Hey Notre Dame, Maybe It's You
Everyone has that friend.
You know the type. Deep down, he’s a good guy, really. But he’s never been able to hold a long-term relationship.
Time after time, girl after girl, he gets the same result—a failed relationship. Even when things start out magically, they never end well.
And every time this happens, he blames the girl. It was her fault it didn’t work out. She was the one who didn’t make the necessary changes. She was the one who needed to go.
You and everyone around you know the truth, but you don’t have the heart to tell the guy. The problem isn’t the girls, it’s him.
And in South Bend, Indiana the problem isn’t the coach; it’s Notre Dame.
Look, I have nothing against the Irish, I really don’t. I think that college football, like any good organization, league, or sport, thrives when its premier programs are at their best.
College football needs Notre Dame. I need Notre Dame. Heck, even USC needs Notre Dame.
But the Irish seem to be in a dark phase of denial, one that has lasted well over a decade. Coach after coach, the results are the same in South Bend, yet nothing major seems to change.
First, it was Bob Davie.
Davie, who took over for the retired Lou Holtz in 1997, racked up a career record of 35-25 in five years with the Irish.
There were some highlights, including a BCS bid in 2001. But the Irish went 0-3 in bowl games, and twice missed bowl season altogether.
So the Irish dumped Bob Davie.
After a brief (and embarrassing) flirtation with George O’Leary, in came Ty Willingham.
Things started off beautifully for Willingham, including an 8-0 start to the 2002 season. But the Irish would go on to lose three of their final five games, including the Gator Bowl to North Carolina State.
Then things got ugly fast. The Irish were not only losing games, they were getting blown out.
A 38-0 loss to Michigan.
A 45-14 loss USC.
A 41-16 loss to Purdue.
So what did Notre Dame do? They sent Willingham packing.
Next came Charlie Weis, the man who helped build the New England Patriots dynasty in the NFL. Surely Weis would bring a new attitude and a new style to South Bend. Surely Weis could bring in the talent needed to compete for national titles once more.
For a season or two, all of those statements seemed true. The Irish were among the best teams in college football in 2005 and 2006, earning trips to BCS bowls in both seasons.
But in 2007, the wheels came off. The Irish fell to 3-9—the worst season ever for Notre Dame football. The 2008 season saw improvement, but only slightly, as the Irish racked up a record of 7-6.
And here in 2009, despite Weis coaching for his job and Jimmy Clausen garnering Heisman attention, Notre Dame still has not been able to get back to being, well, Notre Dame.
And so, most likely, the Irish will soon say goodbye to Charlie Weis.
But at what point do we realize that the recent failures in South Bend are no longer an aberration, but rather a trend?
Notre Dame is 91-66 since Holtz retired in 1996. That’s a winning percentage of 63 percent.
The Irish have lost nine of their last 10 bowl games, with the only win coming this past December against Hawaii.
Once again, Notre Dame is ranked highly in recruiting for the 2010 class (11th in the country by Rivals.com). Yet, year after year, this highly touted talent has not produced wins on the field.
If the problem really is Notre Dame, what exactly is the problem?
Is it the high academic standards? It’s certainly true that Notre Dame cannot recruit all of the same players Florida, Texas, and USC can.
Is it the overinflated expectations? There’s no question the pressure is intense in South Bend, where anything less than a major BCS bowl or being in contention for the national championship is considered a failure.
Is it the administration's fault for hiring the wrong guys? Is it the booster's for demanding too much—or not demanding enough? Is it the fact that there just isn’t as much appeal in wearing the Golden Dome as there was 15 to 20 years ago?
In reality, it’s likely a combination of all of these things.
Whatever the case, it clearly is time for the program to sit down in front of the mirror for a long, hard, self-evaluation. Before the program goes out to find its next Bob Davie, Ty Willingham, or Charlie Weis, it needs to find itself.
Perhaps that means realizing that Notre Dame will never again be what Notre Dame was.
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