Saturday, November 10, 2007

Words, by this point, have long since failed me to describe what a nightmare this season of Notre Dame football. I have friends and relatives who have as solid a track record of supporting this team as I do who have given up watching the games. It's just that depressing. But I'm still watching. Even though the Ohio State game against Illinois was much better than this contest against Air Force, I still watched the entire sad spectacle.

I said all that to say this. I find myself in the unenviable position of defending the indefensible Charlie Weis from the various people in the media who insist on attacking him or criticizing him. This piece by Kevin Blackistone is well thought out, but it operates on a faulty premise. This season has made history in all the wrong ways and for all the wrong reasons. But that doesn't gild the memory of the Tyrone Willingham era.

I am sorry for the man in that firing situation. Tyrone Willingham struck me as an intelligent, decent man of integrity. He seemed like a thoroughly nice man, but we all know where the nice guy finishes. He did have a winning record (barely) at the University of Notre Dame. In his final season, Notre Dame did finish above .500 and limped into eligibility for one of the more minor of the minor bowls. In his best season, the team fell apart down the stretch after a start in which the breaks beat his opponents and then suffered abject humiliation at the hands of NC State in the Gator Bowl (one of the most major of the minor bowls).

Charlie Weis is a stubborn, somewhat difficult man with the media. And for that I admire him. Why appear chastened and contrite before the self appointed kingmakers? Would that make a 1-9 season hurt any less? Would losing to Air Force, Navy and BC be less humiliating? No, so you might as well go down with pride and arrogance.

One can talk about Weis taking a team to two BCS bowls with a core group of players recruited by Ty Willingham. But one should analyze that statement to the fullest. Did Willingham take those guys to a BCS bowl? The answer - not only a rousing no, but it should be coupled with the reminder that Ty himself enjoyed his most successful season with players recruited by Bob Davie.

A more interesting sideline in this debate is to consider another question. Of those Willingham recruits who formed the core of the BCS teams, how many had draft stock and NFL prospects improved under the new regime? The answer has to be just about all of them. Brady Quinn was looking at mid to late 4th round status prior to Weis coming to town. Jeff Samardzja chose baseball, but he would have been a first round pick and he tripled his career catches by Wies' second game.

Anthony Fasano became a second round pick under Weis, as opposed to a 5th/6th round pick before. Chienedum Ndukwe wouldn't have been drafted prior to that. Mike Richardson was a sixth round pick, but he had to take a year to recover from a game against USC. Thanks to Ty Willingham's belief in regionalization (that players from a certain geographic area will play better in games played near where they grew up), Richardson was thrown to the wolves against USC before he was ready to cover guys like Mike Williams and Kerry Colbert. Richardson was eaten alive, in a sad sight to see.

The trouble is, Weis didn't have to adjust from the NFL to recruiting and motivating teenagers in his first two years. That team was experienced, this team was not. Maybe he was arrogant and didn't consider the ramifications as a college coach should, but that's life. Hopefully he learned a thing or two to adjust in the upcoming offseason.

There is hope in the young players who have been thrown into the fire this season. James Aldridge has the potential to be a very, very, very good tailback. Jimmy Clausen will not be the guy, I don't believe. But the freshman linebackers Dwight Stephenson Jr., Kerry Neal and Ryan Smith will develop into an outstanding unit. Robbie Parris and Deval Camarra are exciting young receivers.

I haven't seen enough of the defensive linemen of the future to comment on them. Trevor Laws has had such an outstanding season on such a terrible team that I've been guilty of concentrating on his play and trying to project his draft status that I've overlooked his peers. The offensive line, frankly, terrifies me. If they don't learn to block even the most rudimentary of blitzes, there is no point in taking the field. I don't see any hope on the horizon there, but I've been spectacularly wrong.

Blackistone made the point that Willingham was the first Notre Dame coach who was terminated prior to his contract's natural extent. I'll take his word for that, but I think there had to be at least one guy who lasted less than three years. Maybe he wasn't fired, but it must have been as good as a firing.

I'm not sure how I feel about changing the traditions of the school and the program. But maybe it's time. I've been told that in order to become a sophomore at Notre Dame, one must pass calculus. That makes the school unique among serious football programs. It's also a daunting prospect. I have a MA in a humanities discipline, and I've never had to pass calculus. Perhaps you might not believe that, with the record of minor, silly mistakes in this frivolous little blog of mine, but it's true. So why should every football player at Notre Dame have to do so much more than every football player at every other school? Isn't the university rigorous enough as it is?

Perhaps it's unfair that the expectations for academic and athletic performance at Notre Dame are so much higher than they are at any other school. I do admire the school for its commitment to providing an excellent education, but can one obtain an excellent education without calculus? But this is also a slippery slope. If they make this compromise, what stands between them and institutions of ill academic repute like the one in Chestnut Hill or Miami?

As usual, when I raise a question, or series of questions, I don't have an answer. The one thing I do know is that a season like this demands a scapegoat. For a change, I do have a suggestion. It's the guy upon whose hiring I screamed bloody murder...Ron Powlus. It made no sense to me, to bring in a guy who put up numbers everywhere but where and when it really mattered to try to shepherd and mold another Notre Dame QB. Quarterback play has not been good. Offensive line play stank like rotten compost (and if they let the o-line coach seek greener pastures, I won't weep), but it took Clausen seven starts to learn that he can throw the ball away to avoid a sack. Powlus must go. And immediately.

In a rare serious note, today marks the 232nd anniversary of the establishment of the United States Marine Corps. Tomorrow is Veterans Day. I wouldn't be able to write this silly little waste of a time of a blog without the sacrifices of generations of Americans who served in the military. I may hail from a region of the country not noted historically for patriotism and self-sacrifice, but I am eternally grateful to those who are better men (and women) than I am. God bless you, men and women of the Marines and the American Armed Forces and God keep you.

1 comment:

Domer in Mourning said...

From Gameday this morning:

Chris Fowler: “This is not just for Charlie Weis, this is for any coach: If you’re going to accept the plaudits for coaching up somebody else’s recruits and building a nice record, then it’s tough to turn around the next year and say ‘we don’t have any players. They didn’t recruit.’

“A lot of people want to make that excuse at a lot of places, ‘Well, wait ’til he gets his guys. Well, he didn’t recruit.’ You see it all the time. That’s why a lot of coaches have trouble in those second and third years. You’ve got the veterans from the previous administration. Maybe there was turmoil surrounding it. They didn’t recruit well, and that comes to fruition in a coach’s second or third year. But you’ve got to remember, whether it’s (Weis) or anybody else having success turning it around in the first year, it wasn’t his guys there, either.”