Nov. 18, 2005

By John Heisler

The operable phrase is “broad-based program.”

What does it mean in the lexicon of college athletics?

Ideally, it means sponsoring a football program that’s productive enough on and off the field to produce wins on Saturdays and sell enough tickets to pay the bills for all the rest of the sports as well. Then, the idea is to build all those other programs so they can be nationally competitive as well.

These days, it’s much easier said than done.

It’s one thing to have a revenue-producing football program. Plenty of Division I-A programs accomplish that part of the equation. But, there are probably only a handful of schools that are on the good side of the ledger when it comes to funding all their sports.

Take a look at the annual Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act (EADA) figures that the Federal government mandates for release to the public each October and you can figure how difficult it is.

At Notre Dame, for example, the raw figures from 2004-05 indicate $57,649,586 in revenue and $48,188,542 in expenses. The surplus goes back to the University and offsets expenses such as Notre Dame Stadium debt service, undergraduate financial aid and the University’s general operating budget.

Look closely at the Irish program and you can understand why it works. Notre Dame has enjoyed a consistent sellout situation in football for virtually 40 years now – through 1996 at the old 59,075 figure, from 1997 on at an 80,795 clip. Throw in 15 years worth of a football television relationship with NBC Sports (plus a recently added five-year extension), plus a recent 10-year, $60-plus million contract extension with adidas for apparel and footwear, and you can see why the Irish program overall has been in an enviable position.

Building the foundation of that broad-based program has come a brick at a time. Gene Corrigan, Notre Dame’s athletics director from 1981-87, started the process during his tenure in that position. Back then, a sport like baseball, just as an example, was splitting a single scholarship and playing mostly a regional schedule, including cross-town Bethel College. Corrigan surmised that when student-athletes thought about being part of Notre Dame athletics, they had loftier goals and dreams than what they’d been allowed to consider – and he set about upgrading the commitment in what used to be called the non-revenue sports.

Successor Dick Rosenthal (1987-95) furthered those plans and was responsible for positioning the Irish in the BIG EAST Conference. Then, Mike Wadsworth (1995-2000) added a couple more women’s sports to the docket as well as 22 more scholarships for women. Finally, current athletics boss Kevin White made it clear his first day on the job that he saw no reason why every one of the Notre Dame sports offerings couldn’t achieve at a top-five national level.

Boy, did that comment ever bring smiles to the faces of the many Irish head coaches in attendance that day at White’s introductory press conference.

And White has delivered the raw materials at every turn – adding the remainder of scholarships to give all 26 sports the NCAA maximum, signing coaches to multi-year contracts, and creating a master plan for facilities that eventually will upgrade the playing, practice and/or locker facilities for every sport Notre Dame offers.

Notre Dame historically has been particularly strong during the fall sports seasons, but maybe that’s never been the case more than in 2005. While Notre Dame’s splashy upsurge on the football field has garnered its share of media attention, the other Irish fall programs have emphatically gone about making national news of their own.

Heading into the week, Notre Dame had a record five teams ranked in the top six nationally – starting with a #4 rating in women’s cross country and moving to #5 in both men’s cross country and women’s soccer (the defending NCAA champions who move into the third round of the ’05 NCAAs this weekend), then #6 for both football and volleyball. The only sport not currently in the polls is men’s soccer, but Bobby Clark’s squad nonetheless earned a fifth straight NCAA invitation on Monday and plays host to a first-round game this weekend.

The Web site for Sports Illustrated on Campus has included a weekly tabulation of the most productive schools in all their sports combined -and Notre Dame has ranked atop the chart every week this fall.

Take last weekend, for example. Notre Dame’s four-day combined record in football, basketball (two preseason contests – one men’s, one women’s), hockey, swimming (both men’s and women’s), volleyball and women’s soccer was 11-0. That didn’t include a second-place finish by both the men’s and women’s cross country squads in NCAA regional competition, setting both programs up for runs at NCAA titles in the championship meet Monday in Terre Haute, Ind.

Fortunes for Notre Dame’s winter and spring sports are similarly bright.

It’s safe to say Notre Dame’s broad-based athletics program has never been healthier.