Hornung: Irish should still lower standards

Updated: April 1, 2004, 10:18 AM ET
ESPN.com news services

Former Notre Dame great Paul Hornung has apologized for controversial comments he made on how the Fighting Irish can improve their football fortunes.

Hornung with his 1956 Heisman Trophy.
Hornung told Detroit's AM-1270 The Sports Station, an ESPN radio affiliate, on Tuesday that Notre Dame must ease up on its academic restrictions because "we gotta get the black athlete. We must get the black athlete if we're going to compete," Hornung said.

Hornung was asked in the interview about the state of college football and why it seems that there "just aren't giants anymore."

"No, no," Hornung said in agreement. The interviewer asked, "Is it limited scholarships?" Hornung then gave his response.

Hornung said that Notre Dame's schedule was a factor in his having that opinion.

"You can't play that type of schedule," Hornung said. "We're playing eight bowl teams next year ... and it's always year in and year out ... one of the toughest schedules.

"You can't play a schedule like that unless you have the black athlete today. You just can't do it, and it's very, very tough, still, to get into Notre Dame. They just don't understand it, yet they want to win."

Notre Dame spokesman Matthew Storin called Hornung an illustrious alumnus but objected to his comments.

"We strongly disagree with the thesis of his remarks," Storin said in a statement. "They are generally insensitive and specifically insulting to our past and current African-American student-athletes."

On The Dan Patrick Show on ESPN Radio on Wednesday, Hornung apologized. He told Patrick, in hindsight, that he should have said that Notre Dame should lower its standards to get in any athlete, not just black athletes. And he said that he still hopes Notre Dame lowers its standards to the standards of the teams the Irish are competing against.

Hornung told Patrick that former Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz once showed him a list of the top 50 recruits, and Hornung said that Holtz told him that the university's admissions office would let him try to recruit only three of those 50 based on their academic records. Raiders wide receiver Tim Brown, who played for Holtz at Notre Dame, defended Hornung's character, if not his thoughts on success.

"I know Paul very well and I've been around him for many years. Sometimes things come out of your mouth that you wish didn't ... but I know him enough to say he's not a racist," Brown said Thursday on ESPN Radio's AllNight.

Brown argued, however, that it would not be in the school's best interests to ease academic requirements.

"Everyone is convinced they're making it to the NFL and they don't concentrate on being a student," Brown said. "I've asked kids why don't they consider Notre Dame, and they say it's too tough. The kids these days are just looking for the easy way. If Notre Dame doesn't win games because they don't lower their standards, I can live with that. But to lower your standards just to win football games is a wrong decision."

"I was wrong,'' Hornung told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Wednesday. "What I should have said is: For all athletes, it is really tough to get into Notre Dame.''

Hornung said in the AP interview that he changed his mind after being flooded with telephone calls from friends and media.

"I stood by my comments, but then when you have time to reflect you can always come up with some ideas," he said. "I rethought it, and if I had to do over again, I wouldn't."

Hornung said he hadn't talked with anyone from the university, but he had heard the school's response.

"I don't know if it was insulting, I would say insensitive. It was insensitive because I didn't include the white athletes," he said.

Of the 68 scholarship players on Notre Dame's spring roster, 35 are black and 33 are white. Of the incoming freshmen, 12 are black and five are white. That would make Notre Dame's roster next season 55 percent black if no one leaves.

According to the latest NCAA statistics available, during the 2001-02 season 49 percent of Division I-A football players were white and 44 percent were black.

"Our records show that admission requirements for athletes have remained constant over those years in which we have had both great success and occasional disappointments with our football teams," Storin said.

Hornung, who is part of the Westwood One Radio team that broadcasts Notre Dame games, has previously criticized the school, saying its academic requirements have hurt the athletic department.

Hornung believes the academic standards were eased in the late 1980s, when the Irish won their last national championship. He pointed to quarterback Tony Rice, one of only two Proposition 48 players ever to play at Notre Dame.

"Tony Rice honored himself and graduated in four years," Hornung said. "I think if he were trying to get in the university today it would be tougher."

Hornung also added that Notre Dame, which in January signed a new five-year agreement with NBC to televise its home football games, probably will lose the contract -- worth about $9 million annually -- if the school doesn't start winning more games.

Notre Dame's football team went 5-7 last season, its second under Tyrone Willingham, the first black head coach in any sport in school history. It was Notre Dame's third losing season in five years -- something that had never happened before in the storied history of the program.

The losing season contributed to low ratings on NBC -- a 2.4 rating per game, tied with 2001 for the lowest in the school's 13 years on the network. The AP left a telephone message seeking comment from Willingham. Wednesday was a day off from spring practice for the Irish.

Hornung is the only Heisman Trophy winner to play for a losing team; his 1956 Notre Dame team went 2-8.

The academic standards at Notre Dame have long been discussed as a reason the Irish no longer win consistently. Ara Parseghian, who coached the Irish between 1964 and 1974 and won two national championships, has said he heard the talk when he first took the job.

Such talk has been growing more widespread in recent years, though. The Irish have gone 15 seasons without a national championship, the second longest drought in school history. The longest stretch was 1949-66.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

ALSO SEE