The Way Back For Notre Dame Foootball

Gerald BallCorrespondent INovember 11, 2008

Notre Dame is a mess.

They have not won a bowl game since 1993.

They have not won a national title since 1988.

Academic standards hinder recruiting.

Finally, they have not been a consistent factor on the national scene for 30 years, despite what ND fans would like to believe. Lou Holtz did not maintain his success, which Holtz never does, as Arkansas, Minnesota, North Carolina State, and South Carolina fans can attest.

So ND is not a national power, and has not been for decades.

Not years, but decades.

ND's biggest problem is that their fans will not accept this. They believe that ND can build itself into a contender quickly if only they had the right coach, and harass their administration into coaching moves accordingly.

Note that I said "build" instead of "rebuild" because that is precisely the case. College football is a completely different game than the one that Notre Dame dominated, and the society that the great Notre Dame teams of the past used to their benefit is long gone too.

This should surprise or shock no one.

After all, the Ivy League schools and service academies used to be huge football powers too. But just as changes to the game and society made that an anachronism, Notre Dame's fortunes have been decimated.

Things like a wide open brand of football, a fully integrated sport, huge population shifts from the midwest and northeast to the south, and scholarship limits.

Couple that with blanket national TV coverage (a change which ND itself helped usher in with a lawsuit in the early 1980s), national recruiting, and virtually all of the independents (save Notre Dame) joining conferences, Notre Dame is lagging behind.

So where Notre Dame was once able to get all the athletes, they needed to dominate I-formation and single wing football (and its predecessors) and then some merely by throwing open the gates.

Getting the athletes needed to compete in today's game to a Roman Catholic school in rural Indiana would be a real challenge, even if Notre Dame didn't place academic restrictions on recruiting.

Truthfully, ND's problems are simply part of much bigger issues plaguing upper midwestern and northeastern college football in general that gets often exposed in matchups against PAC 10 and SEC schools. ND's academics just makes it worse.

Can it be fixed? Of course. But it takes the right coach and the right system, and fans with reality based expectations that will give that coach and system time to take hold. Here is a gameplan.

1. Give Weis until next season at least: A big reason why ND was stuck with Weis to begin with was because a lot of other potential candidates felt that Willingham, and to an extent Davie before them, were never given a chance to succeed.

Firing a guy who had a wholesale rebuilding job while he is stuck coaching underclassmen all over the place will add to that story line and make hiring a quality coach virtually impossible.

Yes, Weis did make bad recruiting evaluations in his first two classes, which is precisely why he is playing underclassmen now. But when you hire a guy that has never been a head coach before and hasn't been on the college recruiting scene in decades (if ever) that is the learning curve that ND should have expected.

2. Ultimately remove Weis: It is not that Weis is a bad coach, per se. It is that the idea of winning with a complex pro style passing game at Notre Dame is absurd.

Programs like USC, Miami, and FSU were or are able to do it because they can recruit primarily in their backyard and can make up the rest with out of state recruiting, either raiding athletes from other sun belt states or attracting kids from colder climates to fun and sun.

Notre Dame is never going to beat those programs at their game because they are always going to have better players to do it with.

Notre Dame needs to run a different scheme where they can recruit different athletes. It worked for Nebraska in their wars against the southern schools (and for that matter everyone else) in the 1990s.

That is the route that Notre Dame and every other school outside the sun belt will have to take.

3. Don't try to hire a big name coach: Why? See above.

A big name coach is going to go where he can compete quickly. Notre Dame needs to be painstakingly built from the ground up so that it can be a contender five years (or more) down the road.

4. Stop going after big time recruits: The big time recruit that goes to ND, you don't want anyway.

Chances are he is a mistaken evaluation that the other schools have figured out and are backing off, or is seeking a situation where he doesn't want to compete against other top athletes to find out how good he is and to get better in order to win playing time.

These are the types of "highly recruited" players that ND has gotten for years and you see the results: guys with pedestrian ability, or guys who have some ability but only care about getting on the field and have no personal interest in the success of the program and therefore quit at the first sign of adversity.

5. Find a guy that can win that fits numbers 3 and 4: He is going to have to be the opposite of Pete Carroll and Urban Meyer, and more like a Frank Beamer, Mike Leach, Randy Edsall, Tom O'Brien, Paul Johnson or Jim Grobe.

Note to ND: do not waste your time trying to hire any of those guys. You had your shot at them before they became big names or landed into good situations and will not leave for your school.

Even Randy Edsall, if he didn't leave for the opportunity to go to Georgia Tech and get all the players that he needs from the Atlanta suburbs, he isn't going to come try to get players to South Bend. You need to identify the next player like that.

He is going to have to be able to identify guys that aren't highly recruited but have real talent, and guys who are lesser talented but are willing to invest a lot of themselves into your program.

6. Be patient: You will endure mediocre and even losing seasons. The style of football, which will likely be running the football and stopping the run, won't win you any style points with the media. But that is what it will take to build the sort of consistent winning programs that the better recruits who can actually play will actually take notice of.

7. Resist the spread or the read option offenses: It would have been one thing were ND one of the first to adopt the spread.

Adopting it now would make ND a follower instead of a leader, picking it up at a time when a lot of programs (including virtually everyone in the Big 12 and half the schools in the Big 10) are running it and people are getting a lot better at defending it.

It would be one thing for a program that can get the top players they need right off the bat to put it in, but whatever scheme ND runs they will have to do it with the diamonds in the rough and blue collar players that they can find.

ND needs to either get ahead of the curve with the next big thing in offense, or they need to just go back to old fashioned football.

8. Find a scheme that allows underclassmen to contribute immediately: Please look at Alabama and Ohio State. Both programs are key underclassmen, including true freshmen like Julio Jones and Terrelle Pryor, away from mediocrity.

And keep in mind: those are state universities located in rich recruiting beds who shouldn't be forced to rely on underclassmen, but yet they are.

Notre Dame, who ALWAYS is going to have to battle for top talent because of their academic restrictions and location, cannot afford to take guys capable of playing right away and sitting them on the bench until they are upperclassmen so they can learn some system.

Whatever defense or especially offense that ND runs, it has to be something where a talented underclassman can start almost immediately.

Again, the experience of Weis and Willingham should be instructive. Willingham recruited several top WRs early in his tenure, but could not play them because they did not know the offense. And Brady Quinn had and Jimmy Clausen had or are having the troubles that you would expect an underclassman QB trying to run a complex passing offense would.

While ND fans would love to maintain the pretension that recruiting smarter athletes will allow them to play more complex schemes, who has that ever actually won a title for?


Play a simple, I-formation based offense that will allow your first and second year QBs, WRs, OLs, etc. to play right away if they are good enough to, and do something similar on defense.

Or failing that, a flag football run and shoot style offense that can grow in complexity with the talent (you can do more things with upperclassmen at QB and WRs) but at its core is actually pretty simple.

9. See 6. Be patient: Take Mike Leach. He is flying pretty high now, but he had a bunch of lean years. The same was true of Beamer at Virginia Tech. Jim Grobe had a rough early start, and now seems to be going through a setback at Wake Forest owing to ACC teams having figured out his offense. And so on.

When you aren't reeling in top recruiting classes filled with guys that can actually play year after year, you are going to have to go through your share of 4 and 5 win seasons before you hit the 9 and 10 win seasons consistently. Either way, 4 and 5 win seasons are in ND's future.

ND will either endure them going from coach to coach looking for the guy to come in and be the next Ara, Devine, Leahy or even Holtz (though you really don't want another Holtz) right away, or endure them letting someone develop into one of those guys while he builds a modern program capable of doing so.

Should Notre Dame join a conference? There are good arguments to be made either way. However, if they do, it should be the Big East and not the Big 10. If a tree falls in a forest with no one around to hear and see it, has it really fallen?

Well as I am someone who believes in the existence of definite propositional rational truth, the answer is yes. But if Notre Dame goes undefeated against a Big 10 conference schedule, will anyone really care? Nope.

Everyone will claim that ND hasn't proven anything until they beat USC and/or win a bowl game against a sun belt school. ND not only should not join the Big 10, but they should reduce the number of Big 10 schools that they currently play, because playing more teams from the cold upper midwest doesn't do a thing for Notre Dame's recruiting.

Notre Dame needs more games against teams from the areas of the country where they will be recruiting, and yes that does include mid-majors. Yes, Notre Dame has sunk to the level where scheduling UCF, USF, TCU and East Carolina would benefit them.

Might as well go ahead and do it, as well as hire coaches that can consistently get the best players that go to those schools to ND, because ND has demonstrated over the past few years that they ARE NOT truly in competiton with programs like Texas, Oklahoma, Florida or USC, but rather getting their table scraps and leftovers.

That is where ND is right now, and the sooner they admit it to themselves, the sooner they can do what is needed to get better.


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