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December 3, 2012

Column: Why I'm rooting for Fighting Irish

Having spent most of my undergraduate years in Southeastern Conference towns, I have never been a fan of Notre Dame football. But on Jan. 7, I will be rooting for the Fighting Irish to whip their SEC opponent in this season’s Bowl Championship Series game.

I will be rooting for Notre Dame because the university is doing what all schools with football teams should be doing: caring as much about its players’ academic success as it does about winning on the field.

These priorities consistently pay off for everyone involved.

Notre Dame’s football program is the first to be ranked No. 1 in the BCS standings while having the nation’s highest graduation rate. This is a great accomplishment when big-time college football is rightly being accused of lowering or ignoring academic standards for winning seasons.

The Fighting Irish’s most recent NCAA graduation rate was 97 percent, 20 points higher than the other top BCS programs. I learned about this achievement in a Chronicle of Higher Education interview with the Rev. John I. Jenkins, Notre Dame’s president.

In my view, all college presidents should heed Jenkins’ advice and study his observations.

He said that on-the-field and off-the-field success can be seamless if there is “real commitment up and down the line.” When recruiting, college coaches must emphasize this approach with high school coaches, school staffs, parents and players. At Notre Dame, once players are on campus, they receive help from a dedicated support staff and professors who see them as students first.

“If all those parts are working — and if you get good kids — then you can do it,” Jenkins said.

Brad Wolverton, the Chronicle’s interviewer, asked if Notre Dame gives itself an advantage at the outset by recruiting fewer players who will fail academically.

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