Given that the NCAA has taken the reins off recruiting to a great extent, schools will have to make some choices about how they’re going to compete in the new wild west. Responses vary, the Big 10 is very concerned about the new rules B10 ADs, Coaches Worry About Easing Recruit Rules reigning champion Alabama is seizing the moment to add to its considerable staff advantage, hiring a Director of Player Development and a Director of Player Personnel (they now have two directors of player development.)
I think there are four questions Notre Dame has to answer when evaluating options:
- What’s material to success?
- What’s ND able to do?
- What’s ND willing to do?
- What’s ND willing to live with (results)?
Given the changes in the rules, it becomes a very interesting conversation with some historical context (though I don’t think this will be as serious as scholarship limitations.)
In 1947 Notre Dame cut scholarships from 32 to 18 (Michigan and Ohio State had 45-50 scholarships to give) hobbling Leahy’s great run and hastening his exit. That move was followed by questionable hires and rising academic standards. During Terry Brennan’s era, Hunk Anderson said “You can’t run this program with these numbers and I’ll tell you what else, when the shit comes down, you guys will be the fall guys.” Anderson actually organized a group of monogram winners to plead for more scholarships (Hesburgh turned him down.) To sum up quotes from Talking Irish and Resurrection, Notre Dame’s mediocrity seemed to come from a combination of poor coaching, low scholarships and a general lack of support.
When Ara came to Notre Dame, the Irish were far behind in the scholarship arms race. It started with the neutering of Leahy and Notre Dame didn’t wake up until Ara. When Parseghian came in he convinced Hesburgh to increase scholarships from 24 to 34. Still far behind the land grant schools, but that move gave Notre Dame a chance to build a program and, importantly, signaled that Notre Dame was serious about competing again.
Parseghian continued to push the administration along, earning concessions where Brennan and Kuharich failed. When he learned that Nick Rassas didn’t have a scholarship, Ara called up Father Joyce and said “I’m sitting here with Nick Rassas and he tells me he doesn’t even have a scholarship. I think he should have one.” Joyce took care of it. When Rassas told him Tony Carey deserved a medical red-shirt, Ara purportedly called Joyce again and Joyce handled it. Then he did the same with Tom Longo.
I still haven’t found out how many scholarships Notre Dame eventually gave out under Ara by the time he was finished (anyone know this?). The overall point being that a head football coach at ND should constantly be pushing for advantages that don’t conflict with Notre Dame’s mission and unique position. Great coaching matters, but so does program management. Notre Dame had a stellar year out of the gates with Ara, but he kept pushing the University to play on a more level playing field.
Fast forward to Saban’s Leahy-esque run. A vital part of that run was Alabama’s willingness to create advantages. Saban pressed the limits of the rules jettisoning 21 scholarship players over two years and bringing in junior college to fill the gaps. If Alabama didn’t have Terrance Cody and Jesse Williams (nose guard JCs) in 2009 and 2012, I’m not sure they would have won either season and I wonder whether Saban would have won 3 championships in 4 years at Notre Dame. Alabama isn’t unbeatable and Notre Dame can beat the Tide in anyone one year, but Alabama has stacked the deck in their favor.
Saban’s a great coach, but he’s been even better at constructing a dominant program, one that seems to have every other school outflanked. I doubt a less forceful coach could have been able to build what Saban has built. Alabama has pressed forward to create an advantage with oversigning (roster management), football staff and apparently nutrition staff. Saban’s even brought in leadership coaches to work with the team. After winning his second national championships, Saban increased the size of his analyst team by 50% according to Orangebloods:
Alabama grew from “six analysts” in 2011 to “nine analysts” in 2012. So not only is Alabama’s football office taking some of the load off its coaching staff in recruiting, but also in breaking down opponents as well. And these are full-time analysts. All of its legal as long as none of them coach Alabama players on the field. Alabama has five offensive analysts, three defensive analysts and one special teams analyst in addition to two graduate assistant coaches.
He’s not doing these things because he thinks they’re immaterial. That doesn’t mean each is essential, but Saban, with his experience, believes they give him an advantage or he wouldn’t be doing them. Here’s an example of how he uses his extra staff in recruiting:
“And before Alabama recruits a player in earnest, coaches produce a comprehensive report on everything from whether he fits their preferred physical prototypes—a cornerback should be about 6 feet and 185-190 pounds—to his ankle, knee and hip movement. If a lineman’s heels are raised when he is crouched in a stance, he is probably too inflexible for Alabama. Finally, coaches talk to family, friends and others to go “seven-deep into a guy’s life” to gauge his mental strength, said former Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain, who is now the head coach at Colorado State.”
Here are the two main areas of difference between Notre Dame and Alabama:
- Roster Management (scholarships given over four years): From 2009-2012 Alabama gave out 101 scholarships and Notre Dame gave out 81scholarships. Good management by the staff is helping to close that gap.
- Football office personnel: Alabama 29, Notre Dame 21 (Orangebloods claims Alabama has 39 football personnel outside of the coaching staff, but I can’t find that anywhere)
Back to the key questions:
Are these material to success?
Certainly, oversigning gives Alabama an advantage, but ND will never play that game and is starting to close the gap with better recruiting. How much of an advantage that will be going forward is open to debate. Does the size of football office personnel matter? Not sure about before, but it will be material when it comes to recruiting. I would argue that nutrition is a clear advantage. I’m sure there’s ample disagreement on these.
What’s ND able to do?
ND can afford to do what it wants to. The relative dollars are small.
What’s ND willing to do?
That’s the real question and it’s tied into Notre Dame’s unique place in college football. Try to be like everyone else and Notre Dame will lose its unique identity. Fail to match a critical advantage and Notre Dame could fail on the field.
What’s ND willing to live with (results)?
If Notre Dame chooses not to play in the arms race in an area that proves meaningful, can it live with the results?
In the past Notre Dame has failed to play the arms race and that decision actually helped make ND unique (athletic dorms in the past being a perfect example.) It’s not in Notre Dame’s best interest to chase every move other schools make.
Other times, as with scholarships, Notre Dame failed to play the arms race and it cost ND (coaching hires and salaries, early entries and nutrition being good examples here.) Some would argue Notre Dame still shouldn’t be playing in these areas.
With the NCAA opening up Pandora’s box, there will be tough decisions ahead for Swarbrick, Kelly and Jenkins.