Notre Dame Under Charlie Weis and Beyond

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Notre Dame Under Charlie Weis and Beyond
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In the cacophony of opinions and numbers shouted in the media by long-time Charlie Weis-haters and Notre Dame detractors, Notre Dame Nation is best served by reviewing where we were in 2005.

Students and alumni were detached from the football program. High school coaches had been shunned and were reluctant to recommend their players to choose Notre Dame. Potential recruits were choosing other summer football camps. Irish football was hurtling toward mediocrity.

Few will argue that those trends have been reversed under Weis and his assistant coaches.

The success of Notre Dame football approaches a religious intensity rivaled only by emotions at Alabama and Texas. No buffer zone of conference championships exists at Notre Dame as it does for Bob Stoops, Jim Tressel, Mark Richt, or Brian Kelly.

We expect a BCS game frequently, and a national championship once every five years. High expectations, constant scrutiny and criticism are part of the job Weis has embraced. As Charlie says, “Welcome to my world.”

To his credit, Weis always accepts the blame for any loss and defers any credit for a win to his players and coaching staff. “No excuses” and Weis’s emphasis on outcomes—wins and losses—were a breath of fresh air in 2005.

We had heard repeatedly from the prior coach, “We had a good game plan. The players just did not execute it.” Ty rarely made changes at halftime and, realistically, did not have the heart and energy to commit to Notre Dame football.

In a prior article , I detailed the difference in offensive line recruiting under Willingham and Weis, and how it impacted 2007 and, to a lesser extent, 2008. Weis’ long days and tireless work habits on behalf of his alma mater have been examples to his staff and players.

 

Expectations

Clashmore Mike quantified Irish expectations prior to the season. Our readers’ average expectation: nine wins. As an alumnus, Weis sets the bar higher—"9-3 is not good enough." We were enthralled as four-ring Charlie turned a mediocre quarterback into a Heisman candidate and a second-string receiver into a two-time All-American. Yet during Weis’ tenure, the defense has always been the millstone around Irish necks.

With a mature offensive line and the maturity of skill-position players, our offensive production this year has exceeded most expectations, though knowledgeable Irish backers contest its limitations. Again, this year we have a Heisman-caliber quarterback, an All-American receiver, and an offense averaging almost 30 points per game.

 

The Challenges of History

Another Clashmore Mike article discussed the problems with hype and history. Coaches and players come to Notre Dame to be in the spotlight and commit to the glare whether we win or lose. Is eight wins not good enough to keep the job?

When Bob Davie was the head coach, he joined a bunch of students for a ceremonial trip to Knute Rockne’s grave for an Irish whiskey, and to leave a shot for Rock. The students were shocked into silence when Davie addressed Rock with “Rock, why did you have to set the bar so high?” It's not just Rockne—who won 88 percent of his games—Bob, but Jesse Harper (86 percent), Franke Leahy (85 percent), Ara Paraseghian (83 percent), Elmer Layden (76.9 percent), Lou Holtz (76.5 percent), and Dan Devine (76.4 percent) who have all exceeded the 75 percent (9-3) bar. That's seven coaches.

Historically, only Michigan’s five coaches—Bo Schembechler (85 percent), Lloyd Carr (77.9 percent), Fielding Yost (77.8 percent), Fritz Crisler (77.8 percent), and Gary Moeller (77.5 percent)—come anywhere near ND ’s coaching success.

That success—its history and hype—is what each Notre Dame head coach must face head on. To fail against those expectations is to stand on the shore trying to stop a tsunami.

 

BCS Bowls, Weis’ Records, 2005 Coaching Hires

In the last four years, only Jim Tressel (four), Pete Carroll (four), and Bob Stoops (three) have taken their teams to more BCS games than Weis (two), who is tied with Joe Paterno, Mack Brown, Urban Meyer, and Frank Beamer for fourth. Brown and Meyer will play in another BCS bowl this year.

Since Weis measures himself in wins and losses, let’s see how he stacks up against other coaching hires in 2005.

Of 23 coaching hires, seven coaches have been fired and one deceased. Five others have losing records. Only 10 of the 23 have winning records. Four—Meyer, Les Miles, Kyle Whittingham, and Bronco Mendenhall—have excellent records (greater than a 70 percent winning percentage). Six others—Mike Gundy, Dave Wannstedt, Skip Holtz, Weis, Bill Cubit, and Steve Spurrier—have comparable winning records.

Subtracting wins over FCS teams, Weis is the winningest coach of those BCS coaches (35-26, 57 percent), Gundy (31-25, 55 percent), Wannstedt (30-24, 55 percent), and Spurrier (30-27, 52 percent). Of all of these 2005 coaching hires, only Weis is discussed as being on the hot seat and with a job imminently in jeopardy.

Arguably, Whittingham, Mendenhall and Holtz, though very good coaches, may not have had the same success at BCS schools. Utah’s BCS win over Alabama is notable, yet BYU’s loss to Arizona, and Boise State’s loss to TCU may be more reflective of records against tougher competition. Comparing Whittingham’s and Mendenhall’s records to Meyer’s and Miles’s success would be a difficult argument to make.

All of which means that, of the 23 new coaches in 2005, Weis has the third-highest winning percentage among BCS coaches—eliminating FCS games. Not good enough at Notre Dame?

In Search of the Next Rockne

Could Meyer, Miles, or Saban have done better at Notre Dame? Before you answer, think of the substance in the arguments that Notre Dame must attract prospects to Indiana and pass admission standards. Ask yourself how many players at Florida, LSU and Alabama could be admitted to Notre Dame?

Among Weis’ proudest accomplishments is his team’s academic successes. Grade point averages and graduation rates are at an all-time high. In two of his five years, Notre Dame has won the trophy for highest graduation rate among all FBS schools. He and his staff commit to four-year scholarships for his players. If one is unable to compete due to an injury, he is switched to another scholarship, so that he can complete his degree at Notre Dame. If academics dip, that player does not play due to “personal reasons” in order to work on his grades. Weis and his staff have generated a great deal of loyalty from their players.

 

Which coaching hire has done better since 2002?

Comparing Weis’s record with all coaches hired from 2002-07 (88 total), only Nick Saban, Jeff Tedford, Brett Bielema, Chris Petersen, Brian Kelly and the four previously mentioned—Meyer, Miles, Whittingham, and Mendenhall—have had better winning percentages than Weis. Tedford, Bielema, and Mendenhall have not taken their teams to BCS bowls. Petersen, Whittingham, Saban and Kelly have coached their teams in one BCS bowl each. That leaves only two of 88 coaches hired since 2002 who have both a better winning percentage and more BCS bowl appearance record than Weis—Meyer and Miles. To say Notre Dame has higher expectations is an understatement.

 

Notre Dame Coach Expectations

Using Charlie Weis’s record as not good enough, let’s see what Irish fans expect of any coach:

  • Continued academic success without lowering admission standards
  • Recruiting nationally and getting top-10 talent each year
  • Three BCS games in five years
  • A national championship once in five years
  • Five bowl games in five years
  • A 70 percent winning percentage against BCS competition and Top 10 rankings regularly
  • Winning records against Top 25 teams and other teams with winning records
  • Finish at least 9-3, yearly
  • Minimize losses to traditional rivals, home losses
  • Continued commitment to the ideals of Notre Dame

Did I miss anything? I could throw in an improved defense and running game. Anything less would fall short of expectations by Irish fans.

A new coaching staff needs to replace the recruiting talent reflected by Rob Ianello’s four years in Rivals Top 25 recruiters, Corwin Brown's two years in the top 25 recruiters, and Brian Polian's one year in the top 25 recruiters. Mike Haywood was chosen as Assistant Coach of the Year in 2005 with Bill Lewis among the final candidates for the same honor one year as well. Frank Verducci has made great strides in improving the offensive line and the running game has improved under his and Tony Alford’s coaching.

 

What Has Been Missing?

One thing Rockne, Leahy, Parseghian, Devine, and Holtz had that Weis does not is a dominant defense. Defense wins championships and saves your job. Whether the criticism has been poor tackling, poor run defense, poor schemes, or lack of aggressive secondary play, it all comes down to close games this year and trying to outscore our opponents.

Except for Nevada (No. 1 rushing offense), every Notre Dame loss this year has been to highly-ranked rushing offenses, including Navy (ranked third), Pittsburgh (29th), Michigan (31st), USC (34th) and Connecticut (42nd), and each loss has been in the last minute, or in overtime. Stanford (ranked 12th) is upcoming.

Notre Dame’s rushing defense this year ranks 80th, the worst its been in Weis’s five years, except for 2007 (96th).

Notre Dame football has decisions to make that require analyzing whether they throw out the baby with the bathwater. Should Weis be fired, there will be blood-letting. Clausen and Tate may depart for the NFL .

Some very high quality assistant coaches may quickly find work elsewhere. Committed and interested prospects for this recruiting cycle may look elsewhere. Emotional ties between players and staff would be broken. A new staff may take a year or so to implement its offense and defense, longer to put in place some personnel it may need. Michigan’s lesson with Rich Rodriguez cannot be ignored.

While all the publicity brings smiles to a Jim Saunders’ or Mark May’s faces and drives ratings at ESPN, Notre Dame needs to decide if something less than major surgery will fix the direction of the football program.

 

An Alternative Way of Proceeding

An alternative might be to hire a high-profile, successful defensive coach like Will Muschamp, Charlie Strong or a defensive-minded coach at a non-BCS school like Gary Patterson to provide guidance to a young defense.

Such a selection could be designated as a “head coach in waiting,” so the coaching transition could be smooth. The new coach in waiting could concentrate on the defense, evaluate current talent and assistant coaches, and get used to the pressure and visibility of the Notre Dame head coaching position, with national demands of recruiting and the school's alumni.

Clausen and Tate would naturally move to the NFL after next year, and benefit in another year under Weis’s offense.

If Notre Dame can afford to buy out Weis’ remaining years, they can afford the kind of salary required to lure such a coach away from his current position, especially if it costs one buyout-year less from Weis’ contract.

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