Brian Kelly’s thankless first year

June 23, 2010

Notre Dame’s new football coach, Brian Kelly, has a thankless job this coming season.  If he turns the program around and has a winning year it will not inspire much more than a yawn from some of the fans.  They have seen it before.

Bob Davie chalked up a 7-6 winning season his first year with a 9-3 record in his second season.  But the fans watched the program slide to 5-7 his third year at the helm and by 2001, after another losing season they were finally done with him.

Tyrone Willingham stepped in and knocked out an amazing 10-3 record  his first year, earning a long term contract and high hopes from Fighting Irish fans, only to see the program slide to 5-7 the very next year.

Charlie Weis was the second coming of Knute Rockne, doing everything right, on and off the field.  His 9-3 first year record allowed Notre Dame to rank 9th in the nation.  And his second year record was 10-3.  But in 2009 he plummeted to 6-6, losing his last 4 games and that was the end of that.

So if Brian Kelly has a big year he won’t get much credit and while most Notre Dame fans will want to believe there will be many more stubbornly withholding judgment.

Why have recent Notre Dame coaches followed this same pattern?  In some cases they coached spectacular first seasons because they were providing a missing piece of their predecessor.  And they eventually slipped because they didn’t have some of the other pieces their predecessor had carefully developed.

Davie, whose specialty was defense, showed some imagination after years of a predictable, run, run pass.  And that little spark seemed to work. But Davie could not match the player development, motivation, training and recruitment of Lou Holtz.  As the program slipped many Notre Dame fans grew nostalgic over the dependable coach whose teams were always in the hunt.

What was missing, some said, was the “West Coast” offense that was the rage of a new generation of high school recruits who saw it as their best ticket to the NFL. Stanford coach, Tyrone Wellingham, fit the bill and brought his program to South Bend.  And Wellingham turned in one spectacular recruiting year as well.  And then the familiar slippage began.

Charlie Weis took a Wellingham recruited team and turned in a thrilling year.  What was missing, some said, had been good offensive schematics.  Weiss was a genius at that.  But others said he did not know how to develop college age players and that his defense never emerged.

Which brings us to the Notre Dame dilemma.  If they are looking for a good defense they are back to a coach like Bob Davie.  There is always a missing piece. Round and round it goes. And if they need a coach who can develop players, like say, Brian Kelly, well they aren’t going to know for sure until the third year anyway.

So barring a national championship, or a combination of 10 wins and a victory over USC and in a Bowl Game, Brian Kelly’s first year will not be much of a test for some jaded Notre Dame fans.  He can probably even survive another 6-6 season.  It is the third year that will be the charm.  It will be a long wait for Notre Dame fans who haven’t seen a national championship since 1988.


Notre Dame Football? The problem is not the coach.

December 8, 2009

Okay, sports fans, here is something you will never read in The Blue and Gold.  Not because it hasn’t crossed their minds but rather because they need ongoing access to the players and coaches and I don’t.  They can’t afford to offend the administration.  I can.  You can thank Al Gore that this discussion can even take place.   But here it goes…. the real problem with the Notre Dame Football program is not the Head Coach.  It is not the past couple of Athletic Directors.  It is the administration post Theodore Hesburgh.

Blame Malloy and Jenkins and their team.  The administration had to go along with the subtle campaign against Lou Holtz, punching all of his buttons, hiring Bob Davie, Ty Willingham and Charlie Weis.   It was this administration that gave Charlie Weis his extended contract, which was deadly to him and the program.  The lack of administrative maturity and business common sense after Hessburgh is clear.  The brand of Notre Dame football has outgrown their competence.  They are in over their heads.

Now, I don’t blame the administration for its failings, it has a different agenda.  Its commitment is to the Church and its corporate and spiritual mission as an educational institution must take precedence over football.   When you are serving God and dealing with issues eternal, four or five years is not a big deal.  And football is certainly not a big deal.  Yes, the money can help God’s cause but if there is a mistake, well, “all things work together for good to them the love the Lord.”

I guess what I am trying to say is that it is our misfortune to be fans of a football program whose overseers are conflicted and therefore their program is destined to be flawed.   Meanwhile, some of us,  carnal and immature mortals that we are, care more about their football team than they do.

Twenty years ago, when college football was not a zillion dollar business it didn’t matter.  Now, these conflicts, academic and spiritual and business, can be the difference between success and failure.

At Ohio State, the football team and the school mission is synonymous.  Winning football means students and alumni money which translates into better academics and renown.  There is no spiritual dimension or even much of a conflict if a football player gets a bit of an academic pass.  There may even be a moral argument that it is in the best interest of students and teachers and the institution if the football player is given an edge.  To be tough on this special student could hurt many thousands of needy young men and women.

The point is, what would be “wrong” at Notre Dame could be considered “right” at Ohio State or Florida State or Texas.

Taking it one step further, it is far more likely that a recruiting coach from Southern California would send a prospect out to eat with a bunch of sexy co-eds than it would be for such a thing to happen in South Bend.  I am not saying it doesn’t happen in South Bend.  Top prospects are popular guys.  I am just saying that it is less likely to happen there.  And a coach who “let” that sort of thing happen would not last too long.

Now, I don’t want to take this too far.  I mean, this administration hired a guy whose every other word begins with “F.”  So they are surely trying to stretch a little, for the sake of Our Mother, of course.  And they have negotiated and renegotiated that golden ticket, the NBC contract, no small feat.  I’ll bet there are some good stories behind that.  I am just pointing out that by their very nature they are going to be less focused on this football business than many administrators because they have higher considerations.  Some of them may even resent or look down on their lucrative football income, as a necessary evil, in the true sense of the word.  This is what comes off as arrogance to many.

So, like I said.  I don’t blame the administration.  I understand.  I just wish they could find a way to resolve this.  I can see why they wanted Tony Dungy.  Their program needs integrity, in the sense of leadership that integrates all of these complex elements.  They can’t keep careening from the advice of one Alumni advisor and donor to the next.  Because none of them have the whole picture and they are assuming that the men in black are doing their due diligence and not just having knee jerk reactions.

It’s our fault for being stupid enough to get dragged into becoming fans of an institution that is so conflicted.   They want the money, after all “the wealth of the ungodly is laid up for the righteous,” and they can do great things with it, but they want much more than just a great football program per see and they believe that they have a higher calling and therein lies the conflict.

Alabama has no higher calling.

Memo to Notre Dame: Hire Skip Holtz

November 30, 2008

Skip Holtz should be the new Notre Dame Coach.

Charlie, we hardly knew ye, and perhaps we never will.  But the good ye done us, those spectacular recruiting classes, should not be wasted.  Just as Jerry Faust recruited so well and Lou Holtz used those teams to bring us back, now step aside and let his son, Skip Holtz, do the same fer us again.

Skip Holtz has earned this moment.  He knows college coaching from the ground up.  He knows how to train and properly motivate insecure, young men, instead of tear them down – NFL style.  And he has learned how to play the expectations game from the master.  He can win a game he is supposed to lose and win in bowl games too.  He knows the ND tradition well, knows what the pressures will be and he has something personal to prove, that he is much more than the son of Lou Holtz.  He is the skipper.

We owe you much, Charlie.  You are a class act in many respects.  You are not a loser.  You leave with your genius for offensive call playing tarnished but intact.   And your recruiting work ethic will mean that you will share a bit with Skip Holtz and his turn around year.

Okay, ND, go to your alumni, buy this contract.  As Gloria Feldt has famously said, “The worst mistakes I have made in life and leadership have always involved waiting too long to fire someone.”

The Georgia Tech game last year revealed that our mighty coach was really an offensive play calling genius but not much more.  Notre Dame should have been looking hard from that moment on.

Skip, we need ye, son.  Wake up the echoes.


What Will Notre Dame do With Charlie Weis?

March 19, 2008

My flight home from Kiev arrived late last night so I missed my St. Patrick’s Day deadline, nevertheless, as a lifelong fan of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, who went to high school in South Bend, I have to add my two cents worth to the discussion of the besieged Charlie Weis and his year of decision.

Like others, I was delighted by those first two turnaround years of the Weis era.  They were just pure magic.  And the off field antics, like the pass right opening play for the dying kid, and Tom Zbikowski’s professional boxing debut, were as wonderful as the on field acrobatic receptions of Jeff Samardzija.    I liked the way Charlie brought the whole community back home.  Joe Montana on the sidelines and having Lou Holtz and Ara Parsegian coach the two teams at the Spring Game.  It exemplified his generosity of spirit and his humility.  I was astonished that no one had ever invited Rudy back to campus until Charlie Weis.  Rather arrogant and mean spirited of the school, in my opinion.  Rudy’s movie had done more for their recruiting program than all their other pompous public relations efforts combined.  Charlie just seemed to be righting so many wrongs.

But none of it would have carried any significance, indeed it all would have inspired criticism, as in why not use some of your imagination and good will on the playing field, if it were not for the sensational offense.  It was such a relief to see the team actually making first downs and a Catholic school actually pulling off a few Hail Mary’s as opposed to throwing it up and hoping to get an interference call.

Like everyone else, I was stunned by last year’s opening Georgia Tech game.  Stunned.  I had been anticipating this game all summer and was convinced that this contest would tell me almost everything I needed to know about the coming season.  But the ebullient, ill fated, Gerry Faust never had a team look that weak.  I knew that night that our season was over and I told my son we would lose to Navy later in the year.

As the losses mounted I read with fascination the Tom Pagna articles in Blue and Gold, trying to read between the lines to understand the politics of what was going on.  Sometimes what the Irish sage was not saying about Notre Dame’s offensive line and its lack of mastering basics was just as revealing as what he was saying.

It seems pretty clear now that Charlie Weis did not know how to train college boys and worse, in his two spectacular years of success a bit of hubris had taken root.  He was apparently refusing to even recognize that he needed to train college boys.

There were some early signs that the Weiss promotion to legendary status was premature.  There was the unrealized greatness of that seasoned offensive line, allowing their star, Brady Quinn to be continuously sacked.   There was the Sixty Minutes show, with Weiss’ profanity being his most defining quality.  It was a bit curious to see his philosophy at work, the tearing down of a player, instead of the building up.  And yet, who could argue with success?   Evidently there was some kind of reverse psychology at work here that provoked greatness.  But even among eighteen year old boys?  They will respond to being ridiculed and screamed at?  They need no encouragement?  No nurturing? Apparently not, after all, it worked for the men of the New England Patriots.

Years before, I had had misgivings when the Notre Dame Athletic Department began to play their little games with Lou Holtz.  I had liked Holtz.  I was working at the White House when Notre Dame won their last championship.  I was the staffer who recommended him for a State Dinner.  That night I stood in the shadows and watched Holtz enjoy the after dinner program.  It was the King of Yemen, not the Queen of England, but hey, it was a State Dinner.  Holtz was a proven winner, even if he had become a little predictable.  The Athletic Department was obviously baiting him, playing to his choleric personality, doing what they had to do to get him to move on.  And like the herd among the subway alumni, I was fascinated by Bob Davie and his weekend at the helm.  But the Holtz departure made me a little nervous.  And it smelled a bit. 

So I have been a bit amused to see the same Notre Dame Athletic Department tied in contractual knots by their dear Irish Charlie, to whom they so rashly committed themselves and their millions.  Holtz must have had mixed emotions these past few years.

Most of us are still pulling for Charlie.  We want it to be true.  Any discussion of his work always includes those two awful recruiting years, which are now coming home to roost.  It is the excuse we all cling to, although other teams have had worse recruiting years and looked better than we did last year.   And all of us talk about his great recruiting skills, although it is scary to think that Gerry Faust also had great recruiting classes.

What gives us hope, what we are clinging to is the fact that unlike other past Notre Dame Coaches, the offensive play calling of Charlie Weis always adjusted quickly to the opposition.  He didn’t even wait till halftime.  He did it play by play.  It is that ability to adjust that we are hoping for.  We are hoping that over the summer he has humbly reassessed and that he now knows that he has to teach these high school graduates how to play at the college level.  And that he not only knows that but he will figure out how to do it.  And he will get it done. 

This past year was a bit embarrassing.  The emperor had no clothes.  Charlie Weis was exposed as a brilliant offensive call player, maybe one of the best ever, but not especially a sound coach of a college football team.  Indeed, if you have read his book, it is exactly all he has ever been throughout his life and maybe all he claimed to be.  The year he arrived at Notre Dame it was such a perfect fit, the exact need for a maturing team, that it gave the appearance of much more.

Now, Charlie Weis has been given a chance to become what we all thought he was, a great football coach.  It’s not easy fighting your way back to where you have already been.  If he pulls that off he will be even a bigger man personally.   The fact is, I want it and most of the Notre Dame Nation wants it too.  Let it be so, Charlie.  That question and many others will probably be answered September 6, 2008, when the lowly San Diego Aztecs meet the Irish in South Bend.

Note: See Skip Holtz, we need ye.