The University of Notre Dame announced this week that head football coach Charlie Weis will be returning for a 5th season amid calls for his dismissal by alumni and supporters after a disappointing 6-6 season. While an improvement over last year's 3-9 record, the Fighting Irish struggled this year in wins over lowly San Diego State and Navy, and played very poorly in losses to North Carolina, Pittsburgh, a horrendous Syracuse team led by a lame duck head coach, and a humiliating 38-3 loss to USC to close out the season. The 15 combined losses are the most in any two year stretch in the 119-year history of Notre Dame football.
I'm probably in the minority among my fellow alumni when I say I'm happy coach Weis will be returning next year. Thrilled, even. I think the University did the right thing in honoring the 10-year contract Weis signed halfway through his first season in 2005, not necessarily from an ethical standpoint (I think that point was FAR overblown after the Ty Willingham firing - more on that in a minute), but because it is what is best for the program. I think Weis and the team will have a very good year next year, and probably the year after that too.
Nobody can question the prestige and tradition of Notre Dame football. No school has won more national championships, produced more All-Americans or Heisman trophy winners, or can tout names like Rockne, Leahy, and Parseghian that practically demand a solemn bow when spoken aloud. People who know nothing about college football are familiar with the Gipper, The Four Horsemen and Touchdown Jesus. However, the game has changed in the two decades since ND's last championship. No longer is it Notre Dame and everyone else. One major reason has to do with exposure. Notre Dame remains the only school in the country with its own national TV contract (with NBC). The Saturday football schedule usually consisted of the Notre Dame game and one or two other big games for the week. Today, however, you can turn on your TV Saturday afternoon and have your pick of up to a dozen different games. Top-tier athletes no longer have to choose Notre Dame to get national exposure. Notre Dame still carries the mystique, but not the same cache.
The head coach of Notre Dame can no longer walk into a high school star's living room and have a signed commitment before finishing his iced tea. He now has to answer all of the same questions that other schools do: Will I be able to start right away? How do I fit in your system? If I commit to you, can you guarantee that I'll be playing for you? And therein lays the crux of Notre Dame's dilemma. When looking at Notre Dame's sustained success, the key obviously lies in great recruiting but great recruited comes from continuity (or more specifically lack of turmoil) among the coaching staff. ND's periods of greatest success came during the longest-tenured coaches:
1918 - 1930
1964 - 1974
1986 - 1996
* Notre Dame only recognizes 11 combined AP and Coaches poll championships
After the 2004 season, Notre Dame fired coach Tyrone Willingham after the third year of a 5 year contract. After going 5-7 in 2003, Willingham's final year was played out in the media as a make-or-break year for the coach. His recruiting clearly suffered. Notre Dame's perennially top-10 placement supplanted with ranks of 32 and 40 in 2004 and 2005, respectively according to Rivals.com. The Willingham era not only left the cupboard dry for Weis (which led to fielding an extremely young, inexperienced team the past two years), but also hurt his ability to recruit once he came in. With the University so willing to get rid of a coach after only 3 years (including a BCS bowl berth), the coaching situation at Notre Dame appeared to be tenuous at best and recruits were unwilling to take a chance at the program.
As an aside, much was made after the Ty Willingham firing of ND's breaking their "policy" of giving a coach a minimum of 5 years, with many claiming that Willingham had a shorter leash, so to speak, because of his race. (Willingham was the first black head coach in ND football history.) I think this is absurd on both counts - ND has no such "policy", and has many coaches who served for fewer than 5 years, and while I suppose its possible that ND's administration is composed predominantly of racists bigots who would sacrifice the integrity of the school, let alone the football program, and risk an enormous lawsuit and horrible public relations disaster in order to satisfy their own backwards viewpoint, I'm going to go out on a limb and say it was probably because of the decline of the on-the-field product and a desire to stop the bleeding before it got too bad.
The fallout from Willingham's departure undoubtedly influenced the University's decision this week to retain Weis. He returns next year with a team of mostly sophomore and junior starters, but with two full seasons of experience. He's also looking at a soft schedule next year which should help him to get some of the less experienced players into games to help deepen his bench for a year or two down the line. By showing their willingness to stick with their coach, Weis can more easily recruit the top talent to start maintaining a certain level of success rather than repeating this cycle of two years of decent play followed by two years of abysmal football. Weis is a very proud, arrogant man who loves to win and loves even more to shove his talent in other people's face. He's going to come out next year with a fire under his sizeable butt, which bodes well for his team's success.
At least I hope so... we Notre Dame alum are a fickle bunch.