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Monday, January 25, 2010

Situational Analysis

posted by Mike Coffey
Esteemed Pit poster Kevin O'Neill (aka Kayo), sometimes reporter for Irish Sports Daily, put together his thoughts on the current situation with ND's men's basketball program and how best to improve it.

Current Situation

Notre Dame finds its basketball team sitting on a 15-5 overall record, 4-3 in the Big East. Its poor non-conference schedule won’t impress the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee. Of the 11 remaining games, all in the conference, six are on the road; and the Irish will be the clear underdog in six games. As a result, a second consecutive NIT season is likely.

Head coach Mike Brey is in his 10th season at Notre Dame. Brey started the season with a 188-101 (.650) record at Notre Dame, 88-60 (.595) in Big East games.

Even the worst conference teams have a few good players, and conference road games are a challenge for the best programs, so Big East record is one good way to measure a coach’s and his program’s success. Brey’s best teams have finished first (2000-01), second (2001-02), and third (2002-03) in the West when the Big East played a division format, and fourth (2006-07) and second (2007-08) in the 16-team non-division format. His worst teams finished 6-10 (2005-06) and 8-10 (2008-09). Seven of his nine teams have completed conference play with winning records.

The other good barometer for the program is success in the NCAA Tournament. Five of Brey’s nine teams have participated. One lost in the first round. Three lost in the second round. One lost in the third round. One team lost to a lower seed, one team beat a higher seed, and all other games held form according to seeding.

Most Notre Dame fans are not happy with the state of the basketball program. The most common complaints are that the team should be better defensively and on the boards, and that Brey hasn’t recruited the talent to finish near the top of the Big East every year, to be a perennial NCAA Tournament team, and to advance in the tournament. The number of players in Brey’s playing rotation and his management of players’ eligibility also draw criticism at times.


Notre Dame’s administration has imposed three main constraints on its basketball program over the years:

1) Notre Dame has the most stringent admissions standards for basketball players in the Big East.

Admissions standards limit the pool of highly rated recruits available to Notre Dame. Urban public school players dominate the top 50 in recruiting rankings, and Notre Dame will not admit all but one or two of them in any given year. In addition, a large percentage of Catholic and/or suburban high school basketball stars will not qualify academically for Notre Dame.

Perennial top programs like Connecticut, Louisville, and Syracuse have no such admissions restrictions. They can recruit any athletes who meet the NCAA’s minimum standards. Big East Catholic schools like Marquette, Villanova, Providence, and St. John’s have somewhat stricter standards, but they’re still able to recruit dozens more from the top 100 than Notre Dame can. The only Big East school with admissions standards for athletes that compare to Notre Dame’s is Georgetown, and even Georgetown has a star player on its current roster that ND’s Admissions Department advised the coaches to stop recruiting.

As a result, Notre Dame's men's basketball coach recruits from a pool of mostly three star players from suburban high schools with strong academics. Few of these players are prepared to be Big East level contributors, with an average of about one per year able to earn significant playing time right away. Many become fine players in time, but it takes time to polish skills to compensate for other athletic deficiencies.

Virtually every school in the conference has more height, speed, and quickness than Notre Dame, although not all of them have players as skilled. Brey has said that he has chosen an approach to basketball, primarily on offense, that is based on being able to accumulate players who can handle the ball and shoot well because they are abundant in his pool of recruits who can pass admissions muster. He has also said that his teams go to the NCAA Tournament when they defend well in the lane and rebound, and they go to the NIT when they don’t do those things, so it shows he understands those things are important.

2) Notre Dame has maintained substandard basketball facilities for the last two decades.

Notre Dame’s basketball facilities have been woefully substandard for years. The JACC opened in the late 1960s. It was an outstanding college basketball arena in its day, but it was allowed to go to seed over the years. We joke about the duct tape all the time, but it literally was the maintenance solution for an inordinate amount of the wear and tear in the arena. The lack of effort and attention was both obvious and embarrassing.

The newly remodeled arena is a major step in the right direction, but there is no plan in place to upgrade practice space. The men's basketball team practices on the arena floor as often as possible, but it shares the arena with the women's basketball and volleyball teams. Therefore, they have to practice regularly in The Pit, an auxiliary gym in the Joyce Center basement. The Pit has a good wooden floor, but that’s the only nice thing I have to say about it. It looks like a junior high gym without the stage, and like many junior high gyms, the end of the court is close to the wall on one end, and it has padded building support posts just out of bounds on one sideline.

The players’ locker room and lounge was updated when Matt Doherty was hired 11 years ago. The space is functional, comfortable, and nice looking. It is not lavish, but it is not what I’d call substandard. It’s fine.

Facilities affect recruiting. The common theme used by opposing coaches on players Notre Dame recruits is the university is not serious about basketball ... that basketball is an afterthought to football. When the recruits visited South Bend, saw the arena in disrepair and the practice space as it was, they often decided the opposing coaches were right, especially when they compared what they saw to what was provided to the football team. Many recruits came for unofficial visits early in the process, got a load of the facilities, compared them to what they saw at other schools, and never gave Notre Dame serious consideration.

When the pool of great basketball players available to Notre Dame is limited in the first place, it makes no sense to disadvantage the basketball experience itself, but that's what Notre Dame does. The few great players who qualify academically for Notre Dame can get a great education and have top notch facilities at any number of schools. Off-putting facilities hurt the cause.

The Joyce Center renovation is a major step forward for presenting the program to recruits, not to mention how much better it is for fans. It shows a commitment to basketball success with the vote that counts most – investment dollars. When -- if? -- Notre Dame adds a center court scoreboard before next season, it will have completed a remake of the arena into one of, if not the, best on-campus game facility in the Big East.

However, that renovation happened nine years after it was promised, and comes at a time when most major programs have opened state-of-the-art practice facilities or have them under construction. Notre Dame ran out of money for a scoreboard in the arena, so I don’t guess that it’s flush enough to announce plans for a practice facility any time soon. I’m certainly not counting on it.

3) Notre Dame has one of the lowest annual operating budgets in the Big East.

According to published reports, Notre Dame’s men's basketball operating budget has been ranked 13th and 12th in the Big East the last two years. I have not been able to find line item comparisons, so it’s difficult to assess the effect of differences such as the rent for off campus arenas vs. maintenance of those owned and operated on campus, tuition charges to the program for private schools vs. public schools, etc. However, 12th isn’t close to the top, and I can’t envision what circumstantial adjustments will bring ND’s budget into the upper echelon of the conference. At the same time (thanks to the football brand), ND athletics creates twice the revenue of the next closest athletic department in the Big East.

While specific data is not available, I can think of three significant line items in the operating budget completely under the control of Notre Dame:

Coaches' salaries. I have no way of knowing if salary has driven Brey’s choice of assistants, but it isn’t an exceptionally credentialed staff. Comfort with people he has known for a long time is an equally plausible explanation.

Travel expenses. Notre Dame moved from commercial flights to charters for its East Coast games several years ago, so the team doesn’t seem to be traveling on the cheap. But I remember reading that the team flew to its recent game in Cincinnati but returned on a bus -- a bad idea when the next game is on a short turnaround to Monday. It’s entirely possible that a unique circumstance caused the change, not an opportunity to save a few bucks.

Non-conference scheduling. This, on the other hand, very much looks like it is being done on the cheap. In comparison to teams from the major conferences and second-tier leagues like the A-10 and C-USA, teams from the lowest level D-1 conferences get paid a lot less to come to South Bend and lack the bargaining power to require a return date. As a result, Notre Dame gets to create an 11-game home non-conference schedule and collect full price for each of them from its season ticket holders. Except for the recent home-and-home series with UCLA and LMU -- the latter scheduled because the away game was a convenient stop on the way to the Maui Classic a year ago -- Notre Dame plays non-conference games against major teams only when it can make a profitable appearance in an early season tournament or a specially arranged game like the opening of Lucas Oil Stadium vs. Ohio State last year.

Does the Notre Dame basketball program have any built-in advantages? I can only think of the willingness to accommodate transfers, and they still have to be compelling academic cases. Notre Dame manages its basketball program as if it isn’t trying to excel.

Mike Brey’s Performance

First, let's look at some comparative statistics:

As noted above, Brey's Big East record is 88-60 through nine years, a .595 winning percentage. It's important to not that, due to ESPN's influence over conference scheduling, ND more often than not gets a disproportionate number of games against that season's high-level in-conference competition. He has been to five NCAA Tournaments and four NIT's.

Over that same time frame and through the end of the 2008-09 season, Wikipedia says:

  • Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun is 104-44 (.703). He went to one NIT, missed the postseason once, and won one national championship.
  • Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim is 91-57 (.615) with 3 NIT appearances and one national championship.
  • Jay Wright is 77-55 (.583) in eight seasons. He went to the NIT his first three years and has been in the NCAA Tournament ever since.

No other accomplished coach has been in the conference for all of Brey’s tenure (or in Wright's case, all but one year). However, several other excellent coaches have logged several years in that time frame:

  • Ben Howland was 38-26 (.594) in four Big East seasons. He missed the postseason once and went to the NIT once.
  • Tom Crean was 31-19 (.620) in three Big East seasons. He was in the NCAA Tournament each season.
  • John Beilein was 40-40 (.500) in five Big East seasons. He went to the NIT twice and missed the postseason once.
  • Rick Pitino is 48-20 (.706) in four Big East seasons. He has one NIT appearance.
  • Jamie Dixon is 75-31 (.708) in seven Big East seasons. He has not missed the NCAA Tournament.
  • John Thompson III is 53-33 (.616) in five Big East seasons. He has two NIT appearances and one Final Four appearance.

Finally, there is a long list of failed coaches who were either in the Big East when Brey arrived or have come and gone since he started at Notre Dame. All had losing records in the Big East. Unless I'm missing someone, Brey and those listed above are the only coaches with .500 records or better over the last decade.

Quantitatively, Brey lags Calhoun, Boeheim, and Dixon over his nine years at Notre Dame. I’d add Wright as a fourth because his program seems to be well established and on an upward trajectory after the first three NIT seasons. Of the newer coaches, Thompson is a close call, but the Final Four is a pretty good trump card, and Pitino has won a lot of games since joining the conference to go with his distinguished career.

Maybe I’m forgetting someone important, but of the 35 coaches, give or take a few, who have been in the Big East since Brey came to Notre Dame, I can list eight or nine who I think are better than Brey, and only Thompson has anywhere near the constraints that Brey’s administration has imposed. For example, as much as I loathe Jim Boeheim, I think he’s an excellent head coach. However, I’ll bet he hasn’t recruited three guys who could have been admitted to Notre Dame since Brey started. The same goes for Calhoun, and Dixon. Wright might have 10-12 guys over eight years who ND would have admitted, but Pitino probably doesn’t have any.

How would those guys do with such a limited recruiting pool? How would they do with rosters of mostly three star recruits? We saw what happened to Boeheim after he lost one-and-done Carmelo Anthony one year and Hakim Warrick the next without recruiting replacement talent –- 1st round NCAA loss, 1st round NCAA loss, NIT, and NIT in the following four years. We saw what happened to Calhoun when he unexpectedly lost several players to early draft entry a few years ago –- 17-14 overall, 6-10 in the conference, and no postseason the next year.

I submit that almost every excellent coach in the Big East would be unable to cope with the constraints Brey has at Notre Dame. When I see UConn run top-ranked Texas out of the gym (54-32 in the second half) with all of those elite athletes on the floor, or when I see West Virginia do the same thing to finally-healthy Ohio State (43-25 in the second half) with the great athletes those two teams have, or when I see long-and-fast Syracuse manhandle the likes of Pac-10 leader California and national powerhouse North Carolina, I wonder how Notre Dame stays on the floor with those teams. Yet ND beat West Virginia and stayed in the games with the other two until the end, despite being smaller, slower, and not as quick at every position. Given the almost overwhelming talent differential in those match-ups, how bad is the coaching?

Notre Dame is consistently competitive in spite of its constraints because is does a handful of things exceptionally well, mostly on offense. Brey’s teams are near or at the top of Division 1 in assists per game every year. They understand spacing, limit turnovers, and keep the ball moving. They have good shooters, and they get them open shots. They execute their offense better than every team in the conference except Georgetown, and the Hoyas execute their offense as well, not better. ND’s offense achieves that efficiency mostly with one-dimensional scorers, and not many of them, runs perhaps the only 75-80 points per game half-court offense in Division 1, and they accomplish that just about every year.

So what about defense? It isn’t good enough; and while it will have some limitations as long as ND isn’t as athletic as its conference opponents, it should be better than it is. Athleticism is tied to blocks, steals, and deflections; but any good athlete can have good footwork, use positioning to his advantage, and challenge shots. Notre Dame lacks in those areas far too often. In ND's NCAA tournament years under Brey, their excellent execution on offense has been coupled with solid to very-good interior defense and rebounding. I have never known ND to have an exceptional perimeter defense -- although, oddly, this is the one year that has opponents making a low percentage of their three point shots – just 32.9% in seven conference games to date. Excellent shooters are in shorter supply in this year’s Big East.

I'm left wondering what Brey could do if he had just two more outstanding athletes in the program every year, if the academic constraint weren't so severe and if it looked like ND was more committed to basketball success over the years. Imagine how good this offense would be with two more guys as talented as Luke Harangody in the lineup. Put a real college center like Greg Monroe and a multi-dimensional scorer like Austin Freeman in the lineup, and this offense would be unstoppable.

Constraints have made accumulating great athletes difficult although the new arena should solve part of that problem. However, constraints aren’t Brey's only recruiting issue.

When the team relies on so many three-star guys who take time to become contributors, being thin in one of the upper classes hurts the team. On the heels of Brey’s early success, including a trip to the NCAA Tournament round of sixteen, he recruited a one man class (Rob Kurz); and the current sophomore class, also recruited on the heels of two very good seasons, has no scholarship players. Transfers and redshirts have redistributed the classes on the current roster a little, but a complete recruiting whiff is inexplicably and inexcusably bad.

In addition to the recruiting class gaps, position gaps have stalled the program. Last year, for example, Luke Harangody was essentially an undersized center playing with four guards in the rough-and-tumble Big East. The only other active guys with big man size and any chance to have big man styles of play were Ty Nash, who apparently wasn’t ready to play in Brey’s eyes, and Luke Zeller, who seemed inclined to play up to his size no more than a couple of games each year.

If a coach knows and says that his teams go to the NCAA Tournament when they defend well in the lane and rebound well, how does he have three big men total, one he has known to shy from the lane for the first three years of his career? How can he not find three three-star big men every two years who are inclined to mix it up on defense and on the boards?

When Brey should have been able to parlay some on-court success into solid recruiting classes at the very least, his recruiting has been at its worst. The gaps have set the program back when it had a chance to establish itself as a perennial NCAA Tournament team, and being there every tear is a big key to tournament success. The constraints are real, but they don’t account for the gaps. This is, in my estimation, Mike Brey’s biggest problem; and whatever is the second biggest problem pales in comparison.

In Summary:

My evaluation of Mike Brey:

  • An outstanding offensive coach
  • Wanting as a defensive coach
  • Inexplicable recruiting gaps stall his program every time it seems to have some momentum
  • One of the better coaches in the Big East over the last decade
  • Has done pretty well despite his constraints
  • Probably would do better with relaxed constraints, but I can't prove it
  • I don’t know that other coaches would do better with the constraints, either

What I Would Do

The way I see it, senior management is the biggest problem, but many fans think the solution is to fire middle management. Middle management has actually done pretty well considering senior management’s incompetence ... or senior management’s intentional decision to be no better than okay.

I would not invest in a business whose leaders think like that. I’d rather invest in a business that gives its middle managers the tools they need to succeed and then holds them accountable for using them well. I see neither when it comes to Notre Dame basketball.

I’m certain that, short of a scandal, Notre Dame will not be changing coaches after this year, and a change is unlikely next year unless the program has a complete collapse. I’m equally certain that Notre Dame is in no position to attract a new coach who has much of a track record because Notre Dame would have to promise changes, and its failures to deliver on past promises are well known. If and when a change is to be made, I’d like to be fishing the best hole.

I know ND will have tougher academic standards than anyone else. I know it isn’t going to start on a practice facility any time soon, certainly not before it puts the last expensive piece into the arena. I know its budget won’t jump to the top of the conference in one year. I’m not expecting a lot, but I don’t think it will take much to get much better performance from Mike Brey at Notre Dame.

I have three recommendations:

Target at least one admissions break every two years with one in each of the first two years to prime the pump. I am not talking about poor students. I’m talking about average to good students with solid high school curricula, ability to do the work Notre Dame requires, and the desire to earn a degree. This will probably triple the pool of top-100 guys Notre Dame can recruit. Expect Mike Brey to meet the quota, and don’t feel bad about firing him if he doesn’t.

Alter the budget for assistant coaches. Commit the budget dollars necessary to hire one of the top assistants in Division 1, instruct Mike Brey to hire one who specializes in defense, and insist that the guy get free reign to improve the team’s performance on that end of the court. If Brey doesn’t get someone and/or the team doesn’t improve on defense, don’t feel bad about firing him.

Modify the budget to accommodate a better non-conference schedule. A woeful schedule doesn’t prepare the team well for the Big East schedule, makes it more difficult for ND to get NCAA tournament bids when it's on the bubble, results in lower seeding when the team does make the tournament which makes runs there less likely, and is boring as hell for us season ticket holders. Book some decent home-and-home series. Play a neutral site game where you have a fan base but near the opponent so our team can have a taste of tournament atmosphere. If you loosen the purse strings and Mike Brey doesn’t do anything with it, fire him for insubordination.

I’m not suggesting anything radical or unduly expensive, and I believe Mike Brey would be ecstatic to have even that little bit of extra support. As I said above, imagine Brey’s offense with two more excellent scorers that we accustomed to seeing; and imagine improving the defense by five points better per game. The only other thing standing between Brey and a .700 Big East winning percentage and a consistent top four finish would be the recruiting gaps, and only Brey himself can fix those.

The best case is that Brey will succeed. The second worst case is that Notre Dame will be much better positioned to hire a really good replacement. All they’ll have to do for the new guy is promise a practice facility; and who knows, maybe that will be on the board by then.

The worst case is that Notre Dame isn’t willing to bend even the little bit I recommended; and if that’s the case, there is neither much reason to change coaches nor much reason for me to renew my season tickets.

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Friday, December 18, 2009

No Means No

posted by Mike Coffey
My mother is one of those social souls for whom exiting a party is three times the effort of entering. She'll say she's leaving, then run into someone on the way to the door. 10 minutes later, the process repeats. Eventually she finds her way out, but it usually involves half a tank of gas used up by my father, who had found his way to the car right after mom's initial pronouncement.

Having observed this phenomenon for over 40 years, I'm quick to recognize it when I see it elsewhere ... like in Notre Dame's repeated dalliances with the Big Ten conference (or, as I prefer to call them, the Integer). Having dodged this bullet in 1998, we now find ourselves looking down the barrel of the same gun, with the conference recently announcing a renewed effort to find a 12th member and participate in a championship game.

Like Michael Corleone, just when we think we're out, they pull us back in.

While we're sometimes accused of tilting at windmills on this topic, Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick isn't helping matters. While professing loyalty to the independent state of Notre Dame's football program, his statements to the press are peppered with phrases like "we'd sure like to try to maintain [independence]", which is now thought of as a "strong preference" that must be balanced with "implications" in the "industry" of college football while "scenarios play out".

Sounds a lot like those non-denial denials that were so in vogue during our two-week football coaching search. And like Oklahoma fans three weeks ago, we're a little uneasy.

With the Chicago Tribune endlessly beating the drum of Integer assimilation, columnist-by-default David Haugh can't resist chiming in either. A decade of reading his work has taught me that, while he may be erudite on a number of subjects, to call him semi-educated on the topic of Notre Dame and what makes it tick would be overrating him by several orders of magnitude. So for David (since I know he just tingles to read my stuff) and anyone else who may be unclear on the concept, let's review the issues.

Many reasons exist for ND to remain a football independent, regardless of how the "industry" goes. But those reasons get thrown into sharp relief when applied to a conference like the Integer, and can be summed up in three words: Geography, Diversity, and Differentiation.

Geography. Notre Dame sits square in the middle of the Integer's geographic footprint, so at first glance, it might seem to be a good fit. But the value of Notre Dame's brand (because, let's face it, this is a money discussion more than anything) was built based on national appeal. There's a reason update and op-ed columns regarding Notre Dame's pursuit of Brian Kelly were written for or published in Tampa and New York City and Chicago and Boston and Los Angeles and Washington D.C. and Seattle and any number of other cities. You don't waste column inches on stories in which no one is interested.

But how long will that interest be maintained if the Fighting Irish end up playing 9 of their 12 games every year in a Midwest geographic footprint against other teams from that same footprint? Sure, a Notre Dame/Michigan game will pull in national interest for a while. But a steady diet of ND/Minnesota? ND/Iowa? ND/Northwestern? Why should people in Florida and California and New York and Washington care about those games? How soon before their disinterest shows and Notre Dame becomes yet another marginalized regional school, pushed further behind the eight-ball due to its small graduating classes relative to those geographic "peers"?

Diversity. The Integer comprises ten large state universities and one private [edit] secular university. Outside of a desire for scholarship at the 20,000-foot level, Notre Dame has little, if anything, in common with any of them. Notre Dame graduates about two to three thousand people per year, while the Integer factory in total cranks out numbers in six figures. Notre Dame's graduation rate for undergrads typically operates north of 95 percent, and its rates for student athletes leads the nation. The rates for most of the Integer schools, by comparison, are downright embarrassing.

When you join a conference, the needs of the many supplant the needs of the few. Decisions get made by the majority, and with the masses of humanity on land-grant campuses who (based on the numbers) really don't give a rip about the academic side of things when it comes to their athletes, Notre Dame will be subjected to a steady diet of being on the wrong end of 10-2 and 11-1 decisions. Michigan and Ohio State have owned the Integer lock, stock and barrel for long and long. That ain't gonna change any time soon. The idea of voluntarily subjecting ourselves to their whims for 30 pieces of silver makes my brain hurt.

Differentiation. When a recruit comes to Notre Dame's campus, aside from being presented with the scholastic and spiritual ways in which Notre Dame is different from their competitors, they also see the opportunity to play a national schedule. Why limit yourself to games against your neighbors, the coaches can say, when you can play Southern Cal and Navy and Tennessee and Florida State and Pittsburgh and Oklahoma and Boston College and Arizona State, all of whom have appeared recently or will appear on future Notre Dame schedules? Why play just about all your games in flatland stadiums a bus ride away when you can play in Los Angeles, New York City, Washington D.C., Dallas, and Ireland? Granted, the 7-4-1 abomination is hurting Notre Dame in this area in the short term, but that's a self-inflicted wound that could be healed up should the program desire.

Think about how that discussion changes if Notre Dame joins the Integer. How would we differentiate ourselves from the Michigans and Ohio States of the world? We'd all be located in the same area of the country. We'd all play the same schedules. Why should they come to Notre Dame and have to apply themselves when they can just skate by as a Buckeye or Wolverine? Integer membership makes it all the more difficult to set ourselves apart from a rather low caliber of company, and this holds true not only for football but perhaps even more so for Notre Dame's other sports.

Those who favor conference membership have their mantras, of course. Haugh points out that "an independent Notre Dame team with two losses by midseason -- the rule more than the exception lately -- struggles to find motivation. A Big Ten team with two losses by midseason after expansion would have a shot to win its division and play in the lucrative conference title game."

What he fails to note is a two-loss Notre Dame team doesn't deserve to play in a "lucrative conference title game" or any other high-profile contest. They should earn their way into those games like they always have in the past. The solution is to improve the product on the field so standards are met, not dumb down expectations to the point that a "conference title game appearance" is viewed as something to applaud.

National Championships are remembered forever by the people who saw them. Conference titles are recorded on banners that everyone sees but no one looks at. The BCS gives mediocrities access to the championship structure by virtue of their membership in a particular group of teams. And yet those mediocrities scream about how Notre Dame gets "special treatment", even though you'll never see a 9-3 ND team even sniffing a BCS bid like Purdue and Stanford have in the past. Even Alanis Morisette would find that ironic.

Notre Dame is a national brand because of the efforts of those who came before -- Rockne, Leahy, Hesburgh, Joyce, Parseghian, Holtz. Joining the Integer will effectively undo those efforts more effectively than just about any choice I can fathom. Becoming a small regional school with a small regional following may be attractive to those who want the money but don't want to make the effort, but to those alumni and fans who believe those heights can be reached, it smacks of being lazy and cheap, neither of which are words I want associated with my school.

Let's also not forget these people hate us. There's no love lost between Notre Dame and any Integer school at any level, from the alumni and fans on up. The Integer and its members benefit from Notre Dame's involvement much more than the other way around, and all they're interested in is our money and the reflected attention they can get from us. If Joanna Barnes could make herself look like a crappy football stadium, it'd be a natural.

So Jack, the next time a reporter or alumnus or anyone else asks you what Notre Dame's interest in Integer membership is, there's no reason to be complicated or to hedge. Keep it simple.


The car is running, and gas is expensive these days.

For those of you who might feel the need to print this out and mail it to our friend Jack, his address is:

Jack Swarbrick
Director of Athletics
University of Notre Dame
C113 Joyce Center
Notre Dame, IN 46556

Remember, every little bit helps, and snail mail always gets more attention. Forward it to your friends and encourage them to do the same.

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Monday, November 02, 2009

Cowardice and Greed

posted by Mike Coffey
I've had some time to reflect on Saturday night and what it meant to Notre Dame both on and off the field. No doubt there were benefits derived from our game against Washington State. I certainly enjoyed seeing us run roughshod over an opponent for a change, although that had more to do with the quality or lack thereof of the opponent. I know San Antonio is a good destination, and don't doubt people had fun going there. The pictures of the Riverwalk certainly looked enticing.

But I can't get past the mindset that is making these games possible, and I cannot see my way clear to endorsing it or supporting it. My position has nothing to do with "groupthink", and everything to do with trying to make sure Notre Dame stays true to the kind of things it used to stand for.

The people who run our football program don't want to make difficult choices, like bringing in a high-profile coach who might make them nervous sometimes (see: Holtz, Lou) or blue-chip players who won't always act like choirboys. Instead, they want the path of least resistance to winning just enough games to keep the alumni wolves from their door. So they spend a quarter of the schedule on "buy" games against programs without the self-respect to demand a more equitable setup. They believe alumni and fans will be so happy to have tickets they'll pay top dollar for crappy matchups against Low Self Esteem State. Meanwhile, the win total is padded, camouflaging any shortcomings that may be present on the field or sidelines ... shortcomings that will become embarrassingly apparent when a quality opponent is encountered.

The people who run our football program don't want night games on campus, even though some fans and our broadcast contractor do, because managing a crowd like that responsibly takes hard work and quality decision-making. Never mind that a lot of other blue-chip programs manage to do it, our folks are terrified of the slightest liability. But they don't want to give up the money NBC will pay, because they're more interested in wringing every last dollar out of the arrangement. So they put together these boondoggle games in which they greedily demand full control of television rights and gate receipts, limiting the quality of opponent that can be arranged. They put the responsibility for night game crowd control on someone else, meaning they don't have to come up with viable plans, without having to give up control of the greenbacks.

I have no problem playing a balanced schedule, and I certainly wouldn't advise playing "a top 20 team every week", as some strawman-erecting folks have accused. I've long been an advocate of 4-4-4 or a variant (e.g. 3-5-4). I'm not demanding ND play a suicidal schedule -- after all, 2005's fit the model, was fine by me, and we did quite well against it.

I have a big problem, however, when the school is just trying to schedule wins by dumbing things down to the point that excellence is no longer required for a W. I have a big problem when the school that is supposed to stand for sportsmanship tries to use loopholes and its market demand to bully smaller programs into inequitable arrangements. I don't give a damn if every other school is doing it -- I was raised to believe Notre Dame was different.

Yes, we derived some benefits from Saturday. But I'm not willing to pay that price for those benefits.

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Friday, October 30, 2009

Men Without Chests

posted by Mike Coffey
Guest author: Frank Pimentel

In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis argued that modern education produces "what may be called Men without Chests. It is an outrage that they should be commonly spoken of as Intellectuals. This gives them the chance to say that he who attacks them attacks Intelligence. It is not so. They are not distinguished from other men by any unusual skill in finding truth nor any virginal ardor to pursue her."

Sadly, we see this in full effect at Notre Dame today. First, in their initial bumbling attempt to defend the commencement invitation to President Obama, the University distributed laughable "talking points" to the Board of Trustees, which managed, in one swipe, to insult the intelligence of anyone who questioned the propriety of the invitation and to directly insult the initial Laetare Award honoree.

Then Fr. Jenkins compounded the error by issuing a statement to the effect that he, presumably in contrast to the shanty Catholic rubes who saw through the artifice concocted by Notre Dame in its perpetual desire for respect by those whose opinions matter in academia, was going to deliver an "inclusive and respectful speech." In other words, as Lewis predicted, those who attack him, attack "Intelligence."

Alas, the commencement debacle was not the most recent example at Notre Dame of Lewis’ foretelling. Last week, Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick announced that next October, Notre Dame would be fortifying its football schedule by playing Western Michigan University. Parenthetically, I’ll state that for all I know, WMU is a great school and runs a fine football program. But that’s kind of the point; about all I know of WMU is that it is in Kalamazoo – and I doubt that most anyone not from Michigan or northern Indiana even knows that.

Of course, that announcement understandably caused instant deflation among nearly anybody who harbors hope that the Fighting Irish will once again become the team it was under Rockne, Leahy, Parseghian, or Holtz. By way of brief examples, on our way to the 1988 national championship, ND played Michigan, Miami, and USC in the regular season. The next year we played Michigan, USC, Penn State, and Miami before the bowl game. In ’90 we played Michigan, Miami, Tennessee, Penn State, and USC in the regular season.

But that wasn’t the end of the consternation. Instead, echoing Jenkins’ pronouncements surrounding Commencement, Swarbrick announced with respect to the inevitable backlash, "It reflects a not very sophisticated view of what's going on out there." As with Jenkins, those who attack him attack "Intelligence."

But I am not fooled. In the case of football, the problem isn’t finding opponents on short notice, it’s finding opponents who will be bought, not expecting a return visit by Notre Dame. This scheduling philosophy, deemed "7-4-1" for shorthand, means 7 home games, 4 road games, and 1 "neutral site" game televised on NBC -- amounting in substance then to 8 home games and 4 road games. It requires materially watering the schedule down and making it, frankly, boring.

I believe this was intentional. Notre Dame knew that if it shorthanded itself by establishing a Potemkin 7-4-1 "requirement," it would eviscerate future schedules so badly that, by contrast, a league schedule (Big 10? Big East? ACC?) would be appealing. Of course, this is a false choice. Simply returning to a more balanced home/road schedule (6-6, or even 7-5), with the historical norm of playing home-and-home series with marquee schools, would immediately solve the problem.

But that itself is the problem. The powers that be don’t want the supposed scheduling problem solved. Rather, while alumni have always overwhelmingly opposed joining a conference for football, those in the Dome and JACC – specifically John Heisler – "know better" and want it (and for reasons having nothing to do with athletics and everything to do with those whose opinions matter in academia).

They don’t want to solve the scheduling "problem" that they created themselves. Rather, they have set us up to "solve" the scheduling "problem" by, sooner rather than later, throwing up their hands and arguing that the only feasible solution left will be to, surprise, join a conference.

But my Intelligence will not be insulted. Until Notre Dame places Men with Chests back into leadership positions, my checkbook – which had heretofore been open – will remain closed.

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Monday, August 24, 2009

A Step in the Right Direction

posted by Mike Coffey
This entry was authored by Chip Lewis, aka SBDomer, who ever since the announcement of the commission to investigate game day issues has been communicating with and giving input to the people involved in the process.

With the announcement of the new game-day policies for home football games, the Notre Dame administration has signaled that it is interested and engaged in changing the course of the Irish Football Saturday experience for fans. As a fan base, we need to match the University’s efforts with our own actions to improve the game-day experience.

Following widespread concern that the University had lost control of the behavior of its game-day policy makers and enforcers, the crucial first step was the appointment of a special committee to study the operations and procedures used by safety, security and hospitality employees at Notre Dame.  This committee issued a report last spring that is now in the process of implementation.  The April appointment of Mike Seamon, as the director of football operations, is a clear indication that ND is serious about improvement.  Seamon is a former football manager for Lou Holtz and very familiar with the passion and excitement that overtakes the campus on a game day.  As a Holtz disciple, Seamon is familiar with the concept of continuous improvement, and you can bet that he will apply that mindset to game-day operations on an ongoing basis.

It is not reasonable to expect that the many controversial aspects of game-day safety and security enforcement issues can be quickly implemented or would be publicly addressed. The job of overhauling the policies in effect and procedures to be followed is better addressed incrementally rather than immediately. It is better to fix the vision behind the policies in order to attain long term improvement. It will be better for fans if Seamon takes his time in addressing the many existing game-day issues. If some of the recently announced changes seem too quick and easy, it’s because they are exactly that, but that’s not a bad start. The quick implementation of certain changes is a reasonable beginning of the process.

As things move forward, the state of the art for game-day safety and security, both inside and outside of the Stadium, will be consistent enforcement of fair and fully-disclosed rules. It will be Seamon’s job to make sure that the major ND football weekend stakeholders—alumni, students and legitimate college football fans—enjoy the electricity and excitement of an Irish Football Saturday in a manner that allows for maximum fun while still addressing safety. While we should not expect that ND will ever condone or encourage underage drinking, we should expect that ND and its enforcement staff and partners will not bust family tailgates while the wild tailgate party with three party vans, refrigerator-sized speakers, a DJ and bottles of booze being passed around among people who are not even attending the game goes unaddressed. Seamon surely understands this, and if nothing else we can expect that he’ll put a stop to law enforcement patrols that view family tailgates as the low-hanging fruit for filling arrest quotas.

When viewed as an on-going process, it is easy to see our role as a fan base in the effort to improve game-day policies and enforcement. We should use the communication tools provided by the University to let them know what we think, game by game. All kidding aside, the crazy drunk who is truly a danger to himself and others ought to be text-reported and removed from the Stadium. The wild tailgate of un-invested people who are not going to the game but treat our campus like the venue for a Grateful Dead-style roaming party ought to be shut down. The trick is to make sure that the right problems are addressed, that the 5 or 50 worst offenders are removed from the Stadium rather than the 5 or 50 people that appear like they’d put up the least fuss.

We must continue our vigilance and be part of the long-term solution. Let’s use the Stadium texts to remove problems. Let’s notify security personnel of outrageous tailgates. Let’s keep them so busy addressing the right problems that there is no time or inclination to go after traditional tailgate activity, the kind that has brought Notre Dame families and friends together for generations. As time goes by, reasonable and fairly enforced rules that we all understand and can follow will improve the game-day experience for all of us.

As in all enforcement situations, there is what is said and what is done. Notre Dame has made the first of presumably many public statements on the plan to improve game-day processes. As this season unfolds, we’ll see what changes have occurred in the area of enforcement. It is up to us to remain vigilant for abuses by law enforcement or usher personnel, and then communicate them to University staff. Notre Dame has already shown by action that it understood there was a problem, so the University deserves our support as the new program is rolled out. We need to respond with cooperation and support to ensure that an Irish Football Saturday remains the outstanding shared experience for the Notre Dame family and friends that is has always been.

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Sunday, August 23, 2009

Adult Swim

posted by Mike Coffey
My dad was a Notre Dame graduate, and before he spent 12 straight years paying ND tuition for my brother, sister and me and got a little burned out on the practice, he went to plenty of ND football games. He’d head eastbound on Friday nights or Saturday mornings. Sometimes he’d return in the evenings, and sometimes he got to spend the night at my grandparents’ house in Long Beach, IN, near Frank Leahy’s old place. Either way, he usually returned happy to have spent time with his classmates and friends watching ND football.

As I reached the age of reason, I also reached the conclusion this was something I wanted to be a part of. So I began lobbying my father to attend these games with him. Needless to say, it was not a favor immediately granted. I had to meet a number of conditions, not the least of which was proving I could sit for the requisite period while paying the proper level of attention. The “ooh, something shiny” nature of my personality meant this was much easier said than done. But I was determined to overcome it, and in September of 1980, I found my 10-year-old self in the back seat of my grandfather’s Cadillac on a Friday evening, heading for my first weekend of Notre Dame football with excitement in my soul.

That excitement was tempered a little after dinner Friday night, though, when I got my dad’s version of a pregame pep talk. This trip was something reserved for people who were (or could at least act) grown up, he told me. There would be a lot of walking involved. I would spend a lot of time before the game looking at buildings and other sights on campus. We would be visiting with a number of his friends, and he expected me to act my age (if not older) and treat them respectfully. I might hear “colorful language”, and while such words were not suitable for my use, people of a more mature vintage were entitled to speak however they wished. As far as I was concerned, the words “I’m bored” were removed from the English language for 24 hours. If I was not willing to accept these things, I was told, I could stay at the house with my grandmother. But if I put my butt in that car the next morning, I was on the hook and would be held accountable.

I was no quitter, and had spent too much time proving I deserved to be there. So that car saw my butt in it 12 hours later.

My dad hadn’t pulled any punches. We parked over at St. Mary’s and walked the mile and a half to campus. We said prayers at the Grotto, went over to Sorin to see dad’s old room, and stood for over an hour at the (non-Barnes-and-Nobleized) Bookstore to buy stuff for my siblings who hadn’t made the trip. We walked around the then-closed Fieldhouse to relive some of dad’s track memories. We stopped by Bob Feely’s tailgater in Green Field, mere steps from the student entrance to the Stadium. I tossed a football around with some of the other kids whose parents were in attendance, while the adults wondered if Dan Devine could recapture the magic of three seasons before in his final go-around, and how good this Blair Kiel kid was. They tossed down some beers over the course of our visit, and while some of them got well-lubricated, none of them got profane or out of control ... although I did learn a new word or two.

Kickoff time arrived, and we headed for our seats in Section 36. I’d like to think my reaction walking into the Stadium was similar to Ned Beatty’s in Rudy, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t, given that I was sunburned and a little tired. But I’d committed, and dammit, I was going to see it through. Three hours later, Harry O’s kick crept over the crossbar, ND sent Bo and his boys back to Ann Armpit losers, and I was glad I’d stuck it out.

Having seen one of the greatest games in ND history certainly made an impression on me. But even if the kick had fallen short, the whole thing would have been worth it to me because I’d proven myself worthy of it. As Ara Parseghian said in Wake Up The Echoes, anything in life really worth having, you have to pay a price for. I’d paid my dues by acting like the adult I needed to be to experience Notre Dame football, and it made the experience all the sweeter.

Which is why I’ve never been able to understand (and probably never will) the continued kid-ification of Notre Dame football, the latest example of which appeared in the recently-released list of football weekend improvements. The new “Rally on the Green” area -- itself probably a good idea, given the previous lack of utilization of the space and its ability to connect the new Eddy Street Commons area more solidly to campus -- will include “roaming ‘kid-friendly’ entertainment throughout the grounds.” This follows the inclusion of child-focused areas at the Blue-Gold game, including things like jumping jacks. The goal of a more “family-friendly” Notre Dame has been cited as justification for changes ranging from pep rally location and content to the overzealous rule enforcement by Indiana state law enforcement, Cappy Gagnon and some of his ushers that prompted the backlash and resulting “improvements list” in the first place.

While places like LSU and Miami and Michigan seem to pride themselves on creating an antagonistic atmosphere seemingly from the moment you exit your car, that’s too far in the other direction, and doesn’t represent a solution to me. So I have no problem with ND making an effort to keep things civil.

There's a lot of space, however, between civil and where the administration is pushing things. When you buff out the rough edges, you detract from what makes the experience special, and that lessens Notre Dame in the process. Zero-tolerance isn't a solution either, and a generation of kids who used to be content tossing the pigskin around apparently now have to get non-stop protection and stimulation, even if it costs long-time fans in the value of their experience.

Part of what made that Michigan game in 1980 special for me was that I’d earned the right to attend. I’d proven no one outside or inside the Stadium had to change their behavior simply because I was there. It didn’t give them license to act like idiots, but it didn’t mean they had to bend over backwards special just for little old me. They could participate in the experience just as they always had, and I would be along for the ride and experience it with them.

How much cheaper would that experience have been for me if I would have spent the hours jumping around in an inflatable, or getting my face painted, or other things I usually saw at the parish carnival? Would I have been as impressed by the tens of thousands sitting in their seats and clapping politely for three hours as I was by the fact we spent at least half the game and most of the fourth quarter standing up and yelling ourselves hoarse?

My father spent enough time catering to me the other 360 days of the year, so I hardly begrudged him the five ND football games. I was included there when I proved I didn’t need the catering. I guess I don't understand why that is now a bad thing.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

More Heavyweights

posted by Mike Coffey
NBC's Notre Dame contract includes seven Irish home games and one prime-time neutral site game annually through 2015. "You could do [a series with Miami] ... plus do one home and home."

A quote from a post on Rock's House or Cartier Field? Nope. It's a quote from Notre Dame Athletics Director Jack Swarbrick.

Yesterday's Miami Herald had a story about a renewal of the Notre Dame/Miami football series, a brief but intense rivalry from the program's last period of prolonged excellence. According to Barry Jackson, UM AD Kirby Hocutt got on the phone with Swarbrick, who showed much interest, and the two will talk more in April.

This obviously is a great thing for the football program. ND was being boxed into a corner schedule-wise with excessive promises to outside entities. Between the 7-4-1 structure and three Big East games and an alleged "buy games" philosophy, it was looking like one-game-or-bust for fans wanting a quality opponent on the Irish sidelines instead of the multiple choice options a 4-4-4 strategy would bring. Instead, Swarbrick will use the neutral site games to augment a quality home-and-home contract rather than replace one.

The list of eye-opening moves by Swarbrick doesn't stop there. The wildest dreams of Irish hockey fans came true earlier this year when Notre Dame announced plans for a new ice arena. After years of meandering renovation plans for the current (and inadequate) facilities in the North Dome, Swarbrick talked to Jeff Jackson and other benefactors, and made the bold choice. According to folks on campus, he also recognizes the bass-ackwardness of the current renovation project and is putting together plans for the long-overdue practice facility for the basketball programs, to be built between the Joyce Center and the baseball field.

Sea change, indeed.

For the last eight years, ND's athletics leadership seemed to be stuck in neutral ... vast periods of ennui punctuated by poorly-handled coaching searches. Statements by the AD evoked cringes far more often than cheers.

Now we have action on plans, not never-ending plans of action. "Why not?" instead of "Why me?" Instead of focusing on "Sunday through Friday", we're looking to "position our program as one of the best in the nation".

We weren't sure what we were getting back in August when Jack Swarbrick took the reins. ND had passed on more experienced candidates like Steve Orsini to hire a lawyer from Indianapolis, and initially it smelled like another "don't rock the boat" hire. The moves so far, though, are very encouraging. While no one hits 100 percent of the notes, at least Swarbrick seems to be singing from the right hymnal.

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Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Memo to Jack: Fix It

posted by Mike Coffey
For those who do not frequent the NDNation message boards, this was posted by a former Notre Dame player as a commentary on the current state of the program.

I don’t post to NDNATION often, but read it daily. Before anyone dismisses this as another “internet wacko” post, know this…

I am a proud member of the 1988 National Championship team; I was on the team in 1985 when we were abused and embarrassed by Miami. I was also on the team that beat Miami three years later. I am a part of its proud heritage. I wear a National Championship ring. I have a stake in Notre Dame. I have talked to many of my teammates who feel as I do. We never lost to USC.

Sadly, I am also embarrassed by what Notre Dame football has become. For the past 12 years, Notre Dame football has wallowed in mediocrity. The performance of the football team the last two years is not only historically far below standard; it is far below the talent level on the current team. This team is under-performing. I refuse to blame the players.

I’ve seen what failure looks like, and I’ve seen what excellence looks like. There are many symptoms of this under-performance, but the root cause is leadership. All of the great Notre Dame teams had the following in common: they were tough SOBs—they were physically and mentally tough, and fundamentally sound.

It is no accident that Anthony Johnson, a fullback on our team, would knock down the edge every single time. Not once in a while, not occasionally, every single time! Think about that and compare it to our current play. He was tough, and he was taught how to block. Oh yeah, and the man never, never lost yards when given the ball. Was Anthony Johnson a heralded recruit?—do some research.

Can youth and inexperience explain under-performance? Ask Mike Heldt, Dean Brown, Tim Ryan (a converted LB), Andy Heck (a converted TE), and Tim Grunhard.

I’ve seen great teaching and fundamental development on the football field, from Lou, to Joe Moore, to Pete Cordelli, to Barry Alvarez.

Is the situation hopeless? I don’t think so. Here is what needs to be done and needs to be done now.

The recipe for success at Notre Dame is simple:

First, find a great coach, with a proven track record of having his teams playing at (in the case of great programs) or above their historical level of performance, and get the hell out of his way. It works every time. Refuse to settle for less. When Lou was forced out, the replacements ... Wannstedt, Barnett, and Davie --- are you kidding me? Willingham? Are you seriously kidding me?

Second, Notre Dame’s identity has historically been one of hard work, discipline, toughness—what though the odds. That needs to be a part of all future teams. No more Bob “all ball” Davie, no more Ty “deer in the headlights” Willingham, and no more transparent “good cop, bad cop”, or “I am going to be more accessible to the players”, and personnel groupings shenanigans. Here’s a good rule of thumb—speak softly, but carry a big stick.

We should be able to line up, point to where we are running the ball and gain 3 yards-with any and all personnel. On that point, it was not uncommon for Lou to replace the entire 1st team OL with the 2nd team OL if they were under-performing just to send a shot across the bow (and to give Joe M. a crack at them).

We should have a coach who can maintain at or near an .800 winning percentage (as a goal). That means beating Navy, Air Force, Army, SD State (puke), Nevada (Puke), Syracuse (in its current state), 100% of time. That means beating the likes of Purdue, Boston College, and Pitt 90 percent of the time. That means beating Michigan and USC at least 50% of the time. Please, to all, no more of the dumb-downed expectations.

We should never, ever dumb down expectations. Let’s be clear, very clear to all what the minimum expectation should be every year—9-3. In fact, 9-3 is a sub-par season for Notre Dame…period! Anything below 9-3 should cause concern, serious concern. We should be a perennial top 10 program and in the BCS discussion every 4 out of 5 years. An occasional reloading year (8-4) is acceptable as long as the trajectory is clear.

To NDNATION, please keep the pressure on.

Remember, we are (and always will be) the Fighting Irish.

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Monday, December 08, 2008

Set the Tone

posted by Mike Coffey
I decided to drag out a Mike Brey-ism for this one.

I realize things both on this blog and on Rock's House and Cartier Field have trended very negative, especially since the Syracuse debacle and everything that's happened since. I've contributed to it, both here and there, and have decided to take a mini sabbatical until things cool off. We're in a slow news time anyway.

But before I go, my question to the readership: What do you expect us to do in this situation?

A commenter to Vannie's entry from earlier this evening requested we stop being negative, saying he responded this way in the hopes that my fellow Ops and I would "read this message and those like it enough times you'll quit crying and go back to being a good resource for those who love Notre Dame and its football program".

The problem is, we're trying to be a good resource, and we don't think we're doing our job by pretending everything is fine when it's not.

Things are bad, and have been bad to varying degrees for the better part of 15 years. Plenty of people on campus want change desperately, including a lot of the players. We have yet to see strong leadership coming from under the Dome, or any indication they're going to get this fixed. We're left to hope for this and have faith in that and pray for the other, but have precious little evidence any of it will happen. It's very possible we may be sitting here next year in the exact same position with the exact same problems. History has shown us that tends to happen.

We've warned of the dangers. We've suggested solutions. We've encouraged people to share their thoughts with the school admin. We've given examples of what other schools are doing and what we think needs to change. But all we're getting in response is blow-back that we're "whining" and "being too negative".

You're our readers, you tell us. What are we supposed to do here?

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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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