The summer-long conversation regarding the fate of Notre Dame head coach will soon be over. Unfortunately, most of the discussion on this subject, from the television sports channels to internet bloggers, has offered more heat than light.
In less than a week, the Irish will tee it up against the University of Nevada in Notre Dame Stadium. Charlie Weis’ legacy may well be decided in this very first game. Notre Dame and Coach Weis are at a fork in the road, and which direction they go will soon be known. Will it be mediocrity? Or the proverbial “Return to Glory?”
The Spanish philosopher George Santayana said "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." This goes for institutions as well as individuals, and throughout the history of Notre Dame’s football program, many of the same mistakes have been made, then corrected, then made again.
It’s a lesson for those with short memories, those who believe that the program’s recent decade of mediocrity is a new phenomenon, and that Notre Dame’s best days are behind her.
We all know about Knute Rockne, the legendary coach who not only set the bar so high for the Irish, but also with his celebrity, his marketing savvy, and his winning percentage (still the highest in the history of the game), created Big Time College Football.
But with his death in 1931 there began a cycle of feast or famine for Notre Dame Football that continues to this day.
Rockne was followed by Elmer Layden, who coached from 1934 to 1940. Layden was one of the legendary “Four Horsemen,” but as a coach, especially following Rockne, his teams were a disappointment.
His best year was 1938, when the Irish went 8-1. Otherwise, six or seven wins out of a nine game season was about average. Not bad, but for Notre Dame, not good enough.
But soon Irish eyes were smiling. Under Frank Leahy (1941-43, 1946-49) Notre Dame won four National Championships. Some Irish Faithful may think it blasphemous, but Frank Leahy was Notre Dame's greatest coach. His winning percentage of .864, was just under that of Knute Rockne’s.
But as Leahy’s success grew, the University began feeling self-conscious about what might seem to be an over-emphasis on football, and the football coach. This wasn’t new…during the heyday of Rockne, the feeling that the colorful coach was beginning to eclipse the educational and spiritual mission of the school was growing.
However, Rockne died before it came to a head. Not so with Leahy. The administration began to restrict the coach’s scholarships and power, and eventually forced him out.
What followed was a decade of mediocrity. From1954 to 1963, the Irish underperformed. First was coach Terry Brennan, followed by Joe Kuharich. Neither was a success. Fans grieved and detractors gloated that Notre Dame’s success was history. Done. They were “irrelevant.” Sound familiar?
Then came Ara Parseghian.
There’s no need to recap the Era of Ara…even the youngest know-nothing is familiar with the championship-caliber teams that Parseghian fielded between 1964 and1974. When Parseghian retired, Dan Devine brought home another national championship.
We all know the story from there. Gerry Faust, fresh from coaching high school, ushered in the next down period. Lou Holtz came to the rescue with 11 years of glory. And when Holtz got too big and too successful, just like Leahy before him, he had to go. And with him went winning.
And now, after the latest decade of mediocrity, we stand at the fork in the road.
From where this writer sits, Charlie Weis is poised to be either the next Ara Parseghian, or the next Terry Brennan. His fate is in his hands. When Weis took over in 2005, his team exploded onto the scene. Who can forget it? It was the greatest single-season, first-year-as-coach turn-around since, well, Ara Parseghian. All was well for two years. Notre Dame had returned to where she belonged. Or had she?
What followed two breathtaking years of success were two of the worst years in Irish history. And so here we are.
Like Weis, Terry Brennan’s first two years were good. In 1954 he only lost one game, and in 1955 he only lost two. But then, in 1956, with a team loaded primarily with underclassmen, his record fell to an abysmal 2-8. Fans were howling for his head, and for a while it looked like he would be canned.
But in the end, the administration kept him on. Many felt that Notre Dame’s high athletic standards were crippling recruiting. But part of the problem was that Brennan was an inexperienced coach. (He was only 25 when he was hired!) And it was on-the-job training for him as a head coach.
Anyone who follows Irish football will see the parallels with Coach Weis. Is he Ara? Or is he Brennan. Time will tell, but I’m betting on a resurgence. Unlike Terry Brennan, Weis isn’t a boy in a man’s job. He’s taken steps to fix his mistakes, and the talent is there.
But I won’t guarantee it. Remember, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
This article originally appeared on Domersportsreport
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