It’s Good Friday. Or for Notre Dame athletics, it could be a Very Good Friday.
Three Irish teams are among the final 16 remaining in their respective winter sports. Notre Dame’s hockey team faces off with Michigan in the first round of the NCAA hockey tournament, the men’s basketball team is playing Wisconsin in the Sweet 16 while Muffet McGraw’s lady hoopers are taking on Stanford.
If you’re not paying attention you might just be missing one of the golden eras of Notre Dame sports. Irish athletics have thrived since joining the ACC, showing a willingness to take their cold-weather geography and step into a conference that was universally viewed to be more challenging. And a weird thing has happened—Notre Dame’s student-athletes have risen to the challenge.
In an era where coaches and administrators usually do battle to find the easiest path to success, athletic director Jack Swarbrick and a university administration led by Rev. John Jenkins have been rewarded by a bold move that served two key university goals: Elevating the stature of Notre Dame athletics while keeping the Irish football team independent.
It’s unpopular to tip your cap to a university administration that less than a decade ago deserved most of the shade thrown its way. And whether it’s ironic timing or proof that the school’s transformation is complete, just months after finally getting Charlie Weis’ contract off the books, the Irish athletic department has a group of head coaches leading their respective teams that might be the best collection in the NCAA.
That’s a credit to Jack Swarbrick. Not just for the decision to hire (and keep) Brian Kelly and stabilize a football program that had turned into a piñata, but for his ability to support established coaches like Muffett McGraw, Mike Brey and Jeff Jackson—all three of whom have hit their stride under Swarbrick’s leadership.
(Consider this profile of Mike Brey in the Washington Post as Exhibit A.)
Stability in South Bend never seemed possible, not with the preying eyes and demands of alumni and subway domers. But look closely at the athletic department and you see Kelly, McGraw and Brey all locked up to long-term contracts, a type of continuity that never seemed possible.
There’s work to be done. The baseball team continues its climb back after falling off a cliff when Paul Mainieri left for LSU. The volleyball program replaced long-time volleyball coach Debbie Brown with Jim McLaughlin—the only person to win an NCAA title coaching both men and women.
But dig out that Notre Dame sweatshirt or hat. Do your best not to be “that guy,” but wear it with some pride. Because across the board, really impressive things are happening.
Both lacrosse programs ranked in the Top Five, both soccer programs have equally lofty expectations. Senior track star, national champion and All-American Molly Seidel might be the most accomplished college athlete currently in competition. (Google her.)
With a reimagined Notre Dame Stadium almost here, new facilities for basketball and sports medicine around the corner and the most lucrative apparel deal in college sports, Notre Dame has found a way to balance elite athletics with a still-rising academic reputation.
It’d be a shame if you didn’t stop for a moment to realize it.