Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Notre Dame: The Definition of Painted Into a Corner

Notre Dame football is in big trouble. I mean HUGE trouble. And the program has done it to itself. The administration took a risk by firing Bob Davie, who was admittedly not setting the world afire. However, he was delivering in the classroom and had the squad playing well, if inconsistently. That wasn't enough though, so the school stepped into the abyss.

And that first step was a doozy.

The hiring of George O'Leary didn't go well. On the bright side, it was probably the most entertaining five-day coaching stint in the history of college football. Let's move on.

ND threatened to pull out of the steepening nosedive by hiring the first African-American head football coach in the school's long and illustrious history. Tyrone Willingham was also young and on the rise, coming off a successful stint at Stanford. After a white-hot start, the bloom came off the rose in a HURRY.

It became obvious that, while TW possibly had the coaching acumen to guide a perceived national contender, he lacked the same necessary to recruit the requisite talent. Without that talent, the superpowers of the CFB landscape began to maul the Golden-Domers. After three years and a 21-15 record that included a number of lopsided and embarrassing losses, Willingham got the word.

Exit stage left.

Enter the considerable girth and ego of Charlie Weis. The Great Weis Hype floated into town all bluster and boasts. Coaching this, strategy that. Professional offense this, never lose to that. Notre Dame had found the answer to Tyrone - a great coaching mind who had the work ethic and credentials to recruit.

Apparently, they got it half-right. And apparently that half was worth a 10-year, multimillion-dollar contract extension.

Now, they're stuck in the spotlight with nowhere to go.

Look at Tyrone Willingham's record, warts and all. TW went 21-15 in three years. In 2002, ND went 10-3 and got killed in the Gator Bowl by NC State. Along the way, the Irish beat four Top-25 schools and got rolled by USC. In 2003, the program went 5-7 and suffered four humiliating defeats. In 2004, ND went 6-6 and lost to Oregon State in the Insight Bowl. That year saw the Irish beat a Top-10 Michigan squad for the second time in three years, but suffer another series of horrible face-plants.

Now look at Charlie Weis' record of 28-21 through four years.

In 2005, ND went 9-3 and got stomped out by Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl. The Irish beat three Top-25 schools on the road without suffering any awful losses. In 2006, the program went 10-3 and got annihilated by LSU in the Sugar Bowl. ND beat a Top-25 Penn State squad, but got blitzed by both Michigan and USC in its other regular season challenges. Weis was extended along the way.

Last year (2007) probably doesn't need much recap - 3-9, lost to Navy at home, six blowout losses, shutout by both USC and Michigan, and set school records for consecutive losses to open a season AND total losses. This year hasn't been much better. The Irish are 6-6 in 2008 and destined for a bowl game. But they haven't beaten anyone very good, got shutout by Boston College, lost to Pittsburgh and Syracuse in South Bend, and managed only a field goal against USC after going almost three quarter without a first down.

It's not over. I would bet that Notre Dame will accept an invitation to a bowl it has no business being in, against an opponent that is far superior, and you'll see another lopsided loss hung on the Golden Dome.

Now, compare the two coaches side-by-side. This is where the trouble starts.

For all of Charlie Weis' supposed recruiting and offensive genius, the results are almost identical. Both coaches averaged about a 7-5 record per year. TW's winning percentage is actually higher. Both went to two bowl games; Weis went to BCS games, but got embarrassed twice. Both had their greatest success with the previous coach's recruits. Both had their share of big wins and vomitous losses. Both have seen the program reach new depths.

And yet Weis got that huge, long extension plus another vote of confidence today while Willingham's contract was bought out. Despite seemingly identical results. However, the real problem is this: what else was Notre Dame gonna do?

They couldn't get rid of the guy. Unless CW resigned, they would have eaten a huge financial hit in a failing economy. It would have also been an obvious admission that they made another colossal administrative blunder on the heels of Davie, O'Leary, and Willingham. And it would have chucked a beloved alumnus under the bus, labeling him a failure in his first solo gig.

Not to mention that keeping him can't backfire.

The Irish 2009 schedule is as follows: Nevada at home, Michigan on the road, Michigan State at home, Purdue on the road, Washington at home, USC at home, BC at home, Washington State in San Antonio, Navy at home, Pittsburgh on the road, Connecticut at home, and Stanford in Palo Alto. Charlie could pretty much sleep through the year and Notre Dame's faith would still be vindicated.

So the Notre Dame powers-that-be finally made the correct call, right?


Look more closely at that schedule. It is weak. WEAK. Notre Dame will have a bunch of matured upperclassmen who have had plenty of time in the system to learn it. And remember, these are all blue-chippers because that is, by definition, all Charlie Weis gets. Heading into 2009, everyone will ink down nine wins. The only question marks will be Michigan State at home, USC at home, and Boston College at home.

You see what I'm driving at?

The expectation of nine easy wins plus three challenges in South Bend will have a lot of people thinking 10 or 11 wins is realistic. Notre Dame has just delivered Charlie Weis' head to the media on a silver platter. Or rather golden.

He has no margin for error. If ND loses more than three games, dear GOD!

What should scare Charlie is that Nevada, at Michigan, at Purdue, at Pittsburgh, and at Stanford will not be gimmes. Unfortunately for him, try selling that to a rabid fanbase and media. So what happens if the Irish stagger under these expectations?

Look at that picture. The comparison of TW to CW will no longer be so similar. CW's resume will look inferior and the extension will look even worse. Not only that, the scene will include a vote of confidence that looked foolish at the time and looks infinitely more so in hindsight.

Even if the school goes 9-3 or better, it'll probably be back in a BCS game and getting slaughtered by a truly elite program.

Notre Dame has given itself no out by indulging its fanbase's lunacy, its delusion that the program can still be a national power. Never again will Notre Dame compete with the likes of USC. Yet it continues to operate and schedule as if those days are just the right tweak away. As long as the school adheres to its elevated academic standards, they are not.

College football is no longer a place where a squad of student-athletes can excel on an annual basis. There are simply too many programs treating their kids like professional athletes who must deal with hideous little annoyances like classwork and professors. How can you expect young kids to navigate considerable academic course loads while working hard enough to compete with kids who can focus almost exclusively on athletic improvement?

You can't.

No one seems to think so except Notre Dame. Nobody is stunned when smaller schools that pride themselves on education can't compete with the bigguns. Stanford, Duke, Northwestern, the Ivies, Vanderbilt, etc. don't expect to hang with the elite every year. If everything comes together and they catch lightning in a bottle, great. But the goal is to stay competitive, maybe finish with a winning record and go to a bowl game.

Notre Dame belongs in that club, is in that club except its alumni and fans don't realize it or won't accept it. And that's the problem.

There is a disturbing trend developing in South Bend. Since Bob Davie, two coaches have come in and had their greatest successes with the previous guy's players. Davie reigned over ND football during the period of CFB that saw academics take a back seat (of the bus) to competitive performance. He was the first to pay the price of that shift and the resolute expectations of fans and alumni.

TW came in and got off to a good start, but wore down. Ditto for Weis although he's getting more of a chance to persevere. But if a coaching genius and star recruiter can't get the job down with all that leash, can any coach succeed?

I say no. And if no coach can deliver on what's expected of the program, the expectation must be the problem. Yet Notre Dame continues to indulge the fallacy.

So look out, folks. This should get a lot more fun.

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