A week before Thanksgiving I traveled to the University of Notre Dame as a guest speaker. Although I had returned to the campus for personal and professional reasons over the years, this time was different. Included was an offer to stay over and see the final home game of the football season. The opponent was Wake Forest, and Notre Dame put on a clinic by defeating its opponent 38-0.
A week later Notre Dame defeated Southern California and assured not only its first- place national ranking but also its chance to play for the national championship Jan. 7 against Alabama.
Although the campus had widened acre by acre like a stage designed for a new play, everything to me seemed somehow differently the same. I had been back many times since I first went to Notre Dame on a scholarship funded by a generous and legendary doctor from Mercy Hospital -- Leo O'Donnell. As a Notre Dame alumnus himself, it was his practice to award one competitive scholarship to Notre Dame each year to a student from Pittsburgh. The cost of tuition, room and board in the late 1940s for students on scholarship, by the way, was $750 a year, plus a campus job.
By the time I was graduated in that decade, the tuition was $l,700. By 1961 the cost of keeping the doors open at Notre Dame came to approximately $8 million a year. Now it is about $5 million a day, and tuition, room and board have climbed to $53,000 a year!
Notre Dame today has a student population near 10,000. One can imagine how many millions a day it must cost for universities like Columbia, New York University, Northeastern or Penn State to survive with student populations in the tens of thousands.
Without scholarship aid and student loans, higher education now and in the future at private universities like Notre Dame, as well at what Clark Kerr named multiversities, will be only for the wealthy, but that's another story.
During my years at Notre Dame I never saw the football team lose a game. The standard joke around the campus was that the hardest games were when the varsity's first-string scrimmaged on Wednesdays against the second string. The record of the current team has managed to "shake down the echoes" of those earlier national championship years.
It used to be a maxim among bookies that you never bet against Joe Louis, the Yankees or Notre Dame, but not since 1993 has Notre Dame received the attention it is receiving now. This era under coach Brian Kelly (a perfect Notre Dame name) now seems linked with that of Lou Holtz, Dan Devine, Ara Parseghian and Frank Leahy. Many great athletes from Western Pennsylvania have figured prominently on those teams -- John Lujack, Leon Hart and Joe Montana, to name just three.
I was once asked why so many excellent football players came from Western Pennsylvania (Dan Marino, Joe Namath, Mike Ditka ... ). My answer was that they came predominantly from working-class families, which tended to make them look on football as a job, not merely a game, and they brought a do-a-good-job mentality to it.
Like any alumnus I'm pleased to see Notre Dame football returned to primacy. But there is a hidden statistic that pleases me even more and should be more widely known.
Notre Dame is ranked first among U.S. universities in graduating its athletes, not only in football but also in all sports. In other institutions I could (but won't) name, the emphasis seems only on getting athletes admitted so they can be eligible to play. Whether they earn a degree is often of secondary importance.
When the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh was named Notre Dame's president in 1952, he vowed to keep the university at the highest levels of scholarship, pedagogy and research. He served until 1987, the longest presidency in American university history. Now 95, he reports daily to his emeritus office and sees (not literally since he has lost his sight) the fruition of his vision. His successors, Rev. Edward "Monk" Malloy and Rev. John Jenkins, have furthered his legacy.
Rev. Malloy even found time to donate one of his kidneys to his nephew, who would have died without the transplant. "I only need one kidney anyway," Rev. Malloy quipped. Rev. Jenkins has graduate degrees from Oxford to supplement his solid American credentials, and he is as courageous as he is personable. All of these men were teachers before they became presidents and understand what academic excellence means and demands.
Here in Pittsburgh, there are numerous Notre Dame graduates who have upheld the ideals of the university in education (James Maher and Bernard Beranek), in banking (James Rohr and Thomas O'Brien), in medicine (Leo O'Donnell and John Nairn), in politics (Peter Flaherty), in law (Thomas Livingstone), in professional football (Bill Walsh of my era, plus Rocky Bleier, Terry Hanratty and Jerome Bettis). This list is selective, of course, but it could be supplemented with many other names in architecture, engineering, industry and journalism.
I could cite Notre Dame's outreach in everything from its Department of Irish Studies to its ongoing concerns with global health, human rights and social justice via its Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies. Presently in residence at the institute is Andrew Bacevich, a retired Army colonel but now a history professor whose books and essays have shown how militarism in our government has perverted our foreign policy, demoralized our military and undermined at times our very Constitution.
I could also note the achievements of several members of my own graduating class, such as Thomas Dooley, the renowned missionary doctor; Jose Napoleon Duarte, who became the president of El Salvador; and William Pfaff, author and journalistic mainstay of the International Herald Tribune.
Since this short paean began with sports, it is appropriate that it should end on the same note. Although Notre Dame is in a class by itself in graduating its varsity athletes, it is the deportment of its athletes in public that has always drawn my particular admiration.
I recall watching this year's finals of the women's basketball tournament. (Female students now outnumber male students at Notre Dame and their achievements in sports have been no less notable, including national championships in women's soccer in 1995, 2004 and 2010, plus the national championship in women's basketball in 2001.) Interviewed after one of the decisive games was the impressive guard and playmaker Skylar Diggins, who had led her team to the nationals twice before. There was no braggadocio about her at all. Her answers were to the point, modest, eloquent, team-centered and self-effacing.
But the ultimate exemplar of the unique value of the true spirit of university athletics and of the primacy of Notre Dame in this regard was reflected in the deportment of an outstanding linebacker of this season's football team, a 22-year-old Hawaiian who was runner-up for this year's Heisman Trophy, having received more votes than any lineman ever.
Manti Te'o was asked why he did not turn pro at the end of his junior year when he could have had offers in the millions from professional football teams. He said it meant more to him to stay at Notre Dame because the appreciation and respect he received from teammates, coaches, faculty and students were things that money could not buy.
Samuel Hazo is director of the International Poetry Forum and McAnulty Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Duquesne University. His latest novel is "The Time Remaining" (email@example.com).