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Saracino’s retirement could have major implications

News came from the University of Notre Dame that Director of Undergraduate Admissions Dan Saracino will retire after spending 13 years in the position.

“It truly has been an honor to have served my alma mater these past 13 years,” Saracino released in a statement. “With a passionate and dedicated staff, we have all labored tirelessly to reach those outstanding young men and women who have indeed made this an even better Notre Dame. As an alumnus, I have no doubt that this special place will continue to grow.”

While senior administrators come and go at universities, Saracino played an integral role within the athletic department, as he was the proverbial gatekeeper that decided what recruits were eligible or ineligible to be offered athletic scholarships by Irish coaches. While Saracino operated in the shadows of coaching staffs, many targeted him as the man that held the plight of each head coach in his hands.

Saracino’s reputation was largely built by a controversial article written just over a decade ago. Sports Illustrated’s Tim Layden profiled the plight of the Notre Dame football program in May of 2000, targeting Saracino’s strengthened academic requirements for taking “the fight out of Notre Dame.”

Saracino was painted as the man that single-handedly kept T.J. Duckett, Jared Payton, David Terrell, and future Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer from being admitted into the university. (Three eventual first round draft picks.)

Photographed brashly in front of the Administrative building, Saracino inexplicably mugged for SI’s cameras, looking like a Lord reining mightily over his fiefdom, with an arrogance to match.

Here Layden details T.J. Duckett’s recruiting trip with his father Ted.

Their first stop had been beneath the Golden Dome itself, at the office of Dan Saracino, the assistant provost for enrollment--in effect, the admissions director. No student enrolls at Notre Dame without Saracino’s approval, and the Ducketts’ meeting with him was ugly almost from the start.

Saracino believed that T.J.'s performance in math courses had not been strong enough, and on this point the interview turned contentious.

“T.J. didn’t have precalculus, but there was still time to take it [in summer school],” Ted says, recalling the meeting. “The man assumed that my son wasn’t intelligent enough to get through his school. He told me, ‘We don’t have basket-weaving at Notre Dame.’ I was livid. My son is a quality individual. He comes from an educated family. [Ted teaches high school history and physical education; T.J.'s late mother, Jacqulyn Barham, was a retired special education teacher.] I believe this man made judgments about T.J. because T.J. wore a long leather jacket and jeans, instead of a suit. The bottom line is, this man insulted my kid, and no matter what else happened that day, there was a bad taste in our mouths.” Ted says that before he stormed out of the admissions office, he told Saracino, “Plenty of fine universities aren’t making these demands on my son.”

For many, Saracino never lived down that infamous article, and his role in recruiting became equal parts crutch for underachieving coaches like Bob Davie, and whipping boy for fans unable to understand why the Irish haven’t been able to achieve the levels of success they did under Lou Holtz, who worked hand-in-hand with then admissions director Kevin Rooney to build a recruiting juggernaut with Vinny Cerrato.

The truth of Saracino’s role in the demise of Notre Dame football likely lies somewhere in the grey. Saracino presided over admissions for the university during its greatest time of academic revival, with scholastic achievement and diversity increasing greatly during his 13 years in charge. Still, the late adaptation to the realities of modern recruiting likely hurt Notre Dame under Davie and Willingham, with Charlie Weis the first coach since Holtz to reach some kind of accord with the admissions office. Only under Weis did the university finally allow the Irish to make early offers to elite recruits pending their senior transcripts, and eventual even relented on letting incoming freshman enroll early for the spring semester.

In many ways, Saracino had one of the most challenging jobs in academia, balancing the rigors of a university intent on becoming elite and a traditional football power struggling to return to the same standing, two goals many believe to be diametrically opposed.

Whoever replaces Saracino in the position -- a national search is currently underway -- will likely do well for themselves by studying Saracino’s tenure.

There’s plenty to learn, both good and bad, from his time in charge.