Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Notre Dame Football: Irrelevant or Irresistable?

In light of all that has transpired over the course of the season for Notre Dame I feel compelled to address a prominent question that constantly arises and ceases to be put to rest: is Notre Dame football still relevant?

What follows is a series of additional questions that help frame the reasoning behind my ultimate conclusion.

Abdicated or Vindicated?
Unless you've been living in a cave over the past few days you probably heard the news that Charlie Weis was let go by the University.

Coming off the heels of a 4-game losing streak Notre Dame Athletic Director recommended to University President John Jenkins that Weis not be retained for the 6th year in his 11-year contract.

This was not the first time an Irish coach was ousted with years left on his contract. George O'Leary was fired just one day after he was hired as a result of lying on his resume. His replacement, and prior head coach Tyrone Willingham, was let go with two years left. Prior to that, Bob Davie received his pink slip the season after receiving a 5-year contract extension.

Over the span of those firings Notre Dame's record was 91-67 (.576 winning percentage) with 0 BCS bowl game victories and a lousy 1-7 in bowl games. The Irish have not legitamately been in contention for a national championship since 1993 and the most recent title was in 1988.

With those stats in mind I wonder whether or not Weis' firing signals abdication or vindication?

In truth, the answer to that question lies with AD Jack Swarbrick. If Swarbrick hires a stud coach who adds another title to Notre Dame's pedigree then the answer is vindication.

However, if Swarbrick hires another dud along the lines of Weis, Willingham, O'Leary, or Davie then the answer is clearly abdication. Additional and subsequent years of mediocrity will only continue to tarnish Notre Dame's impeccable brand.

Below is a quote from Swarbrick's press conference on Monday that announced the firing of Charlie Weis. His intentions were made clear:
Well, I won't go into the specific criteria. We have developed a list of criteria to help us shape the search. But I think I will say that it is important to us to look first and foremost at people who have demonstrated an ability to build and sustain a Division I college football program.
All indications are that he is serious about ending the run of duds and unproven coaches. This hire will not only define Swarbrick's tenure at Notre Dame but will also signal to the rest of the world how serious the Irish are about resurrecting its storied past.

Verdict: the jury is out and will remain so until the new head coach is hired... but all signs point to vindication

Sore Losers or Sorely Missed?
Many people scream sour grapes whenever Notre Dame fans talk about the storied Irish past. They claim that domers cry wolf when defending the current state of the program by referencing the storied past.

Such accusations include that 1) academic standards are too tough for premier athletes to gain admission nowadays, or that 2) the NBC TV contract automatically puts the Irish at an advantage (with recruiting) over other schools, or that 3) domers are too enamored on the past that they forget the harsh reality of the present state of the program.

1) While academic standards at Notre Dame are higher than some other schools, though, they are proportionately the same as they were years ago when the Irish were a shoe-in for national title consideration.

2) As for the TV contract, while the Irish once enjoyed exclusive status as the only institution with a TV contract that perk no longer exists. The Big Ten created its own TV network to broadcast its games and other major conferences like the SEC and ACC have contracts with ESPN, CBS and other networks to carry their games. Notre Dame might still have an advantage that every one of its games are nationally broadcast but for all intents and purposes the playing field is now level.

3) It is true that domers are proud of the rich tradition of the program but can you think of a program in the nation that doesn't celebrate its past? I suppose those conference title banners or retired numbers are based on premonitions? No. Every school, organization, company, and human being celebrates the past in some way, shape or form.

Too much emphasis on the past can put one at risk of never again meeting (or exceeding) those past achievements but, even so, with a tradition as rich and memorable as that of the Irish it is near impossible to ignore or downplay the history.

With the records of recent Irish teams in mind I contend that Irish faithful like myself simply pine for the days when national titles and other accolades like Heisman trophies flowed like water.

After all, in times of disappointment or depression it is not uncommon for people to yearn for the happy things from their past. Focusing on those happy things fills a void left by current lack of satisfaction.

Verdict: sorely missed past

Independent or Affiliated?
Domers and non-domers alike have passionate, though contrarian, views on whether or not the Irish can and should remain independent.

Supporters of Notre Dame retaining its independence cite the need for the University to leverage its unique independent TV contract with NBC. Others want the heritage of being an independent University to remain in tact. Yet even more want the Irish to maintain its own bargaining power rather than succumbing to the dictations of a conference president.

A more spiteful group wants independence for all the reasons listed above in addition to honoring prior wishes of affiliated teams. After all, Notre Dame was denied admittance to what is now known as the Big Ten when the Michigan Wolverines informed member schools that it would refuse to play them if Notre Dame was also an opponent. Now that opposing fans want the Irish to give in and join a conference this spiteful group seeks to live out the destiny carved in part by the Wolverines.

There is a small group of Notre Dame detractors that actually want the Irish to remain independent. They claim that if the Irish joined a conference they would have too much influence over it and still dictate a favored nations clause for itself.

Outside of that small group, the vast majority of Notre Dame detractors welcome the thought of conference affiliation for the Irish. Among their contentions, they claim that the Irish need to join the 21st Century and stop resting on its laurels. More notably, they hypothesize that Notre Dame would be at the bottom rung of any conference it would join so there would be no real harm done to their own teams.

Lastly, a group of pro-Notre Dame fans contends that the Irish need to join a conference in order to avoid falling behind the curve. When Penn State joined the Big Ten in the 90's Notre Dame was left as the last major independent program.

Conferences have become so powerful that they have their own TV networks and seemingly unlimited bowl tie-ins while Notre Dame is left with just two remaining non-BCS bowl tie-ins starting in 2010. Conferences and their respective power mark the zeitgeist of the past decade.

As much as it pains opposing fans to realize, however, the Notre Dame brand still carries enough weight to merit independence. This is not to say that the Irish won't ever join a conference but the odds are stacked in favor of independence unless the Irish fail to negotiate their own contracts by leveraging their iconic brand.

In all likelihood, the Irish will sustain independence while simultaneously generating enormous revenues for itself.

Verdict: once an independent, always an independent

National Champs or National Chumps?
Run through any rational person's list of top collegiate football programs over the years and Notre Dame without question makes every list (along with the likes of Texas, Oklahoma, Michigan, Southern Cal, Florida, Alabama, and Ohio State).

With eleven national titles to its name the Irish are equaled by only Southern Cal. Notre Dame's title years include 1924, 1929, 1930, 1943, 1946, 1947, 1949, 1966, 1973, 1977, 1988.

Since the last championship in 1988 nearly twenty different teams have won national titles. The current high school recruits for the class of 2014 were not even born the last time the Irish won and were only a few years old when the Irish last legitimately competed for the title in 1993.

Increasingly difficult academic standards at the University add fuel to the debate of whether a highly competitive academic institution can compete at a high level athletically.

Universities with highly achieving academics, such as Michigan Southern Cal, have shown an ability to pair on-field excellence with off-field performance (Matt Leinart's rigorous ballroom dancing course load notwithstanding).

So if other schools have shown a propensity to achieve both athletically and academically why can't Notre Dame?

This is not the first time the Irish have faced criticism that academic standards are too stringent to succeed athletically. Before Ara Parseghian was hired there were declarations of the difficult academic standards, but he won two national championships. Before Lou Holt was hired there were similar proclamations, but he too won a national championship.

As a proud alumni of Notre Dame Jack Swarbrick acknowledges the defiance of the tough academic standards and, accordingly, will not accept the argument that admissions requirements and the University's vision for its football program do not gel.
Well, I think Notre Dame remains a critical piece of the college football landscape. There is no denying our recent struggles, but that doesn't change the equity of the brand or the importance of Notre Dame being able to succeed.

We need to prove, as I was quoted as saying recently, that universities who are committed to integrating the student athlete, first and foremost, into the university of students, can also have them achieve optimal football success as athletes. It's important for the entire industry that we be able to do that. We have the background and I believe the equity to do it, and we now have the foundation laid and the improvements made in the program in recent years to put us in a position to do that.
Charlie Weis may have failed as a head coach but he succeeded in attracting top talent to South Bend. Most of his recruiting classes were ranked in the top 10-15 by all major recruiting services (Rivals, Scouts, ESPNU).

Defensive talent has been the biggest question mark as the Irish have posted back-t0-back abysmal seasons defensively.

If the Irish truly want to engage themselves in legitimate national championship contention the next coach will have to win the hearts of the nation's defensive elite and it probably wouldn't hurt to pick a scheme and stick with it.

Antiquated facilities marred the Irish program earlier in the decade but over the course of the past four years Notre Dame opened the Guglielmino Complex, a state of the art training facility devoted to football, and LaBar Practice Complex, a set of three practice fields (two artificial turf) intended primarily for football. Both additions provided much needed upgrades to an otherwise unimpressive list of facilities.

TV exposure, facilities, a tremendously equitable brand, and commitment to excellence provide the Irish with all the necessary tangibles to compete among the nation's elite.

Verdict: the Irish will compete for a championship again... in the year 20??

Irrelevant or Irresistable?
This subject marks probably the most commonly debated topic about Notre Dame: are the Irish still relevant?

ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit even begged this rhetorical question on College GameDay last week.

The notion of irrelevance with respect to Notre Dame makes sense if relating it to domers who up past accomplishments rather than current (lack of) achievements when defending the University against its critics.

That said, I have a hard time believing that the Notre Dame football program is 'irrelevant' especially when in the course of one hour, coming off a 6-6 season mind you, it garnered more attention than the entire Boise State, Cincinnati and TCU programs, which are currently all undefeated and ranked six through four respectively in the BCS standings, were exposed to combined all season.

Want proof? Take a gander at this marked up ESPN homepage by the fine folks at Her Loyal Sons.

Other coaches were fired already this year or recently stepped down but none of them garnered as much attention as the Notre Dame coaching change. Not even Bobby Bowden, who announced he is stepping down as head coach of the Florida State Seminoles where he roamed the sidelines for 55 years!

The fact of the matter is that Notre Dame is like the New York Yankees and the Dallas Cowboys. People either love or hate those teams and there is no middle ground. Whether or not those teams are winning or losing is irrelevant because people always have strong opinions about them.

It's not like the Yankees haven't gone through down periods (anyone remember the 80's and early 90's?) or that the Cowboys never faced adversity (late 80's and early 00's).

Notre Dame has had dark periods, too. But just as the Yankees and Cowboys overcame their dark days so too will the Irish.

While it has been 21 seasons since the last national championship the current drought will not last forever. Notre Dame is to college football as the Yankees are to major league baseball, not as the Red Sox or Cubs are to major league baseball.

The key thing to remember is that whether the Irish or Yankees are cowboys are on top of their sport or on the bottom they are always one of the most talked about teams in their sport.

The propensity to evoke such debate, criticism, and conversation is unmistakably a testament to the relevance and irresistability of those teams.

Final Verdict: the Irish football program is and always will be relevant until the general public either decides to behave differently or the University gets rid of the program, and I can say for certain that the latter is not even in consideration.

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