Notre Dame's Lack of Big Wins: Was Willingham Better Than Weis?
Did I get your attention with that title?
Before I begin, let me insist that I am not truly focusing on the issue of whether Tyrone Willingham was a better coach than Charlie Weis.
Rather, the question I am pondering is whether a lack of big wins is worse than an abundance of bad losses.
When you think about the Charlie Weis era, what are some of the things that immediately pop into your head?
I would venture to guess that, for a lot of people, the two losses to Navy and the senior day loss to Syracuse are among the first to come to mind.
You see, we’ve come to see the failings of Charlie Weis largely through the prism of disappointing losses, and you can add the 2005 defeat versus USC to the very top of that list.
But I assert that the lack of big wins was the much worse transgression under the leadership of Charlie Weis.
That’s because it is to be expected that every team will falter to an inferior opponent from time to time. That’s just the nature of the beast in college football.
Nearly every season we see a handful of top 10 teams lose to unranked opponents, or to average opponents with .500 records, or in some cases, flat out bad opponents.
We saw it last season with Purdue’s upset of Ohio State and even Appalachian State’s upset of Michigan a few seasons ago. Notre Dame’s biggest rival, USC, also had multiple perfect seasons and assured national title appearances destroyed by inferior opponents over the past decade.
Even Lou Holtz had his fair share of utterly disappointing losses, including set backs to 6-5 Michigan State and 5-5-1 Pitt in 1986, 5-6 Stanford in 1990, 6-4-1 Boston College in 1994, and 6-5 Air Force and 6-6 USC in 1996.
In a testament to the machine built at Notre Dame from 1986-1996, it is only right to point out that the Irish never suffered a bad loss in seven of Lou Holtz’ 11 seasons in South Bend.
God bless that man’s soul.
But still, bad losses are going to happen. It is just too difficult to avoid them in this day and age of college football.
So, while we should be rightfully upset at the numerous disappointing losses of the last five years, it is the lack of big wins that make those losses all the more painful and which may end up more accurately defining the Charlie Weis era.
What Were the Big Losses?
First, let’s take a look at some of the disappointing losses from the Charlie Weis and Tyrone Willingham eras respectively.
First for Weis from 2005 to 2009:
*Michigan State 2005 (44-41)
*Georgia Tech 2007 (33-3)
*Michigan State 2007 (31-14)
*Navy 2007 (46-44)
*Air Force 2007 (41-24)
*Syracuse 2008 (24-23)
*Michigan 2009 (38-34)
*Navy 2009 (23-21)
*Connecticut 2009 (33-30)
Obviously, the loss to 3-9 Syracuse is the worst of all, but some of these aren’t as bad as you would think.
For example, the two Navy and one Air Force teams had a combined record of 24-13, and while you may be right in saying Notre Dame shouldn’t lose to service academies, at least a distinction should be made between a loss to a very good Navy team and a terrible Syracuse team.
Perhaps even more damaging than all of those above games is the fact that Weis lost 11 games by 15 points or more as well as six games by 25 or more points during his five years in South Bend.
Now Willingham from 2002 to 2004:
*Syracuse 2003 (38-12)
*BYU 2004 (20-17)
Willingham had a few losses to decent teams, but these are the only truly bad losses to opponents who had no business beating the Irish. Losing to 6-6 Syracuse by 26 points is just as bad, if not worse, than the 2008 loss to the Orange.
Like Weis, Tyrone Willingham was blown out on way too many occasions.
Over a three year period, Willingham lost eight games by 15 or more points and an absolutely amazing (in the worst way) seven games by 25 or more points.
Averaging two blowout losses a year hurts.
It hurts a lot.
To put things in perspective, Bob Davie only lost by 15 or more points eight times, and only once by 25 or more in five seasons as Irish head coach.
Lou Holtz only lost nine games by 15 or more points, and only once by 25 or more over eleven seasons.
There’s that ghost of Lou again, hovering over every Notre Dame coach since the end of the 1996 season.
Where are the Big Wins?
So, we’ve established that Notre Dame has been getting blown out and losing to inferior opponents at a rate unseen before in school history.
But perhaps more alarming are the lack of big wins that have been eluding the Irish for over half a decade.
To put things in context, let’s look at the number of ranked teams defeated by past Notre Dame coaches.
As one would expect, Irish legend Frank Leahy totaled 29 victories over ranked opponents during his eleven year career under the Golden Dome.
Later, in the 1950s, Terry Brennan beat 11 ranked teams in five years as Notre Dame’s leading man.
Surprisingly, Ara Parseghian only beat 14 ranked teams in 11 seasons in South Bend, but that stat is improved by the fact that 10 of those victories came against top 10 teams.
Tell me how bad you want the Irish to start beating a top 10 team nearly every single year.
Also, Parseghian’s overall winning percentage of .836 helps matters tremendously, as does his relatively small amount of six losses to unranked opponents, three of which came against very talented USC teams.
Following the Era of Ara, Dan Devine defeated an impressive 17 ranked teams in only five years. His reputation will continue to grow as time passes and the world forgets that he wasn’t charismatic and a media darling. Devine’s wins and national title speak for themselves.
Gerry Faust, the lovable coach who was a media darling, only beat seven ranked teams in five years at Notre Dame. It would be a complete understatement to say that Irish fans would like to forget Faust’s tenure as coach.
Then came that Lou Holtz guy again with his slaying of 33 ranked teams over 11 seasons.
That’s pretty good, I guess.
Since 1996, it’s been all downhill.
From 1997 to 2001, Bob Davie beat six ranked teams with only three of those victories coming against teams that ended the season as part of the final AP poll.
Willingham improved this category by beating seven ranked teams in only three years, five of which remained in the final AP poll.
The last five seasons have been downright frightening.
From 2005 to 2009, Charlie Weis beat four ranked teams of which only one (Penn State No. 23 in 2006) remained ranked at the end of the season.
Weis joins Joe Kuharich, who beat three ranked teams in four years, as the only coaches in Irish history to be unable to average one victory per season over a ranked opponent.
Kuharich is also the only coach in Notre Dame history to not achieve at least a winning record at Notre Dame, assuming we don’t count Kent Baer’s one-game gig in the 2004 Insight Bowl loss after Willingham was fired.
Looking Forward with Brian Kelly
Putting an end to the unreasonable amount of bad losses will be important in the coming years of the Brian Kelly era, but the Fighting Irish are also in desperate need of big victories.
I expect Kelly to be able to severely reduce the amount of bad losses the Notre Dame program has endured over the past 13 seasons. If his coaching past is any indication, Kelly will at least have the Irish winning eight or nine games a year, which means very few losses to teams that total seven wins or less.
It’s also hard to believe that Brian Kelly-coached teams are going to suffer one or two mega-blowouts every single season as well. The odds are favorable that those days are over.
That is why the key moving forward should be the ability to pick up big wins against ranked opponents.
A lot of fans are talking about how they want to see improvement from the beginning of this fall to November, how they’d like to see the team remain strong late in games, and how it is important to remain competitive against every team the Irish face.
I won’t argue any of those points because they are all good indicators of overall improvement for a football team.
Yet, the pressure to win big games weighs heavily and will cast a dark shadow over Brian Kelly almost immediately starting this September.
If Notre Dame goes 8-4 or 7-5 this season but is unable to defeat a ranked team, color me extremely disappointed, even if the team improves as the season goes on or remains competitive in every contest.
At this point, I’d even take a loss or two against an inferior opponent, say Purdue and Navy, if it meant taking out Pittsburgh, Utah or USC.
About a month ago, I wrote about how Irish fans and their psyche have been bruised and battered by the past three coaches at Notre Dame.
Well, Notre Dame needs to win big games and win them soon in order to restore the psyche of knowing this program can beat the best teams in the country.
If it doesn’t happen this year, Brian Kelly will have more time to reverse this curse of sorts, but the longer we wait the more doubt that will creep in.
I know a lot of people don’t think 2010 will be an especially difficult schedule for Notre Dame’s standards, but there will be plenty of opportunities this fall to beat ranked teams and programs that are very strong.
Michigan State, Boston College, Stanford, Pitt, Navy, and Utah all have a good chance of being ranked when they take the field against Notre Dame. And even though they technically won’t be ranked, if USC has nine or 10 wins when the Irish invade the Coliseum, you can bet that will be considered a big game.
With an offense that is set to be dangerously explosive and a defense that has nowhere to go but up, I think Brian Kelly can beat one or two ranked teams in his first season.
Charlie Weis and Tyrone Willingham combined to beat five ranked teams in their first season, so Brian Kelly may not find it that difficult to do much of the same.
The trick for Kelly will be to sustain that first year success if it does occur, and beating ranked teams and piling up big victories will be a key to that success in the coming future.
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