Aug. 24, 2015 – Life was simpler more than four decades ago when Joe Montana, later to become an all-star Irish quarterback, enrolled at the University of Notre Dame in 1974.
Travel from his Monongahela, Pennsylvania, home. Move into a residence hall. Begin football practice. Start classes.
In those days, the Notre Dame athletics administration was quite a bit more bare bones. No compliance. No marketing and promotions. No student welfare and development. No game management. There was no special introduction for new student-athletes.
About a dozen years ago that changed. Former associate athletics director Bernard Muir, now the athletics director at Stanford but then in charge of the student welfare and development component for the Irish, began one of those early sessions by having all the freshman student-athletes stand up individually and introduce themselves at McKenna Hall.
The orientation has moved from McKenna to the new DeBartolo Performing Arts Center (with parents and family members now invited)-and in recent years has featured the memorable remarks of Africana Studies professor Richard Pierce. His “press on” philosophy urges student-athletes to learn to deal with their crowded schedules where the pieces don’t always fit perfectly and find ways to cope.
A scheduling conflict prevented Pierce from being part of Saturday’s parents-only orientation titled “Pursuing Greatness”-yet the spirit of his remarks carried forward.
In his stead, Irish student-athlete families Saturday heard welcoming remarks from student welfare and development program director Claire VeNard, watched a video tribute to former University president Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., listened to a student-athlete panel of track and field participant Lena Madison and women’s lacrosse player Katherine McManus-followed by a campus resource panel of Rev. Pete McCormick, C.S.C., from campus ministry, Dee Dee Dolan from career services and Brian Coughlin from student affairs. Notre Dame vice president and athletics director Jack Swarbrick provided closing remarks, followed by the singing of the Notre Dame alma mater and Victory March by the Notre Dame Glee Club.
A former Irish soccer player, VeNard noted she distinctly recalls the combination of excitement and nervousness that accompanied her start at Notre Dame 12 years ago. She introduced the Hesburgh video by suggesting, “It’s about why you pursue greatness.”
Comments from Madison and McManus were designed to give parents a flavor of what their offspring will soon experience:
Offered McManus, “Notre Dame makes it hard for you to fail. I know I have a family here on campus with my teammates and coaches. Just put one foot in front of the other because everyone has your back.”
Said Madison, “Let your kids do their thing. My parents let me find my own space.”
McManus provided this advice: “Encourage them to use the resources we have to help find answers. It will change their life. My relationships with my coaches and teammates are my relationships. I’ve grown more as a person because when I talk to my parents we don’t talk about lacrosse.”
Dolan, Coughlin and Father McCormick provided snippets of the Notre Dame support system:
Said Dolan, “My job is to make them think about life after Notre Dame.”
Said McCormick, “You’ll get a phone call late at night about a problem your son or daughter has. Be confident in the resources here on campus. “
Said Coughlin, “There are all kinds of people whose sole reason for being here at Notre Dame is to make sure your son or daughter is successful.”
Added Dolan, “Your life has to be integrated with the rest of the campus. There’s more to it than just being successful in the classroom and on the athletic field. You have the opportunity to grow in all areas of your life.
“To set your child up for success this year, be there to listen, help them think through what they are good at and encourage them to see me this year.”
Swarbrick touched on three things.
First, he provided some advice: “I have four children, so I’ve been through plenty of orientation sessions. Maybe the most memorable one was a student panel at Saint Louis University. The advice was, ‘Just leave already, and have a plan for saying goodbye.'”
Next he thanked the parents: “If you want your child to attend an institution that ranks in the top 20 academically and finishes in the top 10 in the all-sports competition and the GSR (Graduation Success Rate), you’re either in South Bend, Palo Alto or Durham. That’s the hardest choice your child can make.”
Finally, he offered some other suggestions: “Remember the message of engagement-there’s a difference between mediocrity and success. What else are you doing besides going to class and playing your sport? They miss Notre Dame if they don’t take advantage of the other opportunities.
“Don’t coddle them. They’ll be okay. They wouldn’t be here if they couldn’t do it. They will get through it and they will succeed. Leave here knowing that what you’ve instilled in them and with what we will do, they will achieve greatness. It will come with teamwork and leadership and tenacity.”
Swarbrick pointed out a half-dozen recent examples of Irish student-athletes and their achievements:
— Two-time Olympic sabre gold medalist and former NCAA fencing champion Mariel Zagunis, the United States flag-bearer at the 2012 London Summer Olympic Games.
— Women’s soccer player and 2014 graduate Liz Tucker, the 2014 NCAA Woman of the Year. “That’s the hardest award to win in collegiate sports,” Swarbrick said.
— Rower Anna Kottkamp, who delivered the valedictory address at 2015 commencement ceremonies.
— Fencer Alex Coccia, a former Notre Dame student body president now studying in Oxford via a Rhodes scholarship.
— Molly Seidel, the 2015 NCAA outdoor 10,000-meter run champion.
— Emma Reaney, the 2014 NCAA champion and American record-holder in the 200 breaststroke.
Said Swarbrick, “Emma’s story sums up what we are about here. You put in countless hours, and sometimes you reach the pinnacle. She climbed out of the pool and at this quintessential moment was asked, ‘How does it feel?’
“And Emma said, ‘I wish I could tell the world how much I love my university. I’m so proud to have done this for the University of Notre Dame.’
“That’s when you know it all has come together.
“Enjoy the ride.”
There’s a noon-hour “welcome back” barbeque Monday for all student-athletes, followed by an evening orientation session Sept. 1 for all first-year student-athletes once they’ve finished a full week of classes.
You may hope to be the next Joe Montana–or qualify as his parents and family. And if they didn’t already know it, both the Irish freshman student-athletes and their families gain a better sense this week of all that Notre Dame has to offer.
Indeed, it’s part of a roadmap for pursuing greatness.
— by John Heisler, senior associate athletics director