6-6: Now What?

Watching in horror, I sat in front of the TV absolutely numb to yet another USC drumming of ND, seeing the all too familiar number 38 next to our opponents name (hey, at least we got 3 this time right?). As the game progressed, I knew what would be coming. There would be no good news for the next couple of weeks concerning ND football.

Pick your media poison — they are all saying singing a similar chorus. How much is it going to cost ND to buy out Weis’ contract? Will Weis be fired? Will Weis step down? Why hasn’t Weis been fired yet?

It has been a whirlwind of despair to say the least. Knowing that your current head coach now holds a worse winning percentage than both Davie and Willingham isn’t exactly the most encouraging stat in the world. Seeing ND get beaten for the seventh straight time against USC doesn’t help. Finishing 6-6 against a weak schedule is depressing.

So now what?

Weis won’t be having any type of meeting with AD Jack Swarbrick until next Monday and about the same time, we will find out our bowl fate as well. In the meantime, Weis is out recruiting in the West and Swarbrick will no doubt have every pissed off alum/administration member/donor/fan screaming in his ear to fire him.

Swarbrick, must to the anger of some it seems, has been standing fast on his stance that he will review the entire year and make the best decision for the program. It seems everyone is ready to say that the “best decision” is obviously to fire Weis. Folks on the fire Weis bandwagon also seem to not be too fond of hearing our AD mention things like GPA and graduation rates in Weis’ review. I’ve seen more than one post in regards to this topic saying ND clearly doesn’t have its priorities straight and should be focus far more on football than academic standards.

In my opinion we are currently at a very defining moment for ND football. Swarbrick, in his first year, has quite a large decision (no pun intended) in front of him. This decision isn’t just simply, fire a coach, get another and move on. ND for the most part used to have either one of two things happen: the coach would have a long tenure and retire (Ara, Leahy), or retire/resign on their own (Devine, Faust).

Not since the departure of Leahy has ND seen the program get hit so hard. Even then, only one of those coaches was actually fired by ND (Terry Brennan). Joe Kuharich resigned following Brennan, and frighteningly enough, there are some scary parallels:

[Kuharich] took the head coaching position at the University of Notre Dame in 1959, realizing a longtime ambition to return to his alma mater. He had earlier been courted by Notre Dame after the 1956 season, after the Irish finished 2-8, but before he had a chance to accept an offer, Terry Brennan was given a reprieve. He brought a professional touch to Irish football, putting shamrocks on the players’ helmets and shoulder stripes on their jerseys. Kuharich compiled a 17-23 record over four non-winning seasons and remains to this day the only coach ever to have an overall losing record at Notre Dame. Included was a school-record eight-game losing streak in 1960, a year in which the Irish would finish 2-8. It was one of the worst stretches in Notre Dame football history. The consensus opinion was that Kuharich never made the adjustment from pro football to college football, attempting to use complicated pro coaching techniques with collegiate players, and never adapted to the limited substitution rules in effect at the time, having big, immobile linemen playing both ways in an era where smaller, quicker players were preferred. He often said, “You win some and you lose some,” and seemed perfectly content finishing 5-5 every year. This did not sit well with the Irish faithful, who expected Notre Dame to beat everybody. The team played listlessly, showing no emotion. When the pressure of winning became too much to bear, Kuharich resigned in the spring of 1963 and assumed the post of supervisor of NFL officials. Because it was so late in the spring, Hugh Devore was named interim head coach while the search for a permanent replacement was being conducted. Little did Joe know at the time that the players he had recruited would come to within 93 seconds of an undefeated season and a national championship in 1964 under first-year coach Ara Parseghian.

Now, a couple things that I want to point out here. Yes, we have some scary parallels with what is going on now. And most of the complaints in the wiki article (which from the tone, sounds like it was written by a pissed off Irish fan), seem to be the only echos that we have been able to wake up the past couple of years. However, I want to point out two very, very critical points.

  1. ND Football has been bad, dreadful, God-awful, etc. before. This line of thinking that somehow the almighty program of ND doesn’t hit a rough spot somewhere along the line is completely out of place.
  2. Read the last bold excerpt. Ara nearly won a national title with the same players one of the worst coaches in ND history put together. I do wonder what would have happened had Kuharich coached another year (before anyone thinks I’m about to bash Ara, back off, I’m not, keep reading). Perhaps the results wouldn’t have been as good as Ara, but then again, what would the results have been if Ara wasn’t…well Ara.

And this comes back to my main point in my last post. I flat out don’t see another Ara-like coach out there right now that isn’t already employed. Weis is still putting together top-flight classes and laying down (and more importantly repairing) the foundation for ND football talent-wise. We are still a very young team for the most part and young teams don’t just figure it out automatically. Of course, that leads to the argument of Weis just can’t get production of the team and someone else can do better. Well oddly enough, let’s follow the Kuharich/Ara senario:

After an undisclosed initial disagreement, Parseghian was hired as Notre Dame’s 22nd head coach, inheriting a team that had finished 2-7 in 1963 and taking it to within 1:33 of an undefeated season and a national championship in 1964.

Ara’s superior organizational skills had a lot to do with this rapid turnaround as well as his ability to put the right players in the right positions. He discovered underutilized talent in quarterback John Huarte and end Jack Snow. These two players went on to set numerous school passing and receiving records and Huarte wound up as the 1964 Heisman Trophy winner, the first non-monogram winner ever to do so.

2005 ringing any bells? Underutilized talent (Jeff Samardzija) and being able to put people in the right places (his play schemes, leading to Quinn exploding). Hell, you could even say Weis nearly made a run at a title (OT loss to Michigan State, “Bush Push” loss to USC).

Weis is still, believe it or not, placing people in the right spots. Golden Tate was converted from RB to a huge WR threat. Michael Floyd starts over Harold Kamara and David Grimes as a freshman (and you can’t tell me not having him hasn’t killed the offense lately). On the defensive side of the ball Robert Blanton has made a huge impact as a freshmen CB. Pat Kuntz went from being called a horrible fit for a 3-4 defense to an amazing NT. Hell, even walk-on Mike Anello turned into a special teams phenom for ND. You can’t tell me that Weis hasn’t been squeezing out as much talent as he can from his young squad.

If we really want to take a real long, hard look at what is wrong with the team, does it completely fall on Weis? As I look at ND right now, the two biggest problems performance-wise that I see are the O-Line and Clausen’s regression.

Weis was able to scheme around O-Line problems in 2005 and 2006 by running a ton of screens, look routes and draw plays. Needless to say, other defenses have caught on. The problem is though, we can’t just switch to running the ball down people’s throats when we can’t block. I’ve been critical of certain play calls seeming “too cute” on things like 3rd and 1, but you know what…can you look at our O-Line and say for certain “Oh yeah, they’ll get that yard.” It is hard to follow the K.I.S.S. principle here when your team can’t perform the simple. So what happens next? You try to out-scheme and out-think easy situations to try to actually succeed.

So what does Weis need to do to remedy O-Line woes? Well, he sure as hell doesn’t know the precise fundamentals of blocking in my opinion, but guess what, he doesn’t teach them. The O-Line coach does. Clearly, Coach Latina has not been performing up to par. In Weis’ current recruiting run, I sure hope he is able to give Swarbrick name of a damn good O-Line coach as a part of his job defense. We clearly need it. I don’t care who the head coach is at ND — if the O-Line can’t do it’s job, we will forever be one dimensional and continue to be a mediocre football team.

So now, what about Clausen, isn’t Weis supposed to be the QB guru? Well, what if Clausen simply just isn’t the “guy” for ND. He wouldn’t be the first highly recruited QB to be a bust/mediocre player (see: his brothers). Now, I have no doubt he was the best choice to start this season, and remember, things didn’t exactly “click” for Quinn until his junior year.

At the very least, Weis made (in my opinion) a very wise move to resist the temptation of burning Dayne Crist’s red shirt year and throwing him into the fire. Best case scenario, Clausen goes through another bowl game and spring ball as well as fall camp with Crist competing for his job and comes out as the QB we all expected him to be. Worst case scenario, we find out Crist is the better player and he has four full years to work with.

There is no doubt in my mind if those two parts improve, this team comes out firing on all cylinders. The defense will improve not just from more experience, more talent and time with our new blitz-happy style, but also spending less time on the damned field. Improvement from the O-Line will make people at the very least respect our running game (and take a look a this year’s games…when we ran well, we dominated) which will open up the passing game and take the pressure off of whoever our QB is. Let’s be honest, how badly to you think defenses are really biting on play action passes when they know the D-Line is already in the backfield?

Is this all an entirely over-optimistic view of our current situation? Probably. Do I think I am too far off base in this analysis? Not really.

The fact of the matter is that Weis has indeed built a solid talent pool. Next year will be the first time in quite a while that we can look at the roster and see four consecutive top ten recruiting classes. And better yet, the transfers that most programs suffer from in getting such classes, doesn’t really seem to be affecting us. Clearly, the players and current recruits still believe in Weis despite the troubles we’ve had.

Whether or not fans don’t like to hear it, Weis has gotten the football team to have a 3.0+ GPA during his tenure and continued to hold a graduation rate above 95%. I don’t know about everyone else, but I would prefer to not be like most of the other top-flight programs that can’t graduate their players (and minority athletes, I’m looking at you Michigan). We seem to love to use this argument before on how we are “doing it right” and hearing that some people want to kick this to the curb is beyond me.

I’ve finally come to grips with the fact that ND currently is *gasp* rebuilding. This might be a dirty word for some ND fans, but is there any doubt that is what has been going on the past two years? Not everyone has an Alabama-like resurgence. Does anyone reading this think Michigan is going to recover from 3-9 to BCS/NC contender in one year? I sure don’t (and they are losing players on top of that). I know people aren’t happy with saying going 6-6 from 3-9 is improvement. I’m not either. However, if Clausen happens to hit a wide open receiver against Pitt and ND doesn’t blow a lead against Syracuse, we are all of a sudden 8-4 and I have a feeling I don’t even have to be writing this post.

There are so many variables going into next season that I believe it is impossible to say that firing Weis is going to be the cure-all for this situation. Make no mistake, I still believe this team underperformed and you do have to place some of the blame on Weis. And, should Weis keep his job, I fully expect nothing less than a 9 win season and winning a bowl game of worth — actually, I would expect this with any coach next season with our talent and schedule.

We don’t need to put another quarter in the coaching carousel this year. We don’t need to be like every other program in the nation that freaks out after a couple of bad seasons. Davie got 5 seasons with a similar winning percentage, and before anyone says “Well Ty got 3 with a similar record!”, I’m sick of hearing it. If there is any doubt that Ty can’t cut it, I direct you to look at Washington and ask their fans how they feel about his abilities coaching and recruiting. We shouldn’t be handcuffed by that decision. Given Weis’ performance with recruiting and his seasons, I don’t see why ND shouldn’t at least give him the same time as Davie.

Since people love to toss out the winning percentages and such as arguments to fire Weis, I want to leave you with some numbers. Everyone seems to be comfortable saying that 2007 was more the result of Ty leaving us in a recruiting hole, so taking that 3-9 season away from Weis you get:

Bob Davie: 35-25, .583 win percentage
Ty Willingham: 21-15, .583 win percentage
Charlie Weis: 25-12, .675 win percentage

And just to play fair, taking the worst season away from all coaches:

Bob Davie: 30-18, .625 win percentage
Ty Willingham: 16-8, .667 win percentage
Charlie Weis: 25-12, .675 win percentage

Food for thought.