April 1, 2016 Strong of Heart
By Dan McGrath
A similar version of this story appeared in the 2013 edition of Strong of Heart.
The University of Notre Dame is justifiably proud of the high-minded, we-do-it-right approach to athletics it has followed over a century of intercollegiate competition.
One of the individuals most responsible for shaping a favorable image of Irish sports never scored a touchdown, made a basket or coached a game for Notre Dame.
Roger Valdiserri, a 1954 Notre Dame graduate, was the University’s sports information director for 28 years. In that role he acted as the liaison between Notre Dame athletics and the army-sized press corps that followed the Irish, locally and nationally, broadcast and print. But the title hardly does Valdiserri’s role justice. He was also a trusted confidant and sage advisor to players, coaches and administrators, a valuable resource for University leadership, and a dependable go-to guy for any reporter in search of a story.
In fact, if it’s possible for a soft-spoken, slightly built, disarmingly courteous man to be the indispensable face, and perhaps the unwavering conscience, of the powerful entity that is Notre Dame athletics, Valdiserri qualifies.
Valdiserri will receive yet another honor Monday when he is inducted into the U.S. Basketball Writers Association (USBWA) Hall of Fame in Houston in conjunction with the NCAA Men’s Final Four.
“No one ever understood Notre Dame better or represented it better,” says Ara Parseghian, a Notre Dame legend as its football coach from 1964-74 and Valdiserri’s close friend for nearly 50 years. “Roger’s importance to the university is immeasurable.”
Notre Dame won its last two national championships in football on Valdiserri’s watch, in those pre-Bowl Championship Series days when news-agency polls had the final word on such decisions and a team’s reputation with voters carried the day, much like a political election. The Irish also signed a network television deal, produced a Heisman Trophy winner–Tim Brown in 1987–and a bevy of All-Americans in all sports, evidence of the high regard media members had for Valdiserri’s competence, integrity and gracious professionalism.
“The gold standard in the field of media relations,” says Malcolm Moran, who spent nearly 30 years covering Notre Dame for the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and USA Today.
“Some PR people are nice to you because it’s their job–they’re paid to be nice to you,” says former Chicago Tribune reporter Andrew Bagnato. “Roger was nice to you because he was Roger–a genuinely nice man.”
Yet for all of that, Valdiserri is probably best known for an innocent suggestion to an unheralded freshman that nearly proved prophetic.
During spring football practice at Notre Dame in 1968, sideline observers were struck by the size–or lack thereof–of one of the six quarterbacks competing for a spot on the depth chart, a scrappy New Jersey kid who had to tiptoe to reach six feet and tipped the scales at about 160 pounds.
“That’s Joe Theesmann,” somebody said, repeating the pronunciation Theismann had used all his life.
Valdiserri experienced a Eureka moment that would all but define him.
“No, it’s Thighsman,” he insisted, “as in Heisman.”
Joe Doyle, longtime chronicler of Notre Dame athletics for the South Bend Tribune, reported the exchange in a story that was subsequently referenced in a Sports Illustrated piece. Theismann took over for injured Terry Hanratty late in his sophomore year and embarked on a career that would produce a runner-up finish (to Stanford’s Jim Plunkett) in the 1970 Heisman Trophy balloting. Along the way the “Theismann as in Heisman” story took on a life of its own.
“It will probably be on my tombstone,” Valdiserri says with a wry smile.
If so, it’s only because the accomplishments that truly distinguish Valdiserri’s career are too numerous to fit on a simple headstone.
He has been enshrined in four other halls of fame, including Western Pennsylvania’s, proudly noting that he shares membership with Joe Montana and Stan Musial. He chaired the NCAA Public Relations Committee and spent nine years as executive assistant to Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., on the Knight Commission, formed in 1989 to examine the proper role of intercollegiate athletics on campus. The National Football Foundation and the USBWA previously have honored him for meritorious service, as has Notre Dame. He has worked 22 NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Fours, three Olympic Games and the World Cup.
There’s more, but Valdiserri is a genuinely humble man, much more comfortable seeking recognition for others. Sometimes the results he achieved surprised him.
“I was in Los Angeles advancing the USC game one year and there were a bunch of stories in the L.A. papers. The head of Universal Pictures called Regis Philbin, knowing he was a Domer, and told him he wanted to hire the publicist responsible for so much coverage.”
Valdiserri smiles at the recollection. He probably would have been less comfortable in Hollywood than he was in Kansas City, where he spent one unhappy year as the Chiefs’ publicist. “Pro football was such a money game,” he says.
He was more than happy to return to the college environment, to the welcoming embrace of his alma mater.
“Roger is a true Notre Dame man,” Parseghian says, “and he’s hurt by anything derogatory that’s said about the University.”
Yet he made it a point never to fire back over a critical story–Dan Jenkins was a noted Irish tweaker during his days at Sports Illustrated, and Valdiserri considers him a good friend. An exception might be made if the piece were factually incorrect, but even then the response would be a measured attempt to set the record straight.
“If he sensed a critical story coming, he wouldn’t try to talk you out of it,” Moran says. “He would make sure you had enough information so that even if you were critical, you were informed.”
Valdiserri’s unmatched accessibility made him a favorite with reporters pushed to cranky frustration by lesser levels of cooperation.
“My rule in the office was that if a call was for me, I took it,” he says. “If you’re in public relations, that’s your job. You deal with people and you try to help them do their jobs.”
Says Moran: “Roger understood that the best part of the product was the athletes, so he did what he could to put them front and center, at a time when many universities were going the other way.”
Valdiserri worked closely with his late friend Mike DeCicco, who as head of Notre Dame’s academic advisory program sought to transform the concept of true student-athletes into reality. Valdiserri, in turn, presented that concept to the public.
“Our athletes were some of the best ambassadors we had,” he says. “Every year I’d meet with the freshmen and tell them how we did things, and why. If I call you to come over for an interview, you come on time, and you wear a dress shirt and slacks. No backward ballcaps. And no bling.”
At least six of Valdiserri’s protÃƒÆ’Â©gÃƒÆ’Â©s have gone on to head media relations departments at other schools or with pro teams, including John Heisler, who joined Valdiserri’s staff as an assistant sports information director in 1978 and went on to oversee media relations in his role as Notre Dame’s senior associate athletic director.
“What I found out pretty quickly was that if you attached yourself to Roger’s coattails you would meet everyone of any importance in college athletics,” Heisler says.
Valdiserri sent his former aides off with a simple directive: Never lie.
“That was the one piece of advice I gave them,” he says. “If you don’t tell the truth, you lose your integrity, and if you don’t have integrity you have nothing.”
Bagnato, who covered Notre Dame’s 1988 national champions for the Tribune, heard a similar message when he sought Valdiserri’s counsel after leaving newspapers for a management position with the Fiesta Bowl.
“We went to lunch, and I told him I wanted his advice because he was the best I’d seen at what he does,” Bagnato recalls. “He looked up from his soup and said, ‘Never lie. If you lie you’re of no value to your organization because you have no credibility.’ And Roger had as much credibility as anybody I’ve ever been around.”
Asking Valdiserri to name a favorite athlete among the hundreds he has worked with would be like asking him to pick a favorite from among his five children (all of them Notre Dame grads). He won’t do it.
Asking for a favorite moment draws an easier response. There are two, and they occurred within three weeks of each other: On Dec. 31, 1973, the Irish beat a Bear Bryant-coached Alabama team 24-23 in the Sugar Bowl, staking Parseghian’s claim to a second national championship. Tom Clements secured the win with a daredevil 36-yard completion to backup tight end Robin Weber on a third-and-long play with 2:12 remaining.
“I can still see Clements throwing that ball from the end zone,” Valdiserri says. “What a gutsy call. What a game.”
On Jan. 19, 1974, Digger Phelps’ Notre Dame basketball team scored the last 10 points of the game to stun UCLA 71-70 and end the Bruins’ record 88-game winning streak before a disbelieving national television audience and a delirious turn-away crowd at the Athletic and Convocation Center.
“What a fun day that was,” Valdiserri recalls. “For a while that year we were ranked No. 1 in football, basketball and hockey.”
It doesn’t get any better for a sports information director, one who got his start as a student intern in the Frank Leahy era, never really left and relished almost every day on the job that followed.
“Coming to Notre Dame was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Valdiserri says. “I’ve had a great life.”