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"A fool and his words are soon parted."
|Charlie Weis' Irish have not enjoyed a "schematic advantage" over ranked teams, but he has recruited well.|
"A liar begins with making falsehood appear like truth, and ends with making truth itself appear like falsehood."-- English poet William Shenstone
Lovie Smith and Charlie Weis are neither fools nor liars. Not in the literal sense of the words. But they were foolish for deceiving their team's fan bases when they each uttered phrases that may turn out to be the epitaphs of their current lives as head coaches.
Charlie Weis is the rare kind of college coach. He let his star safety Tom Zbikowski train for a professional boxing match. He allowed a precocious high school senior, Jimmy Clausen, to show up to his signing-day news conference looking and acting like a tween pop star announcing a new world tour. Weis isn't afraid to show some personality, and that's a good thing, most of the time.
But his early boasting that his teams would have a "decided schematic advantage" with him aboard has become his "I am not a crook" moment. Nixon was a crook, and Weis' schematic advantages have accounted for a 4-0 record against Stanford.
After watching Notre Dame get beat by Navy for the second time in three years, angry Irish fans must be wondering when this supposed advantage is going to show itself. Year 6? Year 12?
The small-town, Texas-born Smith is much more mellow. He takes a lot of heat for his drawling, boring news conferences in which he goes out of his way to say nothing of consequence. Smith rarely rips his players in public, even when they deserve it. But even Smith has had some past words come back to bite him recently as football writers have reminded fans what Smith said almost three years ago when he essentially canned defensive coordinator Ron Rivera after the defense carried the Bears to the Super Bowl.
"You should trust me as a head football coach to put us in the best position to win football games," Smith said at the time. "It's as simple as that."
Smith promoted his buddy Bob Babich to the job, and demoted him before this season back to linebackers coach. Smith took over as coordinator and things looked pretty good until the bye hit. Since then, the defense has handcuffed only the Cleveland Browns, which isn't a feat to put on your résumé.
|Lovie Smith once asked Bears fans to trust him, but now many fans would like to see him fired.|
Neither of these quotes was particularly bold, even in hindsight. But they are so telling, so comedically ironic, it's tough to dismiss them.
Smith and Weis are coming off a bad weekend. The Naval Academy and the Arizona Cardinals are talented teams, no doubt, but both the Irish and the Bears were home favorites (Notre Dame big, Bears small) to win, and by all rights, should have put themselves in the position to win those games. But they didn't.
Both coaches have seemingly worn out their welcome among rabid fan bases. While Smith isn't seemingly on the hot seat, it's likely that the cognoscenti in charge of Notre Dame will start brainstorming Weis replacements, at least informally.
Arguably the two biggest coaches in the Midwest (outside of perhaps Columbus and Ann Arbor), Smith and Weis are seemingly headed to the same end that most coaches face: public firing squad followed by a public firing. It's inhumane, unsophisticated, and most of the time unfair. The kind of character assassination that goes on when a coach is weak, wounded and vulnerable is often ham-handed and rude. But that's the way these things work, and for guys like Smith and Weis, there is always the monetary comfort of being an unemployed coach. You don't see too many beefy guys stuffed into Bike shorts in line for unemployment checks.
So, who has it worse right now? Given the difficulty of prepping a bad defense for a well-executed triple-option offense, losing to Navy isn't as great of a crime as one might think, but it's an anathema, as far as Irish backers are concerned. As Weis readies to face a tough Pittsburgh team and Smith's Bears travel for a Thursday night date in San Francisco, it's worth examining the statuses of these beleaguered coaches.
Waiting in the wings: Whenever a coach is on the hot seat, talk turns to his potential replacements. It's easy to fall in love with someone else when you hate the one you're with. Weis' lack of big-game victories has cast a negative pall over South Bend, especially with the stink of 2007 still fresh. Weis has proved to be a top-notch recruiter of elite talent, but his defenses have been lackluster and his teams haven't been able to beat ranked teams. His first-year defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta needs more time to jell with the players he has and the young talent he'll be getting, but has time already run out on this regime?
The top name on the replacement list is Urban Meyer, but even though he's expressed serious interest in the idea of being Notre Dame coach, there is no concrete evidence he'd leave his gold mine in Gainesville. Aside from Meyer, the coach amassing the most buzz is Cincinnati's Brian Kelly. The 48-year-old coach spent 13 years at Division II Grand Valley State, amassing a 118-35-2 record. He inherited a bogus program at Central Michigan, and by his third year, made the Chippewas into a conference champion. In his first full season at Cincinnati, he was named the conference coach of the year, and in his second, he took the Bearcats to a BCS bowl. Now he's undefeated and riding high. Kelly is experienced and he has shown ability to build programs, and most importantly, keep improving on his foundation.
Notre Dame fans and boosters are going to be Kelly green with envy if he goes somewhere else this season and succeeds. Weis is still inked through 2015, thanks to the idiotic, irresponsible decision to give him a new 10-year deal seven games into his first season. Still, rich boosters often pay for the excising of college coaches. There hasn't been a public uprising of that nature yet, aside from the caustic billboard that briefly caused a stir when a football alumni group put it up this summer.
Smith, like every foundering coach, has a Greek chorus of successful, unemployed coaches hanging over him. Bill Cowher and Mike Shanahan are the two names you literally heard fans screaming for at the Bears' debacle of a loss to Arizona this past Sunday. Cowher's mustache and Steelers street cred make him a favorite, while Shanahan's familiarity with Jay Cutler and Chicago roots (East Leyden High School in Franklin Park, Ill.) make him a contender as well.
|Cincinnati Bearcats head coach Brian Kelly is someone detractors of Charlie Weis may find very attractive.|
Lucky for Lovie, though, he has $11 million owed to him for the final two years of his deal, and unless there is a complete nuclear meltdown in the last eight games, the prevailing notion is the McCaskey family wouldn't pay that money and even bigger bucks to a famous coach. Even with Cowher's proud, Ditka-esque mustache.
Disadvantage goes to ... Weis. His Super Bowl appearance should earn Smith at least another season, and he's tied in with general manager Jerry Angelo, who also has years remaining on his deal. They'll both be gone one day, but it's not right now. Offensive coordinator Ron Turner can't be too comfortable, though.
Weis will have significant heat on him by January, especially if the Irish lose this weekend.
Coach's corner: Never has a name earned so much scorn in a city as "Lovie." Bears fans do not love Lovie. Not anymore. His name is spit out with derision and sarcasm. Sadly, his exterior news conference/sideline personality does nothing to "fire up" football fans, a loose aggregation of like-minded, jersey-wearing adults who want to see fire and brimstone from their football coach, because that's how Mike Ditka did it, and he's the current archetype for what a successful coach is supposed to look like. Smith's careful, guarded personality does not resonate with fans, even though that even-keeled approach is probably best for such a mercurial job.
No matter what anyone says to the contrary, I'll never believe that Weis wasn't hired because he's an Irish Catholic Notre Dame grad. Sure he had the shiny Super Bowl ring, but he was part of the culture at Notre Dame. But he's not a company man in that he didn't see the need to kowtow to history or conventions. He's a football coach, not a cheerleader. Weis reportedly alienated himself early from some factions, and while he's impressed everyone with his recruiting, it's hard to get a foothold with your fan base when you barely beat winning teams. Weis is 1-10 against teams that finish a season in the top 25. Notre Dame fans are proud, vocal and fully identify with their university. They won't be afraid to demand a change, and that time is coming, and unlike Bears fans who just buy tickets and jerseys, rich Notre Dame fans can demand a change with their checkbooks.
A month ago, Zbikowski related to me how tough the Notre Dame players have it, with such heavy burdens placed on their developing necks. But in the same breath, he reiterated that's why you go there, to have a chance for greatness. College players are too young to openly defy a coach, so there's little worry about an insurrection. Plus, Weis has some NFL ties, as you may have heard.
Smith is well-liked in the locker room because he treats his players like men, and he doesn't blow up for the heck of it, or torch them in the media. But given that he's taken the role of defensive coordinator, it's jarring how bad the defense has played in the last two losses. Maybe the loss of Tommie Harris had a lot to do with it, seeing as he missed all but four plays of the Bengals and Cardinals games, but the 86 points the teams hung on the Bears (60-plus in the first halves alone) tell a story of what kind of connection he has with his defense.
Disadvantage goes to ...Smith. It'll take a miracle for the Bears to turn this season around and make the playoffs. Weis has it easy in that he's his own GM. He picks the players he coaches. Smith doesn't have that power, and aside from Cutler, Angelo's recent track record is spotty at best. If you're wondering why the defense is so awful (almost 400 yards rushing allowed in the Bears' past two losses), check out this sad rundown of the team's declining defense.
The future: Weis lands more four-star recruits than Hugh Hefner, but great teenage talent isn't enough. His Irish teams have been lacking depth and identity for a few years, since the Ty Willingham classes left. But doesn't he deserve a little more time to see his classes mature? I've written a great deal about Weis in the past two months, and while I have little faith that he'll turn Notre Dame into a perennial power no matter how long he's in charge, I think he should get another year or two to improve his lot.
Look at the coach of this week's opponent, Dave Wannstedt. Wanny left Chicago a broken-down, verbally challenged mess. When he got hired at Pitt, he didn't exactly work wonders on the field, losing to my alma mater, Ohio University, in the fall of 2005, and his record isn't sterling. Like Weis, he recruited pretty well (Who wouldn't want Wanny chilling in their living room?), but it didn't show on the field. The light bulb came on recently for Wanny, and now Pitt is a Top-10 team and has produced some NFL talent, like LeSean "Shady" McCoy and this year's freshman running sensation Dion Lewis. Patience still is a virtue.
Smith will undoubtedly get at least another year to try to build a winner around Jay Cutler. The defense has been wracked by injuries and the offensive line by ineffectiveness. But Smith deserves the lion's share of blame, because he's the boss. The Bears have looked god-awful since the break, and their ability to make in-game adjustments hasn't materialized, or hasn't worked. Take your pick. If he stays, I'd bet that Turner is gone, and Smith hires someone to coach his defense. Angelo has traded away first-round and second-round picks (But hey, you get only one shot to trade a second-round pick for Gaines Adams), so Smith is going to need a lot of luck, and some important decisions, to keep his job after next season.
Disadvantage goes to ... Smith. As mediocre as his Notre Dame career has been, Weis just needs a big win or two to shut up his detractors. He keeps attracting star players anyway. Smith needs to overhaul his entire roster, and he's got a GM moving closer to a hot seat as well. He could easily be made a scapegoat in 2010.
We should wish both coaches luck this week and through the rest of 2009. They're going to need it, no matter what they say.Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.