Growing up a fan of other colleges, I never gave two seconds of thought to the Notre Dame mystique and "the stirring of the echoes" one hears incessantly about its glorious past. But that all changed when I had the good fortune of marrying into a family of Fighting Irish fans.
In May of 2011, I joined my brothers-in-law as a Domer myself, graduating with a master's degree in non-profit administration. And though, as BYU undergrads, we have all been teased that we are nothing more than very confused Mormons, each of us has walked away from Notre Dame with an increased appreciation for the world's oldest and largest Christian denomination and its world-renowned university.
The Notre Dame campus is as beautiful a layout as any I have ever seen, with its meticulously-groomed quads, famed Golden Dome, stunning Basilica, and imposing stone buildings, each with a slate roof. With this enormous outlay, Notre Dame has, in turn, generated an almost indescribable affection for and loyalty to the campus by those who identify themselves among the Notre Dame faithful.
The beauty of Notre Dame is only matched by the kindness and courtesy of people who work, study and volunteer there. Ask any opposing team or fan who has attended a game in South Bend about how they were treated during their stay on campus. I can almost guarantee the universal response will be that they have never had a more positive experience than what they encountered at Notre Dame.
The university's annual budget of over $700 million for less than 8300 undergraduate students, coupled with an endowment that tops $6 billion, allows it to strive to be the best at everything it does: from the uniformity of its buildings (all constructed with the same "Notre Dame Brick"), to its 12 to 1 student to faculty ratio, to its long list of distinguished graduates who are part of the most loyal family of alumni as exists in higher education.
But why this fascination with all things Notre Dame? Because even at a state school like Southern Utah University, where we certainly do not argue for our limitations but are nonetheless constrained by a perennial lack of resources, we can aspire to do everything first-rate and to educate students who will go out and have an impact for good. We can strive to rise above the mediocrity that is all too prevalent in the world today and expect more of ourselves. We can exceed our reach, distance ourselves from other places that are content to be average, and commit to leave our mark.
There is much to distinguish Notre Dame from other colleges and universities throughout America. For one, it is unabashedly Catholic and eminently proud of following the exhortation of its president, Father John Jenkins: "If we are afraid to be different from the world, how can we make a difference in the world?"
As we approach the end of another college football season, consider this unbelievable fact: Never in history has the number-one ranked college football team (with a perfect 12-0 record) also boasted the top graduation rate (97 percent) for its players.
This is a singular achievement which should be celebrated by all. Notre Dame has proven, despite all the naysayers, that it can do things the right way the Notre Dame way. As a proud alumnus, I commend the university for recruiting the right kind of student-athlete (is there a finer football player and young man in America than Manti Te'o?), all while maintaining its academic standards and commitment to being different and making a difference.
Michael T. Benson is president of Southern Utah University and the 2011 recipient of the Father Theodore Hesburgh Founder's Award from the University of Notre Dame.