You know that door. The one that says, ``Play like a champion today.’’
With one click of a deleted UND.com bio page, Heisler’s 40 years under the Golden Dome are gone.
What the Irish should be doing is giving Heisler a lectern—to teach future generations how best to connect a college athletic program with the outside world. But that’s not really on the agenda in the 21st Century.
When I moved into full-time sportswriting, John was the first Sports Information Director I worked with on a regular basis. That was a very fortunate situation. For me.
I had started out at the Chicago Sun-Times as a deskman, and had moved from news to feature writing, where I covered college football and basketball on the side. I liked feature writing and was good at it. My story about a high-tech kite guy who dueled seagulls (``The Kite Pilots’’) was a classic. My ``History of Vel-Cro: Life in the Fastener Lane’’ was picked up by papers around the country. The Washington Post ran it on the front page.
I might have stayed in features. But when Rupert Murdoch bought the Sun-Times, the features department downsized back to fashion and recipes. And stories about kite-flying and Velcro went out the window.
At newspapers, as with college sports information, sometimes change is simply in the wind.
Luckily and happily, Mr. Murdoch and his minions were all-in for sports.
And so, in the summer of ’84, I was bouncing from the Bears to the Cubs to Notre Dame, where I became the beatman. I didn’t really arrive on Irish turf until after the Cubs’ disastrous finish in San Diego, and I still divided my time between the Bears and the Irish. Ironically, my first ND game was a 16-14 squeaker of a win at Missouri, Heisler's alma mater even though he grew up in South Bend admiring the Irish. Missouri wasn't very good at football that year. But it has an excellent journalism school.
There were so many things I didn’t know. But John made that transition enjoyable and productive—for me and for Notre Dame. I was a pretty good newspaperman. With John’s steady hand, I would like to think I became a pretty good sportswriter.
He was always there to explain the behind-the-scenes machinations involved in curious player personnel moves, to play devil’s advocate for odd play-calling and to debate big-picture theories.
That was not an easy time in South Bend. Gerry Faust was in his fourth angst-ridden year. In that simpler era, ND honorably let Faust have the fifth and final wobbly year of his contract. But it was pretty much an open secret that, barring a miracle, Faust would be gone after that fifth season. It had been an interesting chemistry experiment, hiring a high school coach. But it never got out of the lab.
And yet, John; his mentor, Roger Valdiserri (shown above), and athletic director Gene Corrigan—who sat cheerfully in the pressbox, issuing non-denial denials—bided Faust’s time very admirably. In public, anyway. What a trio they were.
I was never a Notre Dame person. But I defy anyone to spend time around them, and sit occasionally in the office of Father Hesburgh, ND’s exceptional president, and not come away admiring the university as well as its athletic programs.
No one ever did a better job of articulating Notre Dame’s message than Heisler. He and Valdiserri were and are the best ambassadors Notre Dame could ever have. The best ambassadors college football could have.
And no one ever did it with more class and insight.
I guess it’s just another sign of the times.
When Heisler was in his heyday as ND’s Sports Information Director, college athletic programs saw the media as people who could help them, by connecting them with a school’s followers and by putting a positive spotlight on their exploits.
Now, the media tend to be seen as adversaries who might shine a light on something bad. Instead of opening doors, SIDs are often forced to be blocking backs for coaches.
John Heisler could do that when it was absolutely necessary. Which was extremely rare.
So could Bruce Madej, who was the Michigan SID back in the day. Like Heisler, Madej was a great ambassador for Michigan athletics. And like Heisler, Madej was treated to a rough exit as distrust of the media grew.
That said, the successors of Heisler and Madej have unenviable, exceedingly difficult tasks. Bruce could ``order’’ Bo Schembechler to meet the press and put Jim Harbaugh on the phone to me (one-on-one!) during Notre Dame week. Heisler could tell new coach Lou Holtz he would have a long sitdown lunch with me, the two Tribunes (Chicago and South Bend) and the Indianapolis Star right after he was hired. Even though he was clearly exhausted. Still wearing the suit in which he was introduced as Irish coach, Holtz was charming, humble and attentive.
Somehow, I don’t see the current SIDs at Michigan and Notre Dame giving Harbaugh and Brian Kelly their marching orders in quite the same way.
On the flip side, when Heisler, after passing out the dorm-room telephone numbers of the entire Notre Dame team to us during fall camp, asked us not to call the players after Faust had been ousted—we didn’t call them.
That took some explaining with our sports editors. But that was a different time.
Nowadays, Notre Dame can bring in Garth Brooks and the Chicago Blackhawks to play on its historic turf. But it doesn’t have room for John Heisler.
I would tell you where I’m going with that.
But you already know.