— A golden parachute worth in the neighborhood of $10 million or so should be strong enough to withstand someone as big as Charlie Weis. He’ll be fine.
It’s Notre Dame I’m worried about.
The Irish manage to get major firings through their human resources department with relative ease. They fired Bob Davie (35-25), Tyrone Willingham (21-15) and now Weis (35-27) for cause — the cause being lousy football — although they wind up shelling out stacks of greenbacks in the process.
So now comes Notre Dame’s most important hire ever. The folks there want to compete for the national championship. They want to maintain high academic standards among their football players. They want a marquee name to lead the way. They need to lure someone with a Weis-like deal.
The Irish endured 10 games this season that were decided by seven points or less. But this coaching search will be more nerve-wracking to the alumni than any of them.
So I’m here to help the two main decision-makers — athletic director Jack Swarbrick and university president Rev. John I. Jenkins — sort through the muck.
Swarbrick believes Notre Dame can keep its lofty academic standards and still pursue the national championship in football. I agree. The sticking point is how often. If Notre Dame continues to make it difficult for recruits to qualify, and grants few exceptions in the process, then it will simply not be able to accumulate the across-the-board talent and roster depth needed to do it every single season.
If there is a common thread that ran through the tenures of Davie, Willingham and Weis, it’s that.
Under the current setup, Notre Dame could conceivably go 12-0 and reach the BCS title game. But the following year it could also go 7-5 and accept a bid to the Las Vegas Bowl. The year after that? Maybe 9-3, and the Fiesta.
I’m with Swarbrick. I’m not one of those who believes Golden Domers are living in the past, that the glory days are long gone. It can happen again. Just not every year. The recruiting flow, under the current conditions, will not permit it.
Stanford is an example that is often mentioned in the same breath with Notre Dame. It’s a wasted breath, too. Jim Harbaugh is doing a magnificent job at that brain emporium. But this is considered a boffo year for the Cardinal, and it’s only 8-4 overall, third in the Pacific 10 at 6-3, and is rated 24th in the BCS. Last year under Harbaugh the team went 5-7. Next year, who knows? That’s what the impact of strict admissions policies does to a football team.
Now, if Swarbrick can figure out a way to ease the academic standards just a bit, it would allow more talent to come in and strengthen the entire roster. Then Notre Dame would not be reliant on the occasional Jimmy Clausen or Manti Te’o for inspiration and leadership. It would have a whole team full of such players.
Then the head coach of the Fighting Irish would have a fighting chance.
Is there a coach out there who is a sure thing? Would Urban Meyer, the man on every Irish fan’s wish list (although highly unlikely to move), be able to do in South Bend what he’s doing in Gainesville? Would even half of his Gators qualify as Domers?
Would Brian Kelly and Bob Stoops have the same results at Notre Dame as they’ve had at Cincinnati and Oklahoma, respectively? Or would they be more like Rich Rodriguez going from West Virginia to Michigan, or Dan Hawkins moving from Boise State to Colorado?
The problem at Notre Dame isn’t the expectations. It’s the formula for attaining them.
By all accounts, Swarbrick is an extremely bright individual. The legal eagle has been on the job for only 18 months or so, and although he is an alum, he is just now understanding what it means to make a decision that may impact all his fellow alumni for years to come.
His greatest challenge isn’t simply pulling the right name out of a hat, but creating the environment that will allow that person to succeed. It may mean leaving things exactly the way they are and explaining to Notre Dame fans and boosters, “We’re committed to competing for a national championship … every once in a while.”
It may mean negotiating to allow more recruits in who ordinarily wouldn’t get in, with the explanation that a dominant football team means more money in the university’s coffers for other purposes. And besides, take a kid who isn’t a scholar coming out of high school, place him in the proper academic atmosphere with plenty of support, and you just may develop a star in the classroom.
It would also help if Swarbrick tells the next coach to keep his inner Muhammad Ali under wraps. Weis came to South Bend with NFL championship rings and a New Jersey attitude. He tried to make people believe he would be the next Knute Rockne or Lou Holtz. Instead, he wasn’t even the next Davie or Willingham, both of whom had better winning percentages that the more ballyhooed Weis (.583 for both, to .565 for Weis).
It’s true that college football is much richer when Notre Dame is at or near the top. The Charlie Weis watch, and the quest for his replacement, has garnered far more attention and created more drama nationally than anything being done on the field by any of the current contenders.
But a coach isn’t enough. Notre Dame has to change with the times. It has to change either its message to its fans about what goals are realistic, or alter its mission statement to give a tiny bit more emphasis to “athlete” in student-athlete.
If Swarbrick and his associates don’t do either, they might as well ask Weis to come back after all and save themselves a bundle of cash.