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  • The Rock Report: ND and the “Football Arms Race”

    by SEE

    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:

    1. What’s material to success?
    2. What’s ND able to do?
    3. What’s ND willing to do?
    4. 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.

    18 Responses to “The Rock Report: ND and the “Football Arms Race””

    1. Can you elaborate more on Roster Management? Does Alabama have over 85 guys on scholarship?

      • Alabama “gray shirts”, that is holds scholarships off for a year, finds medical redshirts for players, “encourages” transfers and loses kids to academic attrition. That has allowed them to sign 101 players over four years and still play at 85 scholarships. They also have a larger staff to evaluate players. Those extra staff members will be allowed to contact recruits after their sophomore years under the new rules.

        Even SIDs can talk to recruits under the new rules. The message from NCAA president Mark Emmert was, ‘This stuff can’t be regulated, so, well, have fun.’

        Without limitations on how much contact or who can contact players, schools with more footall staff will have an advantage.

    2. Thanks for yet another excellent column. There are so many factors that go into building a program that most people pay very little attention to. I agree that ND must really “bring it” on those other factors in order to be competitive. Example: Strength & conditioning. Note how this has become an asset in the past couple of years, rather than a liability as it had been for . . . decades?

      BTW, permit me to offer a grammatical correction. “…it’s unique identity” should be “…its unique identity.” “It’s” should only ever be used as a contraction for “it is”.

      Keep up the great work. It’s fun being an Irish fan again.

    3. Cool Breeze says:

      Great article. I truly believe ND is starting to go the distance to do what it takes to close the gap in FB without giving up her identity. I would hope this could be done in all sports across the board. As you say, money is not a question but dedication is. I believe ND has the right man in Swarbrick, but he needs to fight for highly competitive salaries to keep his supporting staff top drawer. ND should NEVER lose a valuable staff person for competitive financial reasons exclusively.

    4. Look at the history,,,,the uniqueness of ND did not start until Fr. Hesburgh came in and de-emphasised football, by true historical standards football WAS ND and that is where it needs to get back to again, the whole argument of losing her identity is about an identity that was “created” AFTER Leahy was forced out and football was emasculated by the eggheads.
      ND’s true identity is the top football program in the country ,bar none and that is where it needs to GET BACK TO, and drop the created identity of the intelligentsia.

    5. The older – and wiser – that I get, the more I have come to realize that all of the ethereal mythology surrounding and attached to the Notre Dame Football Program is nonsense. Without winning, Notre Dame football has no “unique identity.” Up until this past season, Notre Dame football had THIS identity for 15-some years: “A Once Great Football Program With a Winning Tradtion – Now Overrated With Delusional Alums and Fans.” You want a “unique identity?” 1) The Administration must commit to a winning football program, and do what is necessary to support it; 2) Keep it clean, and; 3) Win. Win. Win. THAT will do it.

    6. While you are absolutely correct that Hesburgh was the culprit, I was there, there are other ND Presidents that did harm as well, like Monk Malloy! What an empty suit.

      But Hesburgh would never have relented to Paraseghian, Joyce or anyone without the threat that big money would stop being donated, and it did within a year after the “Excellence” article he wrote in SI. Big donors not only threatened Hesburgh but held back in the endowment side, and it was said that some big donors would not even allow him to use their private plane, which was probably his biggest perk. He moved back to center stage when he realized that Touchdown Jesus Library wasn’t going to be built until after he departed the Presidency, and the Library – with his huge office there- was his legacy. At ND, just follow the money and you’ll know the rationale.

      Class of ’62

    7. Avon Domer says:

      Enoree: I take great offense to you referring to Notre Dame’s “created identity of the intelligentsia.” It’s the “eggheads” that you so callously refer to that have made Notre Dame one of the top 20 academic institutions in the country (according to U.S. News & World Report) and shouldn’t we all take great pride in that? For the last five decades or so Notre Dame has graduated in the neighborhood of 99% of its football players who all have received world-class educations, and isn’t that first and foremost what an institution of higher learning should be about?

      One of the reasons I love Notre Dame is because it strives for excellence in EVERYTHING it takes on, which includes great academics and football. Enoree, if you want to support a school that doesn’t care if its students get a quality education and only emphasizes greatness on the football field, there’s plenty of teams out there for you to cheer for.

      Regarding Notre Dame keeping up with the “college football arms race,” building the Gug and recently starting a training table for our student-athletes are signs that Notre Dame is serious about greatness in college football. In addition, Coach Kelly and his staff, according to recent reports, are getting raises after last year’s successful season, which is another good sign.

      Jack Swarbrick has proven to be a brilliant leader in his short tenure as athletic director at his alma mater, and I have great faith that he’ll continue to upgrade the football program while not losing sight of the more important aspects Notre Dame’s goals for its student-athletes: earning their degrees and leaving ND as contributing members of society. GO IRISH!!!

      • The intelligentsia in reality DESTROY all they touch, look at how PC our universities have become, the only thoughts tolerated are the ones that “follow der party line” and anyone who dares to think for themselves is belittled and personally attacked by the sickos.
        Does anyone REALLY think that the “original” ND was a bad place to get an education, I am tired of the smugness of the elitists that think that they are better than anyone else.
        ND WAS a place for working class Catholic kids to get an education, how many of those kids can afford or even qualify nowadays?
        The Church and it’s institutions should be a place for ALL and not just a few.

        • Avon Domer says:

          Please correct me if I’m wrong, but your point appears to be let’s settle for mediocrity everywhere at Notre Dame except for on the football field. All I can say is thank God that everyone I know associated with ‘Our Lady’s School’ disagrees with you.

          I’m 54 years old and have loved Notre Dame my entire life. I didn’t go to school there because I didn’t meet the requirements, and I blame myself for that, not Notre Dame.

          The last thing I would want is for Notre Dame to come down to my level so I could go to school there. Notre Dame has very demanding requirements for freshman to be accepted into the school and the university accepts approx. 1 out of every 5 qualified applicants, which I’m sure you object to, which I’ll never understand.

          Those entrance requirements are all about excellence, not arrogance, and excellence at Notre Dame should be encouraged and celebrated, not feared.

          • Avon Domer-

            I appreciate your affinity for ND and your willingness to defend the University against a perceived attack. However, I think there is a misunderstanding here and to a certain extent you and Enoree are talking past each other. I’m a third generation Domer (class of ’90). My brother and sister are Domers as well (’94 and ’01). I live for ND to the extent that friends and co-workers generally think I’m crazy. That being said, I’m not altogether happy with the current trajectory of the school.

            In the mid-1980’s, ND was generally ranked between 16 and 20 in the various academic rankings. Since the early 1990’s there has been a distinct effort to remove much of what made ND great. Kids no longer get to request dorm assignment so the dorms lack the distinct character that each had. Du Lac rules have become more strict. The school reportedly admits less “legacy” applicants, which used to make up 20 to 25% of the student body. There is more emphasis on GPA and test scores than there was in the past. We are trying to be the Stanford of the Midwest instead of being ND. Hell, there was even a push a few years ago by the administration to do away with the Leprechaun logo and the word “Fighting” in front of “Irish”. The result of all this is that ND hasn’t moved one spot on the rankings.

            No one is saying that ND needs to lower enrollment standards. Many just think they need to revert to the old criteria of seeking smart and well-rounded kids that “get” ND. In other words, embrace ND’s historical mission and do not try to become some type of Ivy wannabe.

            • Avon Domer says:

              The Beef: Thank you very much for your perspective and the information about legacy applicants, etc. As the old saying goes, the only constant in life is change, and it appears that ND is continuing to evolve in one way or another.

              I’m wondering if you and other ND alums and current students have expressed your concern regarding the legacy situation and the more stringent rules established by Du Lac? I had not heard about the possibility of losing the Leprechaun and “Fighting” in front of “Irish.” Thank goodness the right decisions were made there!

              Keep the faith, my friend! Let’s hope that as ND evolves it will always keep in mind its true self and what has always made it so special to so many.

    8. Gabby Hayes says:

      I didn’t notice the term ‘student’ in your article. You don’t hear it often on TV either, why is that? Isn’t that why they’re to be enrolled? Ask yourself what percentage of scholarship CFB players would be enrolled at their particular academic institution if playing football was not part of equation. Are they true students or semi-professionals producing a profitable product, making a lot of money for others?

    9. Nice article and some very thoughtful comments. College football is big business. Now more than ever, particularly with the TV money and the machinations now taking place with conferences. There will be super conferences soon that will help create a de facto playoff system that will feed into the new football final 4 playoff system. How does ND continue to compete and have access to this system? Swarbrick and Kelly have shown ND is capable of being relevant in today’s football world and, therefore, will have continued access to that stage.

      While the training table and improved facilities have helped, it still comes down to coaching. Coaching certainly includes finding and getting the right talent. Kelly has done that and more. He has also used the talent effectively on the field of play. Even in his first year you could see that the team was better prepared to play and compete than it was under Weis. Similarly, both Ara and Holtz showed in their first year that they could take someone else’s team and improve it dramatically.

      In Ara’s day, the football players had their own separate cafeteria in the North Dining Hall where they ate after practice. It may not have been as nutritionally balanced as today’s “training table” but it certainly was a concession to the players (and rightfully so). And while there may be no football dorms yet, many of the players are either concentrated in certain dorms or live off campus. The point being that these ancillary issues are not what makes or breaks a team’s success on the field. Certainly they have an impact. But the piped in music did not “rock” ND Stadium in 2011. In 2012 it did. Why? Because the team was winning AND in the hunt for the National Championship. At the end of the day it is about coaching a winner out of the players you have. When you win, you get a better recruiting class. Does anyone really think the recruits committed to USC switched to ND this year because of the training table or improved athletic facilities? I don’t. Even with those items, LA still beats South Bend as a destination.

      Competing for the National Championship = special attention from the media = special attention from the NFL. Having a winning record and being on TV really isn’t that important, either. Most teams can now say that (and that they go to a Bowl Game, no matter how trivial, every year). The cache of ND has always been as a small Catholic school, an underdog, that won Championships and Heisman Trophies against the larger public schools. The school’s academics were never part of the mystique of Rockne or Leahy or, for that matter, Ara. The academics are important, of course. And I don’t want to see the school lose sight of that. Most of these players will never play ball after college and I want ND to keep the focus on being a university to these players. But at the end of the day, you need both the uniqueness of Notre Dame AND having a coach that can compete for Championships to rekindle the aura that has always surrounded the Fighting Irish. As special as Alabama’s accomplishments have been in football, it seemed that the majority of those tuning in to see the BCS game did so to see that tiny Catholic school from northern Indiana again play David to a large public school’s Goliath.