne’s powerful charisma. Taking over as the 15th president of the University in June of 1952, Hesburgh had an unparalleled 35-year-run before retiring in 1987.
During that time, more than three-dozen new buildings were erected, the annual operating budget grew from $9.7 million to more than $135 million, and the University’s endowment rose from $9 million to $225 million.
During the 1950s, Hesburgh was often vilified for what was believed to be a de-emphasis of football at Notre Dame, but his toughest days were in the tumultuous 1960s and early 1970s, when student unrest on collegiate campuses and an emerging counter-culture forced many a University president to resign.
When one says the word “presidential,” it evokes an image of a regal figure with an aura that oozes firm leadership – but also respect by doing what he deems is right instead of what might be popular. That defines Hesburgh. During his tenure, he became one of the nation’s more venerated figures in education and religion. But as is the case with anyone in a position of power, he too had his share of critics and detractors.
They included those who opposed his liberal views on civil rights and support of Martin Luther King. There also was the “old guard” who recoiled at the thought of Notre Dame going coed in 1972. That same year when Hesburgh was asked to be on the board of the Chase Manhattan Bank, he was castigated by all sides – from Catholics who believed it inappropriate for a priest to be tied to business interests, to a stockholder who didn’t want a man vowed to poverty on the board.
When Notre Dame football went through its nadir from 1956-63, posting a 34-45 record in those eight years, with seasons of 2-8 (in 1956 and 1960) and 2-7 (1963), Hesburgh bore the brunt of enmity from Irish followers who believed he had fired the legendary Frank Leahy in an effort to deemphasize football and upgrade the school’s academic standing.
The genesis of this perception occurred in his first press conference as president when a group of reporters – comprised almost exclusively of sports writers – asked him to pose with a football.
“Would you ask the president of Yale to do that?” he replied, declining the request.
Hesburgh also sought the counsel of Princeton president Robert Goheen, asking him how Notre Dame could best enhance its reputation in scholarship. As the story goes, Goheen recommended: 1) firing the football coach (Leahy), 2) bolstering the faculty and 3) raising the standards for incoming freshmen.
One year after becoming the school president, Hesburgh saw Leahy resign following the 1953 season. In a 1987 interview with New York Times Pulitzer Prize winner Ira Berkow, Hesburgh said he called Leahy into his office after the 1953 season and recommended that he resign because of the coach’s poor health issues. Leahy collapsed at halftime of the Georgia Tech game that year and was administered last rites by Joyce. In another game, versus Navy, Leahy was laid out on a bench and given a hypodermic.
“Frank, this is ridiculous,” Hesburgh told Berkow of his conversation with Leahy after the season. “I think you ought to seriously consider retiring, for the sake of your family and your health. But it’s up to you, you still have two years to go on your contract, and we’d pay you the rest of it.”
Leahy said he’d think it over.
“Then in a kind of Machiavellian way, I got two of Frank’s friends, the former public relations director at Notre Dame and The Chicago Tribune sports columnist, Arch Ward, to talk to him,” Hesburgh continued. “And one night at dinner with them he called and said he thought I was right, and he’d resign. I sweetened the pot by telling Frank that, if his six boys qualified, we’d give them all full scholarships to Notre Dame.”
Leahy departed after 11 seasons, and the pattern would continue with Ara Parseghian (1964-74) and Lou Holtz (1986-96), who also wore out from the demands of the job after 11 years.
Terry Brennan was brought in by Father Hesburgh prior to the 1953 season to groom as Leahy’s replacement in a couple of years. But he was hired as head coach ahead of his time, and was only 26 in his first season (1954). Hesburgh recommended to Brennan that he hire a more seasoned staff around him, but that didn’t come to fruition.
After a stellar 17-3 start his first two seasons, Brennan was 2-8 in his third year because of a combination of academic standards well beyond the norm in college football plus an extremely small senior class recruited late in Leahy’s tenure. Still, after a Top 10 finish in 1957 (highlighted by the 7-0 upset of Oklahoma, snapping the Sooners’ NCAA-record 47-game winning streak), the 1958 team was deemed to possess national title timber. Instead, the Irish faltered to 6-4 and Brennan was axed.
During the Joe Kuharich years (1959-62), talent was not the issue. By the time Ara Parseghian arrived in 1964, he privately marveled at how he wished they could have had this kind of personnel when he was working at Northwestern (where he was 4-0 versus the Irish) prior to coming to Notre Dame. He nearly balked at taking the job, but an audience with Hesburgh helped convince him otherwise.
To say that Hesburgh wanted football to falter would be wrong. He was quoted as saying “there is no academic virtue in playing mediocre football.” One day after a game during the “down” 8-3 campaign in 1972, he privately asked Parseghian why there were so few black players on the football team. Only five of the top 44 players were black, and this bothered the civil rights champion.
When Parseghian told Hesburgh that he needs to talk with the people in admissions to help him out, Hesburgh promised he would. The following spring, Notre Dame signed a record number of black players, led by Ross Browner, Luther Bradley, Willie Fry and Al Hunter, among others, who would help the Irish to the 1973 national title.
Three national championships were won in the 12-year period from 1966-77, and there were several other near misses before, during and after. Through it all, Hesburgh remained consistent with his speech to Irish coaches upon their hiring. An abbreviated version of the two-minute speech appeared in Sports Illustrated in 1983: “You’ve got five years. We won’t say boo if you lose. I think you’ll have the tools here to win more than you lose; it seems to work out that way. But if you don’t (win), you won’t hear from me. You will hear from me if you cheat. If you cheat, you’ll be out of here before midnight.”
In that same article, Sports Illustrated concluded “Notre Dame has a leadership that knows how to appreciate football as much as it knows how to control it.”
That leadership may have not always been popular, but it turned out to be right far more often than not in its approach to excellence and integrity.
Father Hesburgh weathered many a storm, and the respect and esteem past and present graduates have for him has grown exponentially. The great ones truly do stand taller than ever over the test of time.
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