Monday, November 30, 2009
Plum job? Not at Notre Dame
By Gene Wojciechowski ESPN.com
Notre Dame is the Carnegie Hall of universities with a karaoke football program. This is the stark, uncomfortable reality Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick faces as he officially begins his search for the fifth Notre Dame head football coach in the last nine years.
Look, I love the place. As a Catholic school kid, uniforms and all, I grew up on Notre Dame football. It has a campus to die for and an elite academic reputation, and there are few, if any, places I'd rather be on a Saturday afternoon than Notre Dame Stadium.
But Domers need to quit living in denial, as well as the past, and acknowledge that their football program has a problem. Just because you think Notre Dame is special doesn't mean recruits think it's special. And in the end, the success or failure of a program is determined by the quality of its recruits.
Why would Bob Stoops leave Oklahoma for South Bend?
There's a reason it would take a major miracle for Bob Stoops to leave Oklahoma for Notre Dame. The reason is obvious: He has a better job at OU.
Urban Meyer? He has a better job at Florida.
Nick Saban? He has a better job at Alabama.
I could even make the argument that Gary Patterson has a better gig at TCU. If you're a Domer, you might not want to accept it, but it's true. Same goes for Jim Harbaugh at Stanford and, gulp, maybe even Pat Fitzgerald at Northwestern.
"I think Notre Dame remains a critical piece of the college football landscape," said Swarbrick during a Monday evening teleconference.
Critical doesn't mean relevant. With the exception of having its own TV network for home games, why is Notre Dame football any different from or, more precisely, any better than Florida, Bama, Texas, TCU, Cincinnati, Boise State, Ohio State, Oregon, Penn State, Iowa, Virginia Tech, LSU, Miami, USC, Tennessee, Stanford, Northwestern, Georgia, Nebraska or Wisconsin? Just because it's Notre Dame?
Sorry, that doesn't work anymore. The brand doesn't carry the same weight it once did.
It is a bad job that could -- emphasis on could -- become a great job. But only if the Notre Dame legions join the rest of us here in the 21st century.
Charlie Weis isn't leaving a cupboard fully stocked with big-play talent.
"We have great expectations for our football program and we have not been able to meet those expectations," Swarbrick said in a Monday statement announcing the dismissal of Charlie Weis. "As an alumnus, Charlie understands those goals and expectations better than most and he's as disappointed as anyone that we have not achieved the desired results."
If the expectations are that Notre Dame is going to win a national championship tomorrow, forget it. The Irish starting roster featured exactly three playmakers, and all three are on offense (quarterback Jimmy Clausen and wide receivers Golden Tate and Michael Floyd). Two of the three, Clausen and Tate, could bolt early for the NFL. Plus, the offensive line loses four senior starters.
The defense was doomed from the start, thanks to coordinator Jon Tenuta's misguided philosophy, an absence of game-changing defensive linemen and a general lack of speed on that side of the ball. Unless I saw it wrong, the Irish blitzed against Navy. Navy! And Weis had so much confidence in his defense that he instructed it to let Stanford score in the last minute of Saturday night's loss.
Even heralded freshman linebacker Manti Te'o lacks the speed and quickness to be a difference-maker. That doesn't mean he won't eventually become a great player, but in games against elite speed players, Te'o struggled at times.
Weis got sucked in by oversized expectations. Instead of pursuing the then-vacant Cleveland Browns or New York Jets head-coaching jobs during the 2009 offseason, he stayed at Notre Dame because he thought his team was capable of double-digit wins. Instead, it got six and bowl scraps.
And Weis got fired.
Weis was essentially put on notice weeks ago. The loss at home against Navy loosened his grip on the job. The loss at Pittsburgh forced him into a win-or-else situation -- and even then, there was no guarantee an 8-4 record would have been enough reason for Swarbrick to keep him.
Weis tried. His teams played hard, but they didn't always play well. He made his share of mistakes (sneaking out a side door to escape the media after the Stanford loss wasn't his finest moment), but no one can question his commitment or his work ethic. And Weis' charitable work is inspiring.
Cincinnati's Brian Kelly might not be the best defensive man for Notre Dame.
His successor will have to rebuild a program that thinks it's better than it is. If I'm Swarbrick, I hire an experienced college head coach who is a proven recruiter with a strong defensive background and a love for the running game. Sorry, Brian Kelly. I have too many questions about your defense.
As corny as it sounds, defense wins championships. Meyer, Saban and Texas' Mack Brown can fill you in on those details. And a running game, while not as compelling to watch as Clausen throwing for 340 yards and five touchdowns against the Cardinal, is deadly effective stuff. Harbaugh can explain that, what with Stanford gouging ND for 280 rushing yards. Even Mr. Pass himself, South Carolina's Steve Spurrier, had his Gamecocks run the ball 58 times in the upset of Clemson last Saturday.
The next Notre Dame coach has to understand that this is as much a recruiting job as it is a coaching job. Schemes are nice. Players who actually fit the schemes are better.
Swarbrick is smart and a pragmatist too. I like his chances to choose the right replacement. But the right guy doesn't have to be a big name, or the flavor of the month, or an offensive genius who is going to overpower opponents with his X's and O's. He just has to be the right guy for Notre Dame.
"I think the whole key is leadership," said Swarbrick on Monday night.
So Weis is gone. He leaves behind a program with a better infrastructure but a worse record than when he found it. It isn't the legacy anyone expected.
"This is a drought," Swarbrick said. "I have every confidence that we will end the drought and succeed spectacularly."
That's what was said when Weis was hired five years ago. So for right now, maybe it's time to adjust those expectations. After all, this is Notre Dame, not Florida.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.