December 3, 2008

Cheer, Cheer . . .

Between the first draft and publication of this post, Notre Dame confirmed that it would retain the services of Charlie Weis for at least one more year. Originally the decision was not to be made until at least 12/8, but instead new AD Jack Swarbrick decided to fly out to the West Coast to talk to Weis yesterday. In so doing, Swarbrick showed decisiveness and savvy: he knew Weis was out west recruiting, and the last thing Weis needed on a recruiting trip was ESPN deliberating his fate on air ad infinitum. So, on with the show . . .

As a Notre Dame grad, it is not simply my right, but my duty (like voting) to weigh in on the football program. And friends, these are not the best of times for said program. Please allow me the conceit of actually taking this seriously for a short time. Thank you.

Notre Dame football has not been consistently relevant since Lou Holtz left after the '96 season. Under Bob Davie, Tyrone Willingham, and Weis, Notre Dame has compiled a record of 84-62. All three have moved consistently in and out of the top 25 and even the top 10, but never have they been a legitimate threat for a national championship (in spite of hype saying otherwise at various points during these three regimes). At most schools, especially schools of a theoretically scholastic bent, that would be plenty good enough. But not at Notre Dame. You see, before Notre Dame was an academically ranked school, it was a football school - home of Knute Rockne and the Gipper, Frank Leahy and "The Four Horsemen". There was once a time, during Leahy's tenure, that Notre Dame was so dominant and brutal that they had trouble filling their schedule - teams were tired of getting thrashed by them, and also more than a bit put off by their win-at-any-cost arrogance.

It is hard to understand just how dominant ND was at the time. There were always one or two other schools who could challenge, but really no more. In current terms, think if you took Pete Carroll's USC teams, Jim Tressel's Ohio State teams, and the Hawkins/Peterson Boise State teams, and then eliminated every other team that played better football than this year's Indiana University squad. You would have one school that was dominant (USC), two schools who could provide varying degrees of challenge (OU, Boise State), and everybody else being essentially non-competitive. Maybe you would get the occasional upstart to catch the big dog off guard (like Stanford actually did to SC last year), but everything was more or less preordained.

That was, of course, a long time ago. Such dominance is currently not possible. But even now, in the modern era of football factories and NCAA administration, Notre Dame has had more than its fair share of success, starting with Ara Parseghian and continuing through Dan Devine and Lou Holtz. And while a vocal minority of ND grads will never be satisfied (Devine was continually hounded by a "Dump Devine" campaign, even during his championship season, in spite of a record that ended up 53-16-1), it is achievement at the level of a Devine or a Holtz that the faithful expect . . . even at the same time others question whether such a goal is possible, or even desirable, given Notre Dame's stated goals and expectations as an elite academic institution.

On December 12, 2004, Charlie Weis stepped into the post-Holtz ennui of Notre Dame football. He carried with him a pedigree, a Notre Dame degree, and an arrogance that had its source in both. He boldly announced that Notre Dame would return to the glory days, and do so without the kind of compromise on character and academic issues that some (most notably ex-Golden Boy Paul Hornung) mused aloud might be necessary. Weis proclaimed that he could win "the Notre Dame way", and proceeded to use his fistful of Super Bowl rings to bulldoze his way from Bill Belichick's side into the world of college football. Along the way he patronized his fans and incensed his opponents, much as his role models (Belichick and Bill Parcells) still do. At first, this was tolerated, even expected, from a "winner" of the Parcels/Belichick school. When Weis managed to take USC to the final play in his first season (the Irish had not beaten USC since 2001, and had not been competitive with them in that time), he pushed AD Kevin White into a ridiculous contract extension based on his self-proclaimed genius and the "decided schematic advantage" the ex-Patriots coordinator offered ND. From there, Weis failed to fully capitalize on his various advantages and talents (both his and his players) the next year. In his third year, the bottom fell out: a 3-9 record that saw the Irish be competitive only in the games they won. His fourth year, the one just now closing, was only marginally better: while the team was more competitive than the previous year, the Irish nonetheless looked even worse than their 6-6 record indicated. Weis's job was clearly on the line.

Weis's personality and arrogance, especially towards the press (another Belichick/Parcells trademark), contributed to his somewhat hostile treatment by the media - those that you step on when going up will not hesitate to kick you on your way down. Vocal critics such as ESPN's Mark May (who hates Notre Dame, not just Weis) and's Pat Forde (who has a history of publicly grinding his personal axes - see his treatment of Bob Knight) had a heyday even as more middle of the road reporters continued to stoke the fires with continuous commentary. But there are other issues as well, most of which are out of Weis's control.

First, there are the haters. There will always be haters. Success breeds opposition, it is that simple. No one really pays serious attention to schadenfreude, so that, at least, isn't really worth discussing. Second, there is the tradition of arrogance at Notre Dame, which we've seen already in reference to Frank Leahy. This is exacerbated by Notre Dame's status as a private, elite academic university with a lofty tuition price tag. Third, there is the monster television contract Notre Dame signed with NBC through 2010. While I understand that having one contract with Notre Dame and one contract with every other team in college football can seem arrogant to some, it's an arrogance I think the University should live with, given the insane amount of money that contract pours into the general scholarship fund (it should be noted here that Notre Dame has one of maybe five major football programs which puts money back into the school rather than draining the scholarship fund to the tune of millions of dollars). Fourth (and most problematic for Weis) is the mishandling of Tyronne Willingham.

Notre Dame always had an unspoken policy of giving every coach five years to prove his worth on the football field. In that regard, though their standards were very high, their coaches at least had a little time to reshape the team in his own image, so if indeed he did not achieve, at least it would be his own fault. Gerry Faust, for instance, struggled to follow the unpopular Dan Devine, and resigned in his fifth season when it looked clear that ND had every intention of firing him. Bob Davie had 5 years to get the team back up to the level of his predecessor, Lou Holtz. He didn't do it, so he didn't get a sixth year. Willingham started with promise, but like his predecessor Davie, did not get the team back near the top. The problem is that Willingham, who is not adept at building networks and alliances, was dismissed in his third year, rather than his fifth. This was made even worse by the fact that Willingham was one of the criminally few African-American head coaches in major college football. Add to that the same AD (White) who bungled this situation is responsible for the knee-jerk contract extension handed to Weis, and the animosity toward the University's questionable policies understandably swallowed up Weis as well. So now, here is Weis in his fourth year, and the very first point his critics use as evidence that he needs to go is a won/loss record that is worse than Willingham's was when he was fired.

No one claims that Willingham was doing a good job at Notre Dame, at least on the field and the recruiting trail. Very few believe Willingham would have turned in a fourth or a fifth season that would have saved his job. Indeed, he only lasted four years at his next job, Washington, and seemed to have learned very little from his downfall at Notre Dame. It was the simple principle of fair treatment: Weis's record wasn't any better than Willingham's at the same juncture ND gave Weis a raise and an extension. Weis's record was actually slightly worse than Willingham's was when Willingham was fired. And there is less reason to expect a successful fifth campaign out of Weis than out of Willingham (given the roster Willingham was returning). What possible reason is there for bringing back Weis?

Allow me to be the new AD for just a moment. First, I'm not the guy who bungled the Willingham situation, and I'm not the guy who panicked and gave Weis a ridiculous contract after almost (almost! how far we've fallen!) beating USC. I look at the old school ND tradition of giving a coach five years to get his act together on the field, and I think it's a good idea, so I stick with it. Weis is in his fourth year. End of discussion. I will not be bound by the idiocy of my predecessor. Discussion ended, decision made. Furthermore, I hear the endless grinding on Weis in the media, and I step up imediately to announce his retention, to help recruiting, if nothing else.

Additionally, I see that Weis has done a reasonable job as a recruiter. And his teams have managed to keep their noses clean off the field, as well: this was not a forgone conclusion in the Holtz/Davie era, and Willingham's most important legacy was shining up the team's reputation a bit in this area. The graduation rate is top-notch, and the actual grade point average of my football team is over 3.0, a tick better than it was under Willingham. All this tells me that there is nothing here to fire him over except his on-the-field performance, and for that he has five years to earn his stripes.

The next step I take is to set expectations with my coach: "Given next year's schedule, anything less than a 10-2 record will show you the door. Didn't you once say you would never again loose to Michigan State? Live up to it. Michigan State will not be one of your two losses if you expect to hang around for another year. And as far as USC is concerned, if you are not in the game in the fourth quarter, then pack your bags, because you're leaving South Bend, and not for a bowl game. And speaking of the bowl game, win it. Period. If not, go ahead and extend your vacation as long as you want, because it is no longer paid by me. So far you're doing a great job in other aspects of your job: keep it up, because it is absolutely the only reason you are still here. Any slippage there and even a national championship may not save you. Now, if you manage a 10-2 or better record, you beat Michigan State, you take SC down to the wire, and you win your bowl, then we have another year to work together. A national championship will win you two. Are we on the same page? Good. I'll announce the good news to the media forthwith."

And then, I start my lists. First is a list of alumni buyout donors, so the University doesn't take the hit for Charlie's buyout. Second is my list of potential replacements for Weis. Until such time that Weis is actually gone, that list only has one name on it: Tony Dungy.

Dungy will leave the Colts at the end of this season or next - the wheels on that move are already in motion. Dungy is leaving to do something with his life beyond football. The very reason that he will probably be impossible to get is the reason you really need to get him, above everybody else. As big as football is in Dungy's life, he knows that there is a bigger picture, and that how you win is even more important than winning - but, if you don't win, then there is no such thing as how you win, so it becomes a moot point for a losing team. Dungy has high standards for everyone around him, and he will hold everyone accountable to those standards. If you fail to live up to expectations, he will give you every opportunity to succeed the next time. If you do not suceed the next time, then he will move you to a position in which you can suceed, which may not actually be the position you joined the team for. If you don't try to live up to those expectations, then you are gone in the blink of an eye. Dungy has always been at the same time quick, decisive, and compassionate. Dungy is undoubtedly one of the best coaches in the pro game - only Belichick has acheived more. But above all, Dungy has always carried himself with a dignity that transcends the game of football. This is exactly the coach Notre Dame football needs.

I ask my coach, whoever that may be, to reach for the ultimate prize. I should expect nothing less of myself. The ultimate prize for Notre Dame football would be Tony Dungy as coach. I should be willing to pay whatever price necessary to get Dungy in South Bend. The problem is, with people like Dungy, it's not just cash that gets the job done: every man has his price, and sometimes that price can't be written with dollar signs. What is Dungy's price?

Well, now I'm down off the soapbox. There are plenty of other issues here, including a very real sense that it may be time for Notre Dame to de-emphasize football (it's a hell of a lot easier for academic schools to put up a basketball program - just ask Duke and Stanford), but this has already gone on way too long.

You may now stop pretending football matters.


Bill Zink said...

Addendum: Willingham defends (half-assedly) Notre Dame's decision to bring back Weis:

If you read between the lines here, essentially what Ty is saying seems to be "Look, I didn't deserve to be fired. If I didn't deserve it, neither does Weis. I understand why everyone thinks it's racism, but it's really more an issue of just letting coaches do their jobs. The problem is that there are so few Africa-American coaches, and they end up at bottom-feeding programs, so they never get a realistic chance to succeed if you only give them 2 1/2, 3, 4, or even 5 years to succeed."

To which I say "Amen". I'm on record as deploring the Willingham firing, especially since they really did it to get their shot at Urban Meyer. I'm also on record as saying Weis was as good (or maybe even better) a hire as Meyer would have been, so you do have to take some of the things I say with a grain of salt.

Right now, we are going through some drama with Steve Kragthorpe here at Louisville. Everybody here is screaming bloody murder about Kragthorpe, and they seem to want him gone after only two (2!!) seasons. The melodrama is ridiculous: it's not like Louisville has a football reputation that Kragthorpe is destroying - the only football tradition at U of L is that of a stepping stone job to a real job (Snellenberger, who built Miami into the program it is, only came to Louisville because he was out of football; John L. Smith let word leak of his immanent MSU job at halftime in a U of L bowl game, only to see his team revolt on him in the second half; and of course, one of the most notorious coaches currently working, Bobby Petrino, left less than six months after signing one of the largest contracts in college football and saying "I will be here for a very long time"). On top of that, Petrino left Kragthorpe a house of cards on the verge of collapse. Louisville is not currently competitive in the Big East, but there's no reason to expect they would have been. Anyone who has high expectations of this program at this point is deluded . . . Louisville, right now, can do no better than Kragthorpe, unless Tommy Tuberville will answer the phone. And if he does, I guarantee you either 1) he will do no better than Kragthorpe, or 2) he will do better than Kragthorpe and be off to a better job in no time, no matter how much money is plopped down in front of him. U of L is not a destination position. The only hope for continuity is to let Kragthorpe figure things out on the job, and hope he repays your loyalty in kind.

Bill Zink said...

Snellenberger = Howard Schnellenberger