This entire week the talking heads on ESPN and columnists on major sports websites have gone about burying Notre Dame following the firing of Charlie Weis. Blowhards like Bob Ryan stand up and scream about how Notre Dame is totally irrelevant, the job is unappealing, and the delusional fan base needs to lower its expectation level because they’ll never be what they once were. No-names like Melissa Isaacson line up to write hatchet jobs that are either blatantly biased or factually flawed.
Enough is enough. I no longer can sit on the sidelines. It’s time to tackle this issue head-on.
Notre Dame is irrelevant and never will be again? Let’s remind everyone that:
A. Every sports news network, sports show, and website has devoted many of their main stories to ND’s coaching situation the last three days
B. ESPN has had a reporter stationed in South Bend since Sunday to give minute-by-minute updates (You’re a good man, George Smith)
C. Stanford just rushed the field when they beat the Irish…who were unranked and 6-5 coming into the contest
Some would argue that the above highlights just how relevant we still are, but let’s just put those facts aside for now. In the last two decades Notre Dame has been mired with its longest national championship drought in school history (21 years and counting), the longest bowl losing streak in NCAA history (’94-’06), and undeniable mediocrity since Lou Holtz left town in 1996. They have not even seriously been in the hunt for a title since the 1993 campaign. Does this prolonged drought mean that the well is forever dry and the Irish are doomed to go the way of former powers Army, University of Chicago, and Yale?
No, not at all. To be blunt, that stance is an ignorant snap judgment that ignores the very history of college football.
First of all, the only way a top-level program becomes irrelevant is if the school chooses to make itself irrelevant like the Ivies did in moving to I-AA and Chicago did by disbanding their program. Many cynics suggest that’s exactly what Notre Dame is doing by keeping “academic standards high” and not allowing “exceptions.” The fact is that the institution continues to give the program a wealth of resources that is on par or exceeds every other program in the country.
The football recruiting budget is so generous that it allows room for the coach to fly to Hawaii and back in the same day just to say “hello” to a recruit. The administration altered a long-standing policy and now allows high school seniors to enroll early for the football team. The school constructed a multi-million dollar athletic training complex that is one of the most impressive facilities in all of college athletics. And despite what people may think, there have been substantial exceptions made in allowing particular student athletes who wouldn’t normally qualify to come to school at Notre Dame (ex: Robert Blanton and Robert Hughes and their 810 SAT’s).
The gap between perception and reality when it comes to the academic standards of Notre Dame Football recruits is incredibly wide. The toughest part about recruiting borderline academic candidates to Notre Dame isn’t getting them past admissions, it’s the fact that there are no “joke” majors like you find at places like Michigan (anyone who wants to major in Parks, Recreation, & Fitness can go there). That means that once a recruit decides to come to South Bend he’ll actually have to work to complete his degree—something he must do, there is no option. Notre Dame fully expects each player on the team to graduate and provides them with ample resources to do so. If a player is totally uninterested in the student part of the term “student-athlete” then Notre Dame is not the place for him. I have no problem with that and no one who understands the University should.
Every program goes through rough patches, no matter how great the program’s history, resources, or talent. The reason for these “falls from grace” always boils down to one person: the head coach. Look at the greatest programs of all-time—all have gone through dry spells lasting at least ten seasons since the mid-80’s. Southern Cal’s winning pct. from ’91-’01 was .550. Texas had a winning pct. of .571 from ’87-’97 under McWilliams and Mackovic. Oklahoma’s winning pct. was .550 from ’89-’98 under Gibbs, Schnellenberger, and Blake. When Texas and USC won their championships this decade they snapped 35 and 25 year droughts.
Prolonged rough patches aren’t unheard of—in fact they’re pretty common. This is the first lengthy one Notre Dame has had to endure, which is a testament to how great it’s been through the years. To think it won’t emerge from it just like the other programs did when they got the right coach in place is ludicrous.
Alabama provides a perfect example. In fact, its situation was eerily similar to Notre Dame's over the past 15 years until Nick Saban took over. Let’s examine:
* Gene Stallings and Lou Holtz both retired after the ’96 season, both a few years removed from national title runs but still coaching at a high level (Holtz went 9-3 & 8-3 his last two years, Stallings went 8-3 & 10-3).
* Notre Dame brought in Bob Davie to replace Lou while the Tide brought in Mike Dubose. Davie lasted five years with some ups (’98, ’00) and downs (’97, ’99, ’01). Dubose only last four with one up (’98) and a horrific down (3-8 in ’00).
* Both schools hired coaches that experienced marginal success but lasted three years or less. For the Irish it was Ty Willingham (21-15 over three seasons), for the Tide it was Dennis Franchionne (17-8 over two seasons…violations on his watch landed Alabama on probation).
* Both schools also had to endure a scandal where they hired and then fired a coach before they had the opportunity to coach a game. Notre Dame had George O’Leary and his falsified resume in ’01 while Alabama had Mike Price and his stripper in ’03.
* Alabama hired Mike Shula in 2003 and he went 26-23 over four seasons before getting the axe. Notre Dame hired Charlie Weis for the 2005 season and through two years he was 19-6 with two BCS bowl berths.
Now here is where the two schools’ paths deviated. In 2007, Charlie Weis’ regime began to collapse with a 3-9 season and in the following two campaigns it became apparent he was not the coach Notre Dame needed. On the other hand, Alabama lured Nick Saban to Tuscaloosa the same season the Irish collapsed. After hiccupping during his first year, he has led them to two consecutive undefeated regular seasons and now no one debates they’re one of the top programs in the country.
So if you look back both Alabama and Notre Dame swooned immediately following the departure of national championship winning coaches in the mid-90’s. It took Alabama ten years and four fired coaches before they found their next great coach in Nick Saban. Notre Dame has now fired four coaches as well, time will tell if they can get the right man for the job like the Tide did.
This isn’t a rebuilding project like Ivan Maisel makes it out to be in his column this week. People forget that there was a perceived lack of talent at Alabama when Saban arrived just like many make that (incorrect) assumption right now at Notre Dame. There are plenty of great athletes on both sides of the ball, the problem is most haven’t been coached to reach their potential yet. That’s the reason Charlie Weis was let go—we had a very talented team that consistently underachieved.
In 2010 the Irish return 10 starters on defense—the majority of them with two years of eligibility remaining—and plenty of young, skilled talent on offense (Michael Floyd, Kyle Rudolph, Armando Allen, and Theo Riddick to name a few). If the right guy takes the reigns he’ll be set up for immediate success.
Columnists like Gene Wojciechowski write pieces like this one that say we just don’t have the talent and claims “even heralded freshman linebacker Manti Te'o lacks the speed and quickness to be a difference-maker.” Blatantly ignorant and inaccurate statements like that one make you realize 75% of the people who are sounding off about Notre Dame’s situation right now don’t watch the games and have no real idea what they’re talking about. They make uneducated assumptions based solely on perception. Anyone who has a finger on the pulse of this program—like John Walters in this great article—will confirm that while there are holes that need to be filled, this is a team that can make the leap sooner rather than later with the right leadership at the top.
Another popular topic that is supposed to confirm Notre Dame’s irrelevance is how the Notre Dame job just isn’t as appealing as it was thirty or forty years ago because big names like Saban, Brown, Tressel, and Meyer aren’t interested. I think it’s funny—they act like the top coaches were always falling over each other to come to South Bend and coach under the Golden Dome. That’s simply not been true since the 1940’s with the exception of when Frank Leahy took the job. Parseghian was a hot coach at a mid-level Big 10 school, but it wasn’t as if he was winning national championships before he came to Notre Dame. Dan Devine was hired after completely bombing in the NFL. Gerry Faust was the indeed the top coach in the country…the top high school coach. Lou Holtz had a winning percentage of just .641 and was coming off a 6-5 season at Minnesota when he took the helm.
Someone point out to me a precedent where one of the top coaches of an era left their post to come to Notre Dame. Did journalists fashion the same types of stories when Don Shula or Woody Hayes didn’t take the job when Parseghian left? How about when Joe Gibbs or Tom Osborne didn’t jump at the chance to take over when Faust was fired? In the last decade we’ve whiffed on our first choices for head coach, but the incompetence of the athletic director that oversaw those searches (Kevin White) shouldn’t be confused with the truth. Notre Dame has never attracted the biggest names in the business—if they choose the right person they MAKE them the biggest name in the business.
Notre Dame will most likely make its decision on a head coach within the next week. When the hire is announced the Irish program will once again be dissected ad naseum by the print media, TV shows, and sports talk radio. Once again there will be plenty of people that will chirp about the irrelevance of Notre Dame and how it should be a non-story.
The reality is Notre Dame is and always will be relevant in the sports world. Whether it becomes relevant in national championship hunts will be determined by how great the chosen coach turns out to be. I don’t know when it will be, but that return will happen whether it’s with this coach or another one down the road. If you think otherwise you’re either ignoring history or just parroting the knee-jerk reactions of talking heads. Neither is a particularly bright thing to do.
Consider this the latest installment of the series of Notre Dame Public Service Announcements.
Fighting for Human Dignity. Fighting Disease. Fighting Journalistic Ignorance.
WE ARE THE FIGHTING IRISH.
Matt Mattare is a 2008 Notre Dame Graduate and writes for the blog We Never Graduate. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.