Everyone inside the college football world seems to agree that this will be Charlie Weis' last season as head coach at Notre Dame. After only two and a half weeks of red hot speculation, dozens of coaching candidate replacements have been scrutinized and debated without end.
But one topic that keeps popping up when discussing the future of Notre Dame football is all of the off-field issues the program has to deal with. These problems, some would say excuses (what I call internal issues), can be summed as follows:
The high academic standards prevents Notre Dame from recruiting at the highest level in college football. It does not prevent Notre Dame from recruiting at a high level, as evidenced by the likes of Clausen, Tate, Floyd and Te'o, but the program has to fight an uphill battle (especially on defense) in this realm which it has been losing to the likes of Florida, USC and Texas for nearly 20 years.
Additionally, Notre Dame players are true student-athletes who are forced to live with the general student population and devote sufficient times to their studies all with a heavy emphasis on maintaining high grades.
In short, Notre Dame is not a football factory. It is not a place where a recruit can sleepwalk through three years of school, breeze through unchallenging classes and focus their attention exclusively on football.
Moreover, this does not include other factors (external issues) that have hindered the Irish football program over the past fifteen years or so:
Reduced scholarships, increased parity, the abundance of televised games (and the marketing of programs via the internet, phones, etc.) and the penchant for the best athletes to enroll in southern or western schools, not just because of academic concerns, but because of warm weather and beautiful co-eds.
Now, there are clearly two groups of people who take opposing views on these issues.
One group views these problems as the main deterrent holding Notre Dame back from regaining its stature in the college football world, while the other group tends to view the coaching as the main problem, with all of the external issues mentioned above merely being weak excuses.
My opinion on the matter is that these issues are definitely real, they are making it increasingly difficult for Notre Dame to compete, but dealing with these issues goes hand in hand with picking the right coach.
The real question is, what should Notre Dame do in the future if, or when, it decides to hire a new head coach?
Does the school need to relax its academic policy, turn a blind eye and make more of a commitment to winning football? Or does the school only need to hire a top level coach like Urban Meyer to fix things? Is it necessary to do both?
The rumor is that back in 2004, when Meyer turned down the coaching gig in South Bend in favor of Florida, the Notre Dame Administrations refusal to budge on the academic issue was a big problem and ultimately stalled the negotiations between the two parties.
No matter if you believe this or not, I think it is tough to overlook this.
So another question must be asked: Can Notre Dame win with someone like Urban Meyer as coach and sticking to its current academic policy?
Could Meyer recruit like he does in Gainesville on a consistent basis while coaching at Notre Dame? Should we expect a return to .725 percent winning football and national title contention once a great coach finally graces the sidelines of Notre Dame Stadium?
Or what about someone like Jim Harbaugh who is the newest hot candidate for the Irish job? I have no doubt he'd improve Notre Dame because he seems to do more with less at a similarly academically stringent Stanford school. But how much better could he really do?
Would Irish fans be happy if Harbaugh wins 65% percent of his games, a significant improvement over Davie/Willingham/Weis?
Take a look at this year as well: Harbaugh has defeated two top-ten teams in Oregon and USC, but also lost to Wake Forest, Oregon State and Arizona.
Will Notre Dame fans be content to win a little bit more, beat some top teams once in a while and be more competitive, but not really approach the level of success of the Holtz/Devine/Parseghian regimes?
I think there's really only one answer to this problem: Notre Dame has to roll the dice and make a deal with the devil in order to start winning again.
Here's a scenario that I think would be twice as devastating as the last fifteen years:
Notre Dame hires Urban Meyer (or another "can't miss" & "proven winner") as head coach. But the administration won't budge on academics and Meyer ends up being a severe disappointment.
Perhaps Meyer will look good when compared to Notre Dame's last three coaches, but what if he never wins a title, loses some big games, and is saddled with many of the same problems we've seen the past 15 years?
The impact of having the "best coach in college football" and still not winning will place such a stigma to the program that it may not fully recover. If Meyer can't do it then it’s unrealistic to think that anyone can.
How much longer can Notre Dame stay relevant when it accepts mediocrity on the football field in favor of academics? What will become of the program when someday NBC doesn't televise home games and it’s more difficult to watch the Irish each week?
How far off is Notre Dame from not selling out home games, losing money and turning into a sparkly version of Northwestern?
Do the priests really care about winning football games as long as the program continues to pour millions into the school each year? Perhaps the best thing that could happen to Notre Dame football is to start losing money?
I may be overreacting to an eventual and massive downfall for Notre Dame, but I think these are some of the issues fans of the program have to seriously ponder.
What if even the greatest coach doesn't solve these problems?
That is why in the end, it is paramount that the Notre Dame administration make some tough but necessary concessions in order to bring winning football back to South Bend.
I'm not saying throw caution to the wind, but if the school wants to get serious it must bring in someone like Meyer, Brian Kelly or Gary Patterson and let these great coaches take over the entire program with no interference from the priests. Give the next coach five years of free reign like Lou Holtz was given.
Will there be trouble, suspensions, and a few problem players if this happens? No doubt, but it's a tight rope the University must walk at some point in the future.
Do you remember Holtz teams fondly for dominating on the field from 1988-1993? Or do you shake your head at the few problem players that caused the priests to blush during that same time?
Irish legends like Paul Hornung and Joe Montana have been stating for years that Notre Dame cannot be an Ivy league-type school and recruit the defensive players necessary to win in today's college football. And what has been the weakest aspect of Irish football the past 15 years?
Why have we been so quick to dismiss these legends, who by the way, never had to deal with a tenth of the restrictions today's players do when they slipped on their gold helmets?
It makes me proud as a Notre Dame fan to know that the current team has a cumulative GPA over 3.0 and that they are nice young men who stay out of trouble. But I'd much rather have a team full of nasty football players who battle and bring pride to Notre Dame with their success on the field.
Since the 1950's, Notre Dame has deemphasized football and made it increasingly harder to compete. But the internal issue of academics was never the hindrance that it is today because Notre Dame has become a bonafide elite academic school in the past 20 years.
Even more important, there was never the external issues making it harder for Notre Dame to compete until the early 1990's. So, Father Hesburgh may have tightened academics the best he could for thirty years, but Notre Dame was still "the place" to play and was full of ridiculous amounts of talent in the “down” years of the late 50’s/early 60’s and early 80’s.
There have been some admittedly horrible coaches at Notre Dame before Holtz took over, but even those coaches had deeper and better talent than what Weis is bringing in today. Notre Dame could win five games and still end up with a few All-Americans and send a handful of players to the NFL each year.
Now the ball is in the other corner, with external forces working against Notre Dame and the academics are as strict as ever. It's a policy that will not work and cannot work. It has never worked at Notre Dame.
The example of Lou Holtz is pertinent to this discussion. He was great friends with the Notre Dame Athletic Director and it is generally agreed that the administration “left Holtz alone” to get the Irish program back on its feet.
With the services of super-recruiter Vinnie Cerrato, Holtz was able to assemble incredible talent and dozens of impact players including 21 NFL draft picks in the first two rounds (10 1st round) from 1989-1994.
Eventually, Notre Dame’s leaders grew “uncomfortable” with Cerrato and his players and by 1991 he had left for a position with the 49ers. The administration also began its academic clamp down (that has continued and increased till today) beginning around this time.
With Cerrato’s recruits as upperclassmen (beginning in 1988) and until his last recruiting class played their collective final game in 1993, Notre Dame went 64-9-2 (.866%).
Without Cerrato’s recruits making an impact on the program, Lou Holtz went 36-21-1 (.629%).
Do you see the correlation? Lou Holtz was a great coach, but without the ability to recruit like Texas or Florida, Holtz became just a very good coach.
That’s why if Urban Meyer or someone of that stature comes to Notre Dame I would fully expect an improvement over the past 15 years of Irish football, but without the chains being removed from recruiting, no one will bring Notre Dame back to elite status.
That's why I say President Jenkins and AD Jack Swarbrick need to roll the dice, lay it out on the line, and commit to winning.