Hesburgh's achievement was hard-won. In the 1920s, the first golden age of sports superstars (Babe Ruth, Red Grange, Jack Dempsey, Bill Tilden), Notre Dame under Knute Rockne, who became coach in 1918, was known as a football factory. Rockne's most famous player, halfback George Gipp (played by Ronald Reagan in “Knute Rockne: All American”), was a hard-drinking gambler who bet on Notre Dame games.
Beginning in 1941 under coach Frank Leahy, Notre Dame came to dominate the sport as no team has since, with six undefeated seasons, including 39 games without a loss, and four national championships. But in 1949, when Hesburgh was appointed the university's executive vice president and athletics chairman, he set out to make Notre Dame “the Harvard of the Midwest,” which required de-emphasizing football. This required bringing to heel the imperious and mercurial Leahy, who flouted NCAA rules with illegal practices — and refused to speak to Hesburgh.
Leahy was a national celebrity. In 1956, Leahy would second the nomination of Dwight Eisenhower at the Republican convention. In 1953, however, the steely Hesburgh had fired Leahy — never mind the talk about Leahy leaving because of health problems. Since then, Notre Dame's football fortunes have varied but its academic reputation has risen steadily.
Football has hardly lost its hold on the campus. The large mural on the library that overlooks the stadium shows Jesus with both arms raised and is famously called “Touchdown Jesus.” The statue of Father William Corby — a 19th-century president of the university — depicts him with his right hand held straight up and is known as “Fair Catch Corby.” And the statue of Moses with his index finger pointed skyward is “We're Number One Moses.”
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