Illinois and Notre Dame: A Tale of Two Programs
At the start of the college football season, Pat Forde of ESPN.com called Illinois football coach Ron Zook one of the "two worst coaching hires of 2005."
Zook has consistently faced derision and skepticism concerning his coaching ability.
Conversely, Charlie Weis—hired in the same offseason—received a 10-year contract extension after a loss because his offensive brilliance was so evident that the "greatest program ever" just had to tie him up.
Thus far, Zook's Fighting Illini are 5-2 in his third season, and appear to be battling for a Big Ten title after upsetting Penn State and Wisconsin.
Weis' Fighting Irish are 1-6, having lost all four of their contests against Big Ten schools.
How does one explain the divergence of these two programs?
Despite what the Domers will tell you, it ain't recruiting.
In 2004, Rivals.com ranked Notre Dame's recruiting class 32nd in the country, ahead of Wisconsin, South Carolina, and South Flordia—and well ahead of Illinois and Georgia Tech, who pummeled the Irish in South Bend.
In 2005, Rivals ranked Notre Dame 40th—paltry by Irish standards, but still better than Louisville, Boston College, South Florida, Kentucky, and yes, Georgia Tech and Illinois too.
At the very least, Weis' team should have been far more competitive in its first five games, especially given the young talent at the coach's disposal.
Just as Notre Dame's struggles can't be solely ascribed to recruiting, neither can Illinois' success. Yes, touted prospects Rashard Mendenhall and Arrellious Benn have been essential offensive playmakers for the Illini—but Illinois' core is composed of unheralded talent.
Two-star quarterback Eddie McGee has outplayed starter Juice Williams more often than not. A two-star center anchors the offensive line. The defense's major contributors are guys like two-star Will Davis, three-star Vontae Davis, and three-star J Leman.
As it stands, it appears that Ron Zook has done more with less, and Charlie Weis has done less with more.
Weis might have led his team to back-to-back BCS appearances while Zook finished his first two seasons 2-10, but let's be honest:
Weis took over a 6-6 team with a Heisman-caliber junior quarterback and a cream-puff schedule (not to mention that his team was embarrassed in both bowl games).
Zook took over a 3-8 squad with a thoroughly depleted roster.
Any Notre Dame fan who thinks Ty Willingham left the cupboards bare in South Bend needs to research Ron Turner's last years at Illinois.
Looking at these early results leads one to conclude that Zook has shown he can develop talent over time, no matter what the star rating. Weis has yet to show he can do the same.
A comparison of the two coaches in this regard begs an obvious question:
Why is Notre Dame's 2008 recruiting class the best in the country?
Why would blue-chip prospects flock to an impersonal coach who, through three years, hasn't developed what he was given?
Notre Dame hasn't won a bowl game in these kids' football-watching lives. The route to the NFL is smoother through Texas, USC, Florida, and about twenty other schools.
The Rudyesque mystique does not—and cannot—exist for the younger generation, but still they're running to board a ship that might not float.
How can Notre Dame have fifteen four- and five-star prospects verbally committed already? How did Weis, an offensive coach, have the top three defensive players in Chicago (Darius Fleming, Sean Cwynar, and Steven Filer) locked up before their senior seasons even started?
It's a befuddling question—but one that needs to be asked, especially since Notre Dame fans and alumni were adamant in accusing Zook of cheating last year after Illinois beat out the Irish for Benn and Martez Wilson.
Honestly, when Regis Philbin casts suspicion on your program in front of America's stay-at-home moms, the gloves are off.
They asked why anyone would want to play for Illinois.
I ask why anyone would want to play for Notre Dame.
Perhaps one might write this off as Notre Dame hatred—but there's a sincere question at issue here, for Zook's program is obviously on the rise while people are wondering why Notre Dame boosters give Charlie Weis far more courtesy than they gave Ty Willingham.
In the end, as I've said before, I can't help but conclude that I still don't get Notre Dame.
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