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Monday, June 08, 2009

Charlie, Leadership and the Secret Sauce

posted by Scott Engler
(The Rock Report ) -

“Every victory is won before the game is played.” ~ Lou Holtz

I was out having some drinks and ran into a player on the 1988 team who recounted the back story that led to the Irish’s inspirational thumping of Rodney Peete and the Trojans that year (pardon any lack of clarity here, we were a few pints deep.) A game that, to this day, remains one of my favorite Irish victories because the Irish simply beat the crap out of the Trojans.

To set the scene, USC was number two in the country, but a favorite over the number one ranked Irish. Before the game Holtz asked the team to assemble, waited until the entire team had joined and then walked in. He announced that Ricky Watters and Tony Brooks had been continually late to meetings and that he could suspend them, but that it was up to the players to decide what to do with them (to suspend them or let them play.) Holtz walked out and put the decision in their hands. A debate ensued and one of the players stood up and said that this was the game that would define their lifetimes, that they couldn’t let the opportunity slip away and that they should let Watters and Brooks play. But as the debate continued and while players agreed that it was too important an opportunity to lose… they also started thinking that if they believed enough, they didn’t need Watters and Brooks, that they could win without them. They voted to leave them behind (Holtz later admitted he had made the decision already.)*

The result was a physical ass kicking of the Trojans that was the last real hurdle to the 1988 championship. Holtz found a way to turn a negative into a positive just as he had done when he led Arkansas to their memorable Orange Bowl demolition of the Sooners.

“Motivation is simple. You eliminate those who are not motivated” ~ Lou Holtz

Every good coach has specific strengths, but the one thing all great coaches have is the ability to lead other coaches and players… and make them believe. Schematics are important. Recruiting is vitally important. Player management at the college level is critical. Coaching management at the highest level is equally critical.

What makes great coaches successful is not the just the ability to sell an idea but to lead their organizations through the tough times to get there. It's easy to forget that the criticism of Holtz was ear-splitting at times during his career, yet Holtz led through adversity and won.

“As a leader your attitude has a powerful impact on others. You have an obligation to develop a positive attitude, one that inspires the people around you to achieve the impossible” – Lou Holtz

What struck me about Brian Kelly at Cincinnati (calm down, in no way do I think he was ready to take over the Irish in ‘09) is that he had a horrible QB situation, actually worse than Notre Dame had in 2007, and he was able to work through it, make the players believe and turn in a very impressive BCS season for Cincinnati.

Was the quarterback situation a real and dire problem? They played five different quarterbacks during the season, of course it was.

Just like talent was a real problem and coaching changes are problems. But Kelly was able to not just sell the idea that success was probable/inevitable, but lead them through the tough times. Bearcat QB Tony Pike wasn’t even on the depth chart to start the season, but he said that Kelly made him believe he could and would win.

"He's a salesman, is what he is," says Grand Valley State coach Chuck Martin, who was Kelly's defensive coordinator at the school. "Whether it's Grand Valley State or Central Michigan or Cincinnati, he has kids believing they can move mountains. His No. 1 strength is offense. His No. 2 strength is how good he is politically at getting people to believe in his program. He sells it door to door, which not a lot of coaches will do.

"I remember at Central Michigan, somebody asked him how long the rebuilding cycle would be. He said, 'About 10 seconds.'"

“Yes, I know that you feel you are not strong enough. That's what the enemy thinks too. But we're gonna fool them.”Knute Rockne

How does this relate to Charlie? Weis is a tough egg to crack, because he gets the problem and he can sell an idea, but what from what I’ve seen, is not a great manager of the team day to day through the tough times and or adept at keeping them motivated and believing. That’s where real leaders separate themselves. I’ve heard stories of Charlie motivating through fear (you won’t have my NFL endorsement) to encouragement (be yourself), but what is striking to me is that he doesn’t really know how to do it and that’s a problem.

“It is a fine thing to have ability, but the ability to discover ability in others is the true test.” - Lou Holtz

Urban Meyer is an asshole. Some of his players hated him even at Notre Dame, but he gets them to play at a high level. Charlie can be an asshole too, but his secret sauce hasn’t worked with either his assistants or the players to date. In 2006, his second year, we had players dogging it on the field in what was supposed to be a possible National Championship run.

“Your talent determines what you can do. Your motivation determines how much you’re willing to do. Your attitude determines how well you do it.” ~ Lou Holtz

That, to me, was a major sign of impending failure. He had others as well, such as sticking to his scheme beyond all rationality, going for it in absurd 4th down situations and always taking the kickoff when you knew we’d be beaten down.

The problem is that Charlie doesn’t yet have the secret sauce. He’s guessing. He doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. And the frustrating thing is that he’s smart, he knows the game, he can sell, he cares and he works hard.

But it’s not enough.

You have be able to make everyone around you believe and that’s not a trait normally found in nature. A top level college coach needs that leadership intangible. Some guys are brought up that way in their families, others have an intuitive sense and pick it up, some have mentors and still others work at it and eventually get it or are thrust into circumstances that somehow draw it out of them. Charlie had a mentor in Bill Belichick, but I’m not sure Belichick would win in college and Charlie doesn’t seem to have that innate ability.

And even if you have the secret sauce, it’s not enough. You also have to be a good cultural fit for the position. Since Lou, Notre Dame's had two carpet-baggers and a believer without the secret sauce.

ND is primed for a run at the championship the next two seasons, but we need a coach who not only has the boxes checked, but also the secret sauce. Right now Charlie seems to be failing schematically, in coaching motivation and in player motivation. He appears to be a very classic case study in failure and what happens when you elevate a technical expert to an upper-level leadership position. Technical experts in leadership positions have an inclination to "go insular" when things go wrong and try to figure it out in their comfort zones, that's usually a recipe for failure. Leaders are highly engaged. It’s certainly not impossible for him to succeed, but he hasn’t done most of the job before, so he’s guessing. The hope is that the coaching changes would create the secret sauce, but that’s a guess. Notre Dame needs someone who has it. Whatever it is. Someone who can coach schematically, recruit and make his players and coaches believe.

I hope that Charlie gets it this year, but the odds, at this point, are not in his favor. Given his background, his inclination will be to run back to what he knows best and focus on schematic advantages, but that may not serve him. If I were Charlie I'd limit the schematic analysis and concentrate on having the toughest, most in shape, fundamentally strong team in the country; one that believes they can win regardless of schematics. Being able to win Rocks, Papers, Scissors doesn't matter much if the other guy can punch you in the mouth. There are no awards for cleverness. When LSU beat Florida two years ago, they did it by controlling the line of scrimmage. Florida did the same to Alabama last year. That control of the line is key to making any well-called play work.

There was some leadership analysis recently that showed that the most powerful way a leader can use his/her time, in order, are to 1- show the team the road map for success, 2 - put in place a mechanism/process/resources to make sure everyone feels they can achieve those goals, 3 - manage the day to day effectively and 4- inspire them to achieve.

To be sure, there were signs that Charlie may have started to figure it out in the Hawaii game, where Weis adjusted his approach and the team responded in fairly dramatic fashion, but a look back at the abysmal run from Pittsburgh to USC last year should give anyone pause. That written, winning can do a lot to change a coach's and team's perceptions and a rising talent base, softer schedule and rejiggered coaching staff will give Weis a tailwind he hasn't had since 2005. I think it's fair to say that all but a small minority are hoping Coach Weis puts it together this year and, if he does, he'll likely pull in another top class and his coaching comeback story will become part of Notre Dame's lore.

*There's a very good chance that the pints changed the story a bit.

**Please save the "you want Charlie to fail" or "just another excuse for Charlie" comments that seem to accompany every article that seem either pro or anti-Weis.

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Friday, April 10, 2009

It's Time to Expect to Beat Southern Cal

posted by Scott Engler
(The Rock Report) - There has been an ideological debate on NDNation over whether coaching or talent was responsible for Notre Dame's two year plunge. The answer is both and when you have two factors with that much impact, it's hard, if not impossible, to determine ultimate causation.

As we've covered before (ad nauseam) Weis is learning on the job and the weighted talent level fell off the table the last two years. That combination led to the worst year most of us can remember in 2007 and an embarrassing collapse in 2008.

Unfortunately that has many fans "lowering the bar" heading into 2009. Most have already chalked up a loss to Southern Cal and would consider making the BCS a turnaround for the program.

I suggest that bar is too low.

It's now year five of the Weis era, Notre Dame is elite in terms of upper tier talent (our talent level in 09 will be higher than Florida's last year) and Weis is dealing with a full allotment of coaches chosen by him after careful selection. Notre Dame has as veteran an offensive line as there is in the country, a full array of weapons and a five-star junior quarterback who's now been been on campus for three springs that was coveted by everyone in the country including USC.

There's no reason to assume a loss to Southern Cal is a fait accompli; in fact, there's reason to believe Notre Dame should beat the Trojans this year.

USC loses its entire starting linebacking corps, all but one of its starting defensive linemen, two star defensive backs and likely first round pick Mark Sanchez at quarterback. To be sure they're filling in the holes with five-star spackle like Everson Griffen who started as a freshman, but Notre Dame will be playing USC relatively straight-up from a mature talent standpoint. (ND-USC Steele Rankings )

The big worry is USC's offensive line matched against Notre Dame's very green defensive line, but every other match-up is close enough, assuming coaching and player development, for Notre Dame to win. If Notre Dame's defensive line isn't blown off the ball by USC, Jimmy Clausen's experience and home field advantage should be the difference.

If Notre Dame is going to return to the elite of college football, 2009 is the year. A top ten finish with top ten talent after three years of coaching under-performance should be a minimum goal. At some point, you have to prove you can get the Ws and this is that year for Weis.

Whether or not Weis deserved another year is now a moot point. If Weis is a truly a championship coach, we should expect to beat USC or come so close (as in 2005) that there's no doubt the rising Irish talent is being coached by a staff can lift them to excellence.

It's time to ditch the "Hold Me I'm Irish" mindset that has perpetuated mediocrity in South Bend and expect and demand excellence on the field.

It's time to beat SC.

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Sunday, March 22, 2009

Talent, Coaching and Chemistry

posted by Scott Engler
(The Rock Report) - Talent

At this point, nothing matters but performance. But as the chart on the left shows, Notre Dame will emerge this year from the upper level talent dearth that is finally working its way out of the system in 2009.

This chart, based on WTF68's analysis, is an updated analysis of our talent weighted by the seniority of the class. The method used was a star rating by scout multiplied by a "seniority factor" a percentage weight applied to the star rating based on the seniority of the player. So a 5-star like Clausen would only be worth 3.5 stars his sophomore year, but over 4 stars his junior year and 5-stars his senior year. The idea behind the madness is to weight the star rating (which is really potential) by maturity and development, which varies by position. Offensive Linemen, Defensive Linemen and Quarterbacks usually take the longest to develop, so their "seniority factor" is lower than the norm. The "seniority factors" are in the table below.

5th Sr Jr So Fr
OL 100% 100% 90% 70% 50%
DL 100% 100% 95% 75% 55%
QB 100% 100% 95% 70% 50%
All else 100% 100% 100% 85% 60%

It's pretty similar to the method I've used before, except that analysis focused just on impact players by class. The stories are remarkably similar. (And when others use this methodology, just remember who brought it to you first.)

Essentially this method adjusts for how old a player is. For example, Trevor Laws didn't really excel until his 5th year, so even a highly regarded recruit like Laws, like most players, takes at least three years to reach his potential. These kids are literally still growing and filling out. As promising as, say, Rudolph is (and he still is skinny,) he was still a liability blocking for most of the season.

Some commentary from WTF68:
- I do not offer this model as an excuse for our poor play in 2007 and 2008. However, I do think it helps to argue that lack of experienced talent played a part in our struggles. No excuse in 2009, and certainly none in 2010.

- We'll be stacked in 2010. We really should contend for the national championship.

- On this basis, Urban Meyer did a hell of a job at Florida in 08. Their
experienced talent was good (roughly equal to ND in 2005), but not great.

- If anything, I think the percentages probably understate the value of
having a bunch of tough, smart, seniors and 5th year guys on the field.
I was talking to an ex ND player the other night and he was complaining that we have all of these 5-star recruits, but they weren't playing like it. Now part of that is coaching, but a lot of it is age. Our best recruits were sophomores and freshmen last year. In fact, every skill player on offense, Allen, Clausen, Floyd, Tate and Rudolph was a sophomore or younger. I liked BGS's talent analysis, but what was missing, IMO, was the age factor. You have to account for teams that have maturing talent, like Penn State in 2008. Their talented recruiting classes came to a head last year. The same was true of Notre Dame in 2005, as Quinn's talented class finally matured.

You've seen this argument before, the bottom line is that there's no talent excuse to be had in 2009 and we'll have "USC level" talent in 2010.

That orange line? That's Urban Meyer's Florida team from last year. The red line? That's USC from last year. Clearly the bar is high, but as Urban showed, good coaching can dramatically improve the raw material and make it "mature" faster.

That's where the coaching part of the equation comes in.


And the last two years have been a coaching disaster. We hung on to Oliver and Latina a year too long and ND has paid the price for that. Mike Haywood wasn't someone who meshed with the rest of the staff either and he certainly had no business being an Offensive Coordinator or calling the plays at ND. That said, very happy he found a great job to move on to.

By adding Verducci, Hart, and Young and subtracting Latina and Oliver, Notre Dame should see an immediate payoff in 2009. If those lines can even improve 20%, there's no reason ND won't be BCS bowling in 2009. Frankly, if we're not, Weis should go.

You'll know if the coaching has improved when you see average or forgotten players start to make an impact. One thing I've noticed over time is that when a good coach comes in the middle rises. Take a look at USC and Florida's rosters and you'll notice they have a lot of five-stars, but also a lot of no-names (see Clay Mathews) that dot the roster. I would expect to see players like John Ryan, Mo Richardson and Scott Smith contribute significantly. Not necessarily those specific guys, but players who are in their positions.


You hear this word all of the time, but what does it mean? It means that players and coaches are aligned in their goals (they believe they're on the same team,) they trust each other, they have skin in the game and they believe they can win. From what I've heard, ND pretty much struck out on all of these the last three years. Another framework that's pretty popular in the corporate world is the Five Dysfunctions of Team, which are:

1. Absence of trust among team members.
2. Fear of conflict.
3. Lack of commitment.
4. Avoidance of accountability.
5. Inattention to results.
Some say those five describe the ND administration on the whole, but that's another article...
Now that Weis supposedly has a group of coaches that are on the same page, he should better be able to replicate the give and take in the coaching offices that he experienced at New England.

If the coaching was really that dysfunctional, no surprise the the players were rumored to be as well. There was a dearth of leadership in the upper classes (this year will be the first year that no Willingham signees are on the team.) Of course, that's not an excuse either as Carroll and Meyer were able to bridge this gap quickly at USC and Florida.


There's reason to believe that the Talent, the Coaching and the Chemistry will all be improved in 2009 and so there's reason to hope and possibly believe. Weis has shown he's capable of learning, but this year will be his biggest challenge.

The believer in me looks at all of these improvements and thinks, we have to improve to a BCS caliber team given all of the factors that have changed. The skeptic in me thinks that, as omahadomer says, you pretty much are what you are by your fourth year and that if Weis is still learning on the job, we'll probably discover three more things he has to learn after this year.

The skeptic in me right now outweighs the believer, but the believer is a hell of a lot more fun in the meantime.

I choose to believe.

Until the season gives me a reason not to.

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Sunday, December 28, 2008

Opportunities Abound

posted by Mike Coffey
The dawn of a new year is the time of hope. People make resolutions to do better in their lives. They see an opportunity for a clean slate, and want to take advantage of the benefits that slate can give. Some folks have Opportunity knocking at their door today. If they take advantage, it could mean a very prosperous 2009 -- and beyond.

The Line on the Color Bar

The most obvious opportunity is that for Mike Haywood. After biding his time and plying his trade for a number of high-profile programs, he's getting his shot to be the top dog at Miami University. Haywood has served under a number of outstanding coaches, and hopefully has learned at least a little from all of them. He'll now get to show the college football world the results of his schooling, and since you can't have enough Fighting Irish alums in the coaching world, we wish him all the best in his well-earned posting.

But an even bigger opportunity is in the hands of Floyd Keith and the Black Coaches Association. They now have at least three examples -- Haywood, Buffalo's Turner Gill, and DeWayne Walker, who has interviewed strongly for a number of positions and is reportedly the leading candidate at New Mexico State -- they can show to their membership and say, "See, this is how it should be done. This is how you need to do it."

There are far too few African-American head coaches in Division 1A (or the FBS or whatever goofy moniker is used for it these days). The solution, however, is not forcing unprepared candidates into positions and having them flame out. The solution is for African-Americans who want to coach to be given the same opportunity to follow the typical coaching development path as their Caucasian counterparts.

Look at the resumes of Haywood, Gill and Walker, and note the similarities:

All three men got their Bachelor's degrees. Haywood got his the old fashioned way at ND. Gill and Walker went in a slightly more roundabout fashion, but both are in possession of sheepskins. Such degrees are critical for college coaching advancement. So perhaps instead of focusing on the (admittedly poor) low percentage of African-American head coaches, the BCA should focus on the (even more reprehensible) low percentage of African-American football players who finish their eligibility with a college degree. Plantations like Arizona and Michigan and Texas and Georgia, with their horrible performance in graduating African-American football players, especially in comparison to their Caucasian counterparts, should be called on the carpet. That's how you start -- by increasing the pool of available candidates, and letting them get an early start on their coaching careers instead of spending two or three years getting the degree they should have been earning during their playing days.

All three men have experience at multiple levels and multiple positions. Haywood was an assistant for 20 years, progressing from a position coach at Minnesota and Army and Ball State to a Special Teams coordinator at LSU and Texas. Gill was a 17-year assistant at North Texas, SMU, and Nebraska, with the Huskers winning three National Titles during his stint there. Walker has also prowled sidelines for 20 years at places like Oklahoma State, BYU, Cal, USC, and UCLA.

One could argue it should have taken them less than 20 years, but one could also argue there are Caucasian assistants who sometimes wait that long. Pete Carroll's first job as an assistant was in 1973 but wasn't hired by the Jets as HC until 1994. Mark Richt started as a QB coach at FSU in 1985, and it wasn't until 2001 that he got a top job. Bob Stoops started in 1983 and didn't get to Oklahoma until 1999.

All three men have held leadership positions as an assistant. Haywood was ST coordinator twice and then OC at Notre Dame. Gill was Assistant HC at Nebraska. Walker was the DC at UCLA. They had experience overseeing large groups within the team, coordinating recruiting, game-planning, the works. Along with the graduation rates, the BCA should be counting the number of college coordinators of color, because those are the most direct seeds from which head coaches grow.

All three men started (or will start) their head coaching careers at a learning stop. Gill is already turning heads at Buffalo, where he has reformed one of the losing-est programs in recent memory into a MAC threat. Haywood will start at Miami, another MAC school with a strong tradition where a new coach can afford to make teeth-cutting mistakes without it making a bad first impression. Walker is looking at NMSU, and probably will find it easier to learn the intricacies of the HC position in the WAC rather than the spotlight of the Pac-10.

The Line on the Green Bar

Charlie Weis also has an opportunity, one he's been offered before. You don't always get a second bite at the apple, but here we have Weis with what might be his third chance to broaden his horizons on offense.

It remains to be seen which current Notre Dame assistants (if any) will accompany Haywood to Oxford, and it remains to be seen what other current assistants (if any) are relieved of their duties. But change is needed on the offensive side of the ball, and this may be Weis' last opportunity to make it.

The running game remains abysmal. Not to be lost in the otherwise-satisfying 49-21 thrashing of the Warriors in Honolulu was the net 73 yards gained by Irish players on the ground during the contest. While an 85 percent completion rate for your quarterback is a great thing, it's also not something dependable or even usual, and less than 100 yards on the ground against a team of UH's caliber does not bode well.

It's time for Charlie to truly become the leader a head coach needs to be. Leaders hire other leaders, and what Notre Dame needs now is a leader on offense not afraid to tell Weis it's time to run the ball well and not give up on it at the first sign of trouble. By all means, continue to utilize the weapons at QB and WR and TE. But an offense that is not a threat to run eventually falls because teams can sell out to stop the pass, as we saw to our chagrin down the stretch this season.

Weis has to replace his departing OC, and should replace his OL coach whether that departure is voluntary or not. A quality hire of someone(s) with a balanced viewpoint at both positions -- someone like a Mitch Browning, perhaps -- can revitalize the (truly) offensive side of the ball, and with a continuation of improvement on defense, could lead to the results we're looking for in 2009.

Anything else might lead to an opportunity for someone else.

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Saturday, December 20, 2008

Pat Fits? Don't Think So

posted by Mike Coffey
I was working on the (very tardy) headlines this evening when a Sun Times entry caught my eye:

PAT's no irish tap dancer

The folks at the Kiddie Paper, as my grandfather used to call them, aren't really good at indicating what their articles are about via the headlines, so I opened it up to see if I needed to link it. All I saw was a blurb about an alleged recruiting visit Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald took to Notre Dame in 1992.

I say "alleged" because I had a hard time believing any of it ever happened. Coach Fitzgerald's father recounts a young man who had "done his homework" asking whether there was a rule at Notre Dame that forced you to live with the people you were assigned until graduation, unless you "got married and moved off campus". When Lou Holtz and his assistants "tap-danced around the answer", the young Fitzgerald decided Notre Dame was not the place for him.

Let's be clear: the forced living arrangement described by Mr. Fitzgerald was not a rule at Notre Dame when I graduated in 1991. It was not a rule at Notre Dame when my father graduated in 1966. So if this represents the depth of "homework" young Pat did before his visit, in true Crossian fashion, I give the assignment an F.

While I obviously was not at this alleged meeting during the alleged visit, I fail to see why the coaches would have to "tap dance around the answer". The answer is simple: No. Perhaps they tap-danced around what even asking such a question says about the intellectual capacity (or the agenda) of the questioner, but the answer is an easy one and the coaches in the room were not fools. I can't envision a scenario where "tap-dancing" would have been required.

Questionable fact-checking aside, I couldn't figure out what would lead Jim O'Donnell to write such a thing in the first place. Obviously he had done an interview for a banner story with the old man and this was some kind of sidebar, but why would ND be relevant? My only clue lay in the first paragraph:

In recruiting myth and lore, Pat Fitzgerald crafted his Hall of Fame linebacking career at Northwestern only after Notre Dame declined to offer him a scholarship.

Google is, as always, my friend, so I punched in "Pat Fitzgerald Notre Dame" and looked for news. A good number of the links on the first page sent me back to the Sun Times, links suggesting the existence of a brou-ha-ha regarding Pat Fitzgerald being considered by Notre Dame for the head coaching position.


Sure, more than a couple names came up in the wake of the Syracuse and Southern Cal debacles, but Fitzgerald's wasn't one of them. Northwestern certainly had a nice season in a very down Integer this year, but if there is a list in Jack Swarbrick's drawer, Fitzgerald would be lucky to make page two.

From whence did this come? Best I can tell is one of two places.

Another of O'Donnell's articles quotes Beano Cook as saying Fitzgerald was under consideration. Beano, who is still waiting on Ron Powlus' first Heisman, is still trying to make money in the prognostication business. Google failed me on anything written down, so the best I can guess is he blorphed it out during a video segment.

Meanwhile, or perhaps in response, Sun Times scribe Rick Telander threw something together saying he thought Fitzgerald would be a good candidate. We had linked the article when it came out, but I'd missed the Fitzgerald reference at the end. O'Donnell interpreted this as a "growing chorus" saying Fitzgerald should take the job, the Northwestern Scout kids wet their pants over it, and it took off from there.

I remained flummoxed. Beano Trelawney is who he is, of course, but what's Telander's game, and why is O'Donnell riding saddle with no horse like this? Better yet, why is he writing about non-existent Notre Dame rules in a newspaper, even the Sun Times?

And then, epiphany. 17 days early.

Northwestern is one of the few schools out there that, like Notre Dame, knows academics is not a four-letter word when it comes to athletics. Their high standards are laudable, but, as ND fans know, come at the price of a shallower talent pool from which to draw. When ND is running on a full mixture, like Duke in basketball, it tends to dominate that pool.

This certainly is a detriment to Fitzgerald, especially with Notre Dame coming into Illinois and grabbing players like Steve Filer, Darius Fleming, Robert Hughes, and Sergio Brown. Even walk-on-cum-special-teams-monster Mike Anello bears a Land of Lincoln pedigree. Northwestern doesn't recruit nationally to the extent ND does, so the Fighting Irish cherry-picking Chicago talent would hurt Fitzgerald sooner or later.

How to fight against it? If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Notre Dame is thinking about hiring this guy? Hey, I should just go play for him now if ND thinks he's that good!

Telander's a Northwestern alumnus, and there'd be no point in destabilizing his alma mater's coaching staff for something as ephemeral as this Fitzgerald-to-ND garbage, especially considering he was one of the people who created it out of whole cloth. Ah, but if he knows there's little chance it's actually going to happen and can couch it in such a way that makes Fitzgerald look good at Charlie Weis' expense? That's gold, Jerry.

O'Donnell's the beat writer, he wants access just as much as anyone else does. What better way to get it than to do the boss man a favor and suggest some non-existent "rules" at ND along with a non-denial denial. As long as he doesn't actually lie and say it's true, he's well into the safe gray area. We Catholics call that area a "sin of omission".

Dragging dear old dad into this farce is borderline reprehensible on all of their parts. But as a dad myself, I know you want to see your kids succeed, so I don't blame him too much.

Rising above it all, the young Pat gets to be magnanimous, talking about how he'd be "honored if ND considered him" (easy to say when they're not). Now he can walk into recruits' living rooms and shake his head ruefully about the "rumors" (started in a hometown paper by an alumnus and the beat writer) and what that might "say" about the quality of his coaching and the stability at Notre Dame.

Well done, boys. Very well done.

If only any of it were true.

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Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Hold Your Mud

posted by Mike Coffey
Someone used that phrase on the boards today, and I resolved to add it to my lexicon. And it's applicable now, because given the events and my writings of the last couple days, I want to make sure an important point doesn't get lost here.

I still want Charlie Weis to succeed.

I have no reason to dislike the man personally. I've had two interactions with him in the four years he's been on the job, and both have been (at the very least) cordial. I've got no dog in any hunt for his failure, as I've no reason to gloat or personal scores to settle.

I have no reason to dislike the man professionally. As I've said numerous times, his work ethic laps the combined efforts of his two predecessors. He certainly has more of a personal connection to the school than Davie or Willingham did, and if I can't root for a member of the Family to succeed, what's the point?

That's what makes this all so hard. There's nothing I'd like more than for Charlie to get this turned around. I just can't see my way clear to predicting it with any reasonable certainty.

Next season is shaping up to be a very good one. With the recruits coming in and the talent on hand, we should be incredible on offense. Weapons at both the WR and RB position, with the TE contributing both in the blocking and attacking modes, and two five-star QB's to get the ball to them. The one thing that can stop it is if the OL continues to grossly underperform.

Defense looks to be improved as well. The young turks in the front seven will be seasoned and ready to contribute. Walls will be back from his missing year, making a strong position (DB) even stronger. If the backfield and front seven can stay on the same page, this may be the strongest defense ND has had since Davie left.

The schedule is favorable, with only four true road games, and one of those at Stanford. Nevada is tough, but not so tough they should give ND a game. Michigan is still rebuilding. MSU and BC lose a lot of their good players from this season and will have to come to South Bend, and Purdue and Washington will have both talent issues and will be breaking in new coaches. Wazzu set futility records this year, Navy is one more year removed from Paul Johnson, and Pitt and Stanford are Pitt and Stanford. On paper, Southern Cal is the true question mark, and after four top-10 recruiting classes in a row, we're as prepared as we're ever going to be to give them a game, particularly at home.

These are the kinds of opportunities great Notre Dame teams of the past have taken advantage of. These are the kinds of seasons great Notre Dame coaches have used to build their legacy.

The question becomes: What will Charlie and this team do?

I want to predict great things. But I look back on the last four seasons and see critical problems not addressed. Our running game has looked average at best, and awful the last two years. The OL is not in sync and is not tough. The S&C program leaves a lot to be desired, as our players look neither strong nor quick. And Charlie is still trying to figure out, as he called it, "this head coaching thing".

The 2009 season is hanging out there like a big ol' eephus pitch, just begging to be knocked out of the park. Those opportunities don't come around every season, and we haven't had a good swing in over 15 years. I don't know if my psyche can take it if we not only miss the ball, but end up turned around in the dirt.

I want Charlie to succeed, and if he does, I'll be happy for him. But if he doesn't, that's going to be it, for both him and for Jack.

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It Just Goes to Show

posted by Mike Coffey
Show what, I'm not at all sure.

Nothing, it seems, has been what it seems for the last couple weeks. Charlie Weis was fired, and then he was not. Jack Swarbrick was meeting with him next Monday, then it became last Tuesday when both were jetting around four time zones on the left coast. A presser became a release. Status quo became buyout financing became "responsible stewardship of university resources", and now Weis gets a continuance.

The inveterate straw-grasper in me sees plenty of lawyer-speak in that link. The release doesn't say Charlie Weis will be ND's coach in 2009, only that he will "continue" in the role, with Swarbrick "examining every aspect of the program" and making changes where he "think[s] they are needed". Plenty of ambiguity there, or at least enough to keep my soul from sinking, and we still have an epic tilt against the likes of, as Lou would say, the University of Rice to look forward to over the holidays before all's said and done.

Could this be the most Machiavellian approach to the AD chair we've seen since Gene Corrigan was in the house? Perhaps. Was retaining Charlie Weis truly the best option, based on a lack of a "home-run hire" being available? Maybe. Does Charlie know enough to, once again, go into the off-season ready to correct the errors of the previous fall? I guess.

Trouble with all that is, when you've had to dip the bucket into the well of patience as many times as ND fans have in the last 15 years, eventually all you hear is the thud of it hitting the sides. I'd love to give Jack Swarbrick and Fr. John Jenkins the benefit of the doubt here, but 50 times bitten, 51 times shy, I suppose.

At the moment when Swarbrick seemed truly to be examining all his options while waiting on a December 8th appointment, the entire process short-circuited, resulting in a piece of paper issued from the Joyce Center. It's hard not to think about how we've seen all this before. Look kids, Big Ben ... Parliament ... you noticing all this plight?

We should, I suppose, be grateful for small mercies. Swarbrick's predecessor would have attempted a press conference, and it doesn't take a lot of imagination to visualize the train wreck Mr. "Sunday through Friday" would have wrought. But that's cold comfort as I sit in the December chill wondering how the Decided Schematic Advantage is going to be realized, knowing I most likely am going to spend the next 11 months refereeing online fights about what "real ND fans" do/think/want or don't.

But hey, I'm all about chances, right? As of this typing, Charlie Weis is ND's football coach next year. So it's time to stop talking about what could happen and start talking about what damn well better happen, including some capital-R Realizations:

Number one, a head coach is not a special teams helper or a quarterbacks coach or a play-caller. He's a head coach, and he has other people on his staff to handle those other responsibilities. Notre Dame is not a place for those skills to be learned, but rather honed, and if you can't delegate what needs to be delegated, you won't do anything well.

Number two, what works in the NFL doesn't necessarily work in college. When you're not limited to 20 hours a week with your charges and aren't required to provide tutelage in fundamentals as well as scheme, you can get a hell of a lot more done. If you can't dumb it down and have it still work, you need to bring someone in to help you do it.

Number three, you're not going to get anywhere unless you listen. Not give lip service to listening, really listen. As the saying goes, A-level folks hire (and, by extension, listen to) other A-level folks. B-levels and below are afraid to "look weak" or otherwise allow themselves to grow, so they won't have themselves challenged. I don't know whether he needs security or patience or what, but the days of my-way-or-the-highway have to go, because this highway is leading us right to the gates of Hell. Find staffers willing to challenge you and put new ideas out there, and show you're willing to consider what they say.

Fourth, it's time to put your money where your mouth is. So much talk about the sizable buyout keeping you shackled to South Bend, are you willing to walk the walk and announce you've reached an agreement with ND to waive the buyout as of September 1, 2009. You're asking the fans to work without a net here in trusting you can change. How about inching out onto that limb with us?

That's a level of self-evaluation that must happen here, because without it, none of my requirements for 2009 will be met. What are those requirements? Glad you asked.

Win whatever third-tier bowl game ND ends up in this year. I'd also prefer some evidence it's going to be a good long time before we have to worry about a win or the venue, but I'll settle for Weis not becoming the first coach ever to have back-to-back losing seasons and still stay in his job.

Keep the recruiting class together, and add the likes of Xavier Nixon, Manti T'eo, and Jelani Jenkins. If recruiting truly is saving his behind, it'd better keep up.

Create an OL that could successfully block my grandmother, both on the ground and in pass protection. I don't give a damn what our pass/run play call mix is, but in situations where we absolutely have to do one or the other, we need to be able to do it successfully. A decent running game would have meant at least two more wins this year and two more not-so-close games. Lack of depth and stars isn't the case anymore.

On the raw W/L side, 11 wins, at least 10 of them in the regular season. Devil-like details would include no losses by more than 10 points, and that includes Southern Cal, and at least three wins by more than 21 points. It's time for the championship recruiting classes to become a championship team, and Weis is in the red on mulligans as it is.

If he's going to stay, that's what he needs. Otherwise, Swarbrick should spend the next 11 months getting the Tier-One hire on the line, because like it or not, Jack's now inexorably tied to Weis. Will he take him to new heights or pull him into the abyss with him? Only Weis' hypothetical knee doctor knows for sure.

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Monday, December 01, 2008

Show Me The (Idiots Who Wasted My) Money

posted by Mike Coffey
Charlie Weis' buyout number is getting to be like the Loch Ness monster ... the more ridiculous the claims, the more you wonder if it exists at all.

The latest report comes from WNDU: a figure on the wrong side of $20 million. Although no one knows for sure, that number would be consistent with the rumors that swirled when Weis first signed that ridiculous contract extension -- that the buyout was a one-to-one dollars-owed total and resulted in virtually the entire contract being guaranteed. My ND education enables me to multiply $3 million per annum to the seven years remaining on the deal and get a product in WNDU's ballpark. The guys at WNDU have a pretty good rep and sources when it comes to stuff like this, too, so I'm inclined to give what they're saying some credence.

I'm also inclined to find whoever put this extension in front of Weis and toss them into Stonehenge Fountain on a 20-degree day. If you have ever written a tuition or donation check to the University of Notre Dame, things like this should have you boiling the tar and gathering feathers while looking for the appropriate target.

One might be tempted to target Weis in all this, and to be fair, it's reasonable to wonder why a coach who professes his love for his alma mater would need an eight-figure love letter less than a year on the job. But this is business. Just because Weis or his agent made the offer doesn't mean ND had to accept it. It would say a lot about Weis' position in and attitude about the ND family if he let the school off the hook here, and let's face it, that family is the reason Gerry Faust is accepted on campus these days and Bob Davie is not. But that's not Weis' job or responsibility, and while it'd be nice, it isn't required.

We know the name of at least one of the guilty parties. He's currently ensuring Mike Krzyzewski has fresh towels in his private steam room at all times, and when Notre Dame played a football game about 20 miles from his office earlier this season, he took great pains to be out of town so as to, and this is a direct quote, "not run into any of those Notre Dame people."

And people wonder why Chamberlain LeBlanc was so reviled on NDNation and why it pole-axed us that so many on campus thought he was a "great guy". That gutless wonder gave a man with no experience the keys to the Notre Dame football program, made him one of the highest-paid coaches in the nation, and then locked the school into a dollar-sign-walled prison and swallowed the key five games into that coach's inaugural season.

I am about as surprised Kevin White so totally and spectacularly mismanaged Notre Dame's interests in this as I am calm that Notre Dame didn't fire him for it. But that ship has sailed, and I'm forced to be satisfied he's no longer in a position to harm my school, at least directly.

Some people are in that position, however. I'm now looking beyond the Empty Suit and wondering who else's imprimatur was on Weis' golden handcuffs. I find it very hard to believe White, who couldn't manage something as innocuous as a press breakfast without tripping all over his tongue, had a loose leash in doing something like this. There's a reason you don't put the good china on the kiddie table.

Was John Affleck-Graves, revenue hawk extraordinaire, aware Notre Dame was going to be on the hook for this amount of money if Weis failed? Did Fr. John Jenkins realize he was promising Weis money that could have financed a high-quality basketball practice facility or the new ice rink the hockey program so richly deserves? Was Richard Notebaert or Philip Purcell in the loop when, in an atmosphere of rising tuition and pressing academic and athletic projects, scads of money was locked in for an unproven coach?

What did these men know and when did they know it? And how soon should they be removed from their positions after Weis if it's shown they did? These are the things the Notre Dame family should be asking itself right now. If Weis is still Notre Dame's coach next year, the buyout may be a major reason why.

Do I think they'll find a way to pay it? Of course, they always do. But that's not the point. They're going to be going to deep pockets for those millions, and those deep pockets could be helping get Jeff Jackson his new rink or Randy Waldrum his new stadium or Mike Brey and Muffet McGraw a practice facility and arena renovation that doesn't look like a Barnes and Noble. It's a waste of money and opportunity no matter how much it is.

Accountability and transparency are key. The days of "Pay, Pray and Obey" are long in our rear-view mirror thanks to the sheer arrogance and maladroitness of the Monk Malloy administration. It's time the true stakeholders of Notre Dame got an explanation for this waste of funds, no matter if it's eight figures or eight dollars.

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Sunday, November 23, 2008

It's Time

posted by Mike Coffey
This one really hurts.

The last two didn't hurt, but this one does.

Okay, the last two hurt, but not in the same way. The last two times we fired guys, they were guys who didn't really care about ND as a place and decided to treat it as a career way-station on their planned route to College Station, TX, or the NFL. The losses and ineptitude that brought us to their dismissals were painful, but the solution was not.

This solution, however necessary, is different. Charlie Weis was a lot of things, but carpetbagger certainly wasn't one of them. When he told a recruit about the special aspects of the Grotto, he spoke from the heart. He spoke from the soul. He connected to Notre Dame and connected with us, and in doing so, brought hope things would turn around.

That connection kept Weis' head above water last year during a horrific 3-9 campaign that was as much his own doing as caused by his predecessor's recruiting shortfalls. But at 6-5, in the wake of one of the worst losses in Notre Dame football history and staring down the barrel of a top-10 team in Los Angeles that needs style points if they wants to play in the BCS championship game, that connection is dragging us down with him.

It's time to cut the connection before we all drown.

There really is no alternative. For the second consecutive season, ND will finish with a worse won-loss record than its talent would indicate. For the fourth consecutive season, ND will look worse in its last game than it did in its first. John Walters ran the numbers, and Charlie Weis sits today after four years with the exact same win percentage his two predecessors had on the day they were fired. It wasn't good enough then, and it's certainly not good enough now.

Weis said it himself: We didn't bring him here to go .500.

Dylan over at BGS described Jack Swarbrick as, "having barely opened his office door, has found the whole place to be on fire". Fair or not, football coaching hires are how AD's are judged, and it's Swarbrick at the bat, or with the fire extinguisher at least.

In a perfect world, he would have been sounding out potential replacements early to make this as seamless as possible. I'm willing to bet a lot of money that hasn't happened. But fear not, such things are still possible, and time remains.

Weis, in retrospect, was a poor hire. But I gain hope from the hiring track record of the current administration since that day. On the academic side, Tom Burish seems to have been a good get at Provost, there are a number of excellent candidates on the short list for the Law School, and even the most curmudgeonly curmudgeon on Rock's House applauded Marianne Corr's hiring as General Counsel. On the athletic side, Jeff Jackson prowls the blue line in the Joyce Center after taking Notre Dame to its first Frozen Four.

Good hires of people more than capable in their field seem to have been made in recent years, all without the word "residentiality" being uttered. This tells me the people involved know how to hire. If they all of a sudden can't get it done in football, that will tell me a whole list of other things, none of them good.

But in the spirit of hope springing eternal, I think it's important to remind all my gentle readers of the things all previous successful ND coaches since Rockne have had in common:

All were very experienced as a college coach. Elmer Layden had coached for nine years prior to arriving in South Bend. Ara Parseghian had 13 years' experience. Dan Devine and Lou Holtz both coached their 17th season in their first year at ND. The only exception to this rule was Frank Leahy, but he got quite a bit done in his two years at BC.

All had coached at the top levels of college before coming to ND. Duquesne was a strong program when Leyden was there. Ara coached in the Big 10, Devine in the Big 8 (now Big XII), Lou in the SWC and Big 10. Again, Leahy stands out with BC being an independent, but also again, what he did there makes up for it.

All had coached at least one major college team to an undefeated season, a top-10 ranking, or a major NYD bowl. Layden's 1929 Duquesne team went 9-0-1 and his 1933 team went 10-1 and won what is now called the Orange Bowl. In two years at BC, Leahy's teams went to the Cotton and Sugar bowls. Ara had Northwestern ranked #1 during his career, an unheard-of achievement in those days. Devine had an undefeated season at ASU, and had four top-ten finishes and went to three Orange Bowls and a Sugar Bowl at Mizzou. Lou was an Orange, Fiesta, and Sugar Bowl veteran by the time he arrived in South Bend, and had four top-10 finishes to his credit to boot, including one at NC State.

So it can be conclusively proven that Notre Dame has had success when led by an experienced, known-commodity coach. The myth once perpetrated by a former administration official that "Notre Dame makes coaches, not the other way around" is just that, a myth.

Unfortunately for us, however, these men also had two other things in common:

They were not in good coaching situations when they were hired. Notre Dame represented a step up or a dream come true for all of these men. Layden and Leahy were alumni. ND was a bigger stage and could give more than the Integer outlets at which Ara and Lou toiled. Devine was coming off a failed attempt to coach the Packers.

It definitely takes more moxie than the norm to woo a top coach away from what might be considered a cushy job. But we are, as the commercials during the game tell us, the Fighting Irish, and I expect a fight no matter who we end up hiring. What was the title of Charlie's book? No excuses.

They weren't saints. This has been a strong refrain of NDOldTown in recent days/weeks, and in this, he is absolutely right. All these men were ethical and good people. But they also were winners, and were willing to do what it took while following the spirit of the rules to get there. They worked hard and so did their players. If they saw an advantage, they took it. And they certainly didn't have people in their job interview talking to them about the importance of Catholicism and other tertiary concerns. There's a reason the Boy Scouts don't have a football team, and as long as we aren't treating players like pieces of meat and we ensure they graduate with meaningful educations while keeping our noses clean, it's all good.

These are the times that try men's souls, times when people who aspire to be Notre Dame legends have an opportunity to prove their worth. Fr. Jenkins and Jack Swarbrick have such an opportunity now, and it may be their last. Make it count, gentlemen.

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Friday, October 17, 2008

In Search of Wow

posted by Scott Engler
(NDNation.com) After a year and a half in purgatory, it's clear to all but the Ostriches that the Notre Dame offense will be a force for the next two years at least.

Clausen will be at least as good as Brady Quinn and has started to blossom (I hate that word) now that we can finally pass block with some success, but right now we can't run with consistency and we're missing the Wow.

The Wow : A player who makes the defense hesitate by creating a moment of indecision that allows for big plays and breaks open the field.

Wow players like Rocket, Tim Brown or Reggie Bush (coincidence that SC has no titles without him?) changed game plans. When they were on the field, defenses had to think about more than just their assignment and always had to account for "that guy." They were players who put you back on your haunches and kept you honest because you knew if you didn't, on mistake could mean a long run or a touchdown. They open up the field and change the game through fear. Many forget that Reggie Brooks developed into a Wow before he left South Bend.

We've got some very good players who have speed and skill, but right now there's no lightning strike. Golden Tate has shown speed, but even better ball skills and hasn't been that dynamic with the ball in his hands. Michael Floyd is a great receiver already (some pups bite ya early,) but hasn't shown the ability to generate significant yards after the catch. Armando Allen has a great burst, but still hasn't broken any really long runs despite many touches.

So all of this has Irish fans wondering if Cierre Wood will be the next Wow. Wood ran for 20 yards a carry on nine carries and 180 yards last weekend giving him 62 carries for 969 yards and 18 touchdowns on the season. You do the math.

This offense will be productive and score enough points for the Irish to win a lot of games the next two seasons (and given our defense we have to,) but if ND can add the Wow we could see an historically great Irish offense.

Here's a new Youtube clip of Cierre (old runs - turn the volume down.)

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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Fits, Starts, and Quicker Picker Uppers

posted by Mike Coffey
(NDNation.com) Whenever my kids try my patience, I threaten to embarrass them on the Internet. Given the amount of posting I do, it's no idle threat.

Today, I was thinking about our ordeal toilet training them. Neither of them made it at all easy. Just when we thought they had it, there would be an accident and it felt like we were going back to square one.

It drove us mad. We knew they could do it because we watched them do it multiple times, sometimes up to a dozen trips in a row. But then there we'd be with the paper towels, muttering words under our breath we didn't want them repeating.

Why did that come to mind? I was sitting in my basement watching the Fighting Irish play in Chapel Hill on Saturday.

This team, in contrast to the one which preceded it, has been a joy to watch. The offense flows effortlessly. Michael Floyd plays like someone with multiple seasons at the college level under his belt, and has since he first hit the field. Golden Tate's is developing more each game, sometimes more each play. Armando Allen, since his installation as the feature back, has been tearing it up. The defensive backs haven't been afraid to challenge top-flight wideouts. Mike Anello continues to play inspired football as the gunner on special teams.

But then, the puddle and guilty look. Javon Ringer, held in check for the most part the entire game, rips off a 73-yard gallop enabling Michigan State to turn a close game into what looks, to the casual observer, like a handling. Jimmy Clausen, perfect for 10 quarters, throws an interception for a TD going the other way and follows it up with a laws-of-physics fumble. Floyd sheds his mature personna and makes a freshman mistake trying to do too much (seconds before the officials did the same).

It's maddening. But it's to be expected. Youth begets success in fits and starts. They look like world-beaters one minute and pud-beaters the next.

So, too, is the coaching staff. They're not young chronologically but they're definitely young philosophically. Michael Haywood is taking the reins for the first time, and while that means a bit more diversification in the offensive portfolio, not all the picks have been the right ones. Even Charlie Weis is still getting used to the college game after getting his hubris handed to him in last year's 3-9 debacle, but we're seeing the changes manifesting themselves in more physical practices and flexibility in things like deferring the ball until the second half.

But it's tough getting down with those paper towels knowing what we saw last season and the promise we're seeing this year. When, Lord? When's gonna be our time?

That's the trouble with the puddles. They get you down. But eventually, you realize you haven't seen one in a while. And then it becomes so commonplace you don't even think about it anymore.

But you're richer for the experience.

At least that's what I'm telling myself. Where's the Bounty?

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