Notre Dame Needs to Quit Deluding Itself: How the Irish Can Return to Prominence

Gerald BallCorrespondent INovember 12, 2009

SOUTH BEND, IN - OCTOBER 03: Cheerleaders and the leprechaun mascot of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish run onto the field before a game against the Washington Huskies on October 3, 2009 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Washington 37-30in overtime. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

First things first: Should Charlie Weis be fired? Yes—but not for the reason that everyone thinks.

Instead, Weis needs to be fired because he should have never been hired to begin with. Weis was hired because of the delusion that as a big name coach he could quickly restore Notre Dame to prominence.

Now do not get me wrong; Weis is—or at least at the time of his initial hire WAS—a big name coach who COULD HAVE maintained a prominent program or restored a prominent program.

But he wasn't what they needed, which was someone to take a program that IS NOT PROMINENT and build it from the ground up.

The grand delusion is that Notre Dame is this dominant big-time program that has had a few bad years and only needs the right coach to get them back to the powerhouse that they have traditionally been.

The truth is that the powerhouse that Notre Dame was, for all intents and purposes, no longer exists, and that the only way that Notre Dame can even be relevant, let alone dominant, in the future is to let go of that past and allow someone to come in and start building a new future with a new tradition.

Notre Dame fans need to face facts. When Notre Dame won their last major bowl game, most of the kids who will sign letters of intent on national signing day were one or two years old—which means that when ND won their last national title, in 1988, virtually none of the kids being recruited right now were even born.

That was just the Lou Holtz era, a five-year quick fix that was actually harmful to Notre Dame's long-term prospects for success because it allowed Notre Dame's fans to keep living in the past for 15 more years.

The truth is that Notre Dame has not been a consistently relevant program nationally since the 1970s.

Consider how Notre Dame has changed since even the Holtz era, let alone the 1970s and prior. Consider how college football has changed, how the sports media has changed, and how society itself has changed.

They include the 85-scholarship limit, Proposition 48, Notre Dame's substantially increased admissions requirements for athletes, the passing game, meaningful integration in the South and Southwest, the full mainstreaming of Catholics into American society, huge population shifts from the Northeast and Midwest to the Southeast and Southwest, basketball taking the place of football as the most popular sport in the urban Northeast and Midwest, the rise of superconferences (and later the BCS), and the exponential rise in the sport's exposure and popularity due to cable television and the Internet.

A social scientist could spend hours explaining the various ways that these things drastically changed college football and not even scratch the surface.

Perhaps more importantly, a college recruiting coordinator would only need 15 minutes to explain to you how every single one of these changes seriously harmed Notre Dame football , how Notre Dame has spent decades ignoring or refusing to adapt to them all, and why as a result ND needs to take a long-term rebuilding approach instead of thinking that Urban Meyer or Brian Kelly can come in and win a title in three years (assuming that a top-profile candidate like that would even take the job, which is highly doubtful).

But let us summarize a few of them. Top Catholic football players are no longer heavily inclined towards Notre Dame because Catholicism is now mainstream (this also applies to younger Catholic coaches like Urban Meyer and Brian Kelly). Further, Notre Dame football has been pedestrian for so long that a generation of Catholic athletes has grown up paying more attention to Florida, USC, and Texas.

Regardless of background, far fewer top athletes live near where Notre Dame would get most of its players (the Northeast and upper Midwest), and getting kids from other regions is difficult because South Bend, Indiana is not a place virtually any of these kids would want to visit, let alone spend four years of their lives.

Thanks to the saturation coverage of college football, athletes are much more willing to go to lesser known programs that weren't even shown on TV 20 to 30 years ago (consider that ESPN's College GameDay will be at the TCU-Utah game, and realize that in another era Notre Dame-Pitt would have been one of only three to five games shown on national television this week even if neither team was particularly good!).

Finally, of the top athletes that actually do want to go to Notre Dame, the school will decline over half because of grades, and when one considers elite linemen, especially tackles, the percentage that can get into Notre Dame is smaller still.

Notre Dame supporters, of course, reject all of these as excuses. They tell themselves that the right coach would have the 30 to 40 of the Rivals, Scout, or ESPN top 100 that meet ND's academic requirements begging to spend four years in rural Indiana playing for a program that's won one bowl game—the Hawai'i Bowl at that—since they've been alive.

They use the recruiting success of Charlie Weis to justify that thinking, but look a little deeper: The clear majority of the top Weis recruits were ON OFFENSE—meaning that Jimmy Clausen, Golden Tate, Michael Floyd etc. came primarily to play for the offensive coordinator who won three Super Bowls with the Patriots, not because of anything having to do with Notre Dame's tradition.

Would big-time recruits follow another big name coach were ND to hire one? Not nearly to the extent that ND fans believe.

For instance, hiring Urban Meyer would mean maybe five to eight kids a year following him there because he is Urban Meyer—not nearly enough. Why any blue chip recruit would follow Brian Kelly to Notre Dame when the guy will have at most two Big East titles to his credit, ND fans would have to explain to me.

Ultimately, Notre Dame would still be left with their same limited and shallow recruiting pool. Whoever Notre Dame hires will have the challenge of identifying and developing the best players they possibly can from that pool and winning with those players so that they can expand it.

That is precisely what Notre Dame fans don't want to accept. They want to believe that Meyer would have the same success at ND as he is having at Florida because Notre Dame is still as good a program as Florida, if not better. They REALLY want to believe that Kelly would have more success at Notre Dame than he would at Cincinnati because Notre Dame is a better program than Cincinnati.

Notre Dame fans insist on believing that the recruiting pool is not shallow and limited because every high school football player either wants to come to ND, or would if they had the right coach to tell them why they SHOULD want to come to ND.

Which means that they insist on believing that Notre Dame means as much to 16-year-olds growing up in California, Texas, and Florida today as it did to the children of second and third generation Catholic immigrants in Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, etc. in the days of Knute Rockne, Frank Leahy, and Ara Parseghian.

In other words, a complete and total delusion.

It is not that modern football players do not care about tradition and history, because many of them do. It is that Notre Dame's tradition and history is irrelevant to their current experience.

It isn't just Notre Dame. Kids aren't going to Navy to be Roger Staubach, Syracuse to be Jim Brown (or Paul Robeson or Ernie Davis), or Grambling to be Jackie Harris or Doug Williams either.

So Notre Dame's next coach will have to be someone who can build a new program and—more importantly—a new tradition from the ground up. Notre Dame football needs to reinvent itself to succeed.

Other schools have done it; see Bob Stoops at Oklahoma. (Don't focus on the fact that Stoops won a title in two years, but rather that he is running the shotgun-spread at a school that defined power football for decades.) As a matter of fact, entire conferences have. Witness the drastic makeovers that the ACC, Big 12, and the SEC have pulled off in the last 10 to 15 years alone.

In order to do it, Notre Dame needs to stop trying to find a coach that will win them a national title in three years—which isn't going to happen—and start trying to find one that can build a program, a tradition, a brand over the next 10 to 15 years.

They need a fan and alumni base that will give this coach the time that he needs based on realistic short and intermediate goals, and not to keep running guys off because they can't accomplish your delusions.

The fact is that so long as these delusions remain, no sensible candidate is going to take the job. If a guy has a top job where he is contending for BCS bowls and national titles, he is going to stay there—and if a guy is an up-and-coming star, he is going to stay where he is until the next big job comes around.

No one sensible is going to take a job where he has to beat USC and Michigan every year while recruiting against Stanford and Northwestern.

That's right: Notre Dame fans would love to pretend that they are recruiting against USC and Michigan, but the truth is that most of the players at USC and Michigan would never clear ND admissions.

So as long as the delusions remain, Notre Dame will just keep hiring guys like Bob Davie, George O'Leary, Tyrone Willingham, and Charlie Weis...guys who are either desperate because they can't do any better (O'Leary), clueless because they don't know what they are getting into (Davie and Willingham), or both (Weis).

Anyone knowledgeable, sensible, and qualified knows that what Notre Dame's fanbase wants—to win with little local talent, a rural cold weather location, elevated entrance requirements, and no recent tradition, and to do it NOW—is impossible.

This is not some obscure opinion. It is the opinion of EVERYBODY who has considered the situation, including former Notre Dame coaches and players. So, the only way to attract someone qualified and capable is to give that person a job description that matches what a coach can actually accomplish there in real life, not in fantasy land.

Bottom line: If Notre Dame supporters don't recognize where their program is right now and hire a coach based on it, then they will be one step closer to no longer being a serious factor on the national football scene, and Notre Dame's storied history will be just that...history.


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