Notre Dame job is death trap
On paper, Charlie Weis did everything necessary to build an elite program
Notre Dame is going to be hard-pressed to find anyone willing to replace him
But as the search begins, the most interesting figure is AD Jack Swarbrick
As Notre Dame begins yet another search (its fourth this decade) for yet another coach in its never-ending quest to wake up the echoes for longer than a year or two, potential candidates should take a hard look at Charlie Weis' failed tenure.
When they do, they'll see a man who hit South Bend with all the bravado of a man at the height of his profession -- three Super Bowl rings in four years; universal reverence for his role in developing Tom Brady from sixth-round draft pick to future Hall of Famer -- only to leave five years later sufficiently scorned and humbled, literally slinking away into the night after his last game against Stanford.
His potential replacements will undoubtedly attempt to assess what went wrong. On paper, Weis did everything necessary to build an elite program. He returned the Irish to national relevance with consecutive BCS berths to start his tenure. He assembled three straight top-10 recruiting classes, which included more NFL-caliber stars (Jimmy Clausen, Golden Tate, Michael Floyd, Kyle Rudolph) than that program has seen in nearly two decades. He produced passing offenses that would make his old NFL protégé proud.
Yet, all he had to show for it was the worst season in school history (3-9 in 2007), followed by two .500 seasons and a nation full of critics who've wanted him gone from the day he first professed his schematic wizardry. (Though it's hard to forge too much pity for a guy who may end up taking home $30 million.)
Domers can chalk it up to any number of Weis-specific criticisms: That he never truly made the transition from play-caller to CEO. That his experience with the pros didn't translate to dealing with teenagers. That he never put sufficient emphasis on defense.
They're all valid points, and if Weis were the first coach ever to fall short at Notre Dame, perhaps they'd suffice. But whatever his strengths and weaknesses, Weis' tenure ultimately ended no differently than those of his two immediate predecessors, Bob Davie (1997-2001) and Tyrone Willingham (2002-04). All compiled similar records (winning percentages between .565 and .583) and all failed to make it past five years.
Taken together, most prospective coaches will likely reach the same conclusion many of us already hold: The Notre Dame job is a death trap in waiting.
Once you look past the storied tradition, the majestic campus, the NBC contract and seemingly endless pocketbook, you're left with a school chasing ghosts. You're left with a fan base whose expectations (top-10 rankings, national titles) were forged during another era when the school's independent status still carried cachet and its stringent academic standards were a selling point, not a hindrance. With a few notable exceptions, today's national-title-caliber talent grows up watching specific conferences (the SEC, then Big Ten, etc.), not the NBC game of the week, and they don't necessarily boast high SAT scores, either. Some -- like Clausen, Floyd and Tate -- are bona fide blue-chippers. Others become Tom Lemming All-Americans simply because the Irish recruit them.
Because Notre Dame still fashions itself an elite program, Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick will likely target no shortage of elite candidates. The reality is, most of those big names are much better off where they are. While Urban Meyer has repeatedly stated his reverence for the school, he knows he already has arguably the best job in America. Bob Stoops may well be intrigued by the Irish's overtures, but he knows from experience he can play for national championships from Norman.
Bill Cowher? Tony Dungy? Brian Billick? So far none have given indication of an imminent return to coaching, but even if they do, they'll probably want to go somewhere with less risk of falling on their face. (Not to mention, why would ND go the NFL route again so soon?)
The next coach of Notre Dame will be someone with genuine reason to believe he's taking a step up the coaching ladder, which is why Brian Kelly remains the most viable candidate.
Kelly, who's won championships at every stop he's made (Grand Valley State, Central Michigan and now Cincinnati), speaks earnestly about turning Cincinnati into a "destination job," but realistically, that's still a long ways from happening. It's naïve to think the 48-year-old will spend the rest of his coaching days at a school with a 35,000-seat stadium and which only recently green-lighted plans for its first-ever practice facility. (Currently, the Bearcats practice in their own stadium.) As of today, poll voters don't seem to view his undefeated Big East team any differently than the Mountain West's TCU.
Kelly would be taking a big step up at Notre Dame, if in fact the school wants him, and his renowned salesmanship and political background will serve him well at the most public coaching job in the country. On the field, his versatile spread offense could do wonders with the skill players the Irish return next season.
It's possible, however, that Notre Dame will decide it wants a more defensive-minded coach this time around. If that's the case, TCU's Gary Patterson is possibly the most qualified candidate in the country, and he's sitting in a very similar position to Kelly. This season marks the fourth time in five years the Horned Frogs have won at least 11 games but the first in which they'll sniff a BCS bowl. At Notre Dame, 10 wins virtually guarantees an at-large berth.
The Chicago Tribune this week listed an interesting name as one of the "favorites": North Carolina's Butch Davis. The former Miami and Cleveland Browns head coach fits virtually all the criteria the Irish should be seeking: A renowned recruiter and defensive guru who's led a national-title caliber program before. Davis' teams have steadily improved during his three-year tenure in Chapel Hill, though that's yet to include a season with more than eight wins. Any interest on the part of Notre Dame presumably dates more to his Miami days.
Should the situation arise, Davis could provide an interesting litmus test as to what regard today's coaches hold the Notre Dame job. UNC has long been considered a sleeping giant, but it will always be a basketball school first, and it plays in one of the lesser-regarded BCS conferences. History says Davis would be making an upward move professionally. Whether he feels the same way is another matter.
But the biggest mystery figure of all as the search unfolds will be Swarbrick himself. A former Indianapolis-based attorney who worked with the NCAA and other local sports entities, the Notre Dame alum has only been an athletic director for 16 months. He's yet to make his first major coaching hire. By all indications, he'll be working as a one-man search committee (with final approval from university president John Jenkins), marking a change from years past when the school's board of trustees often meddled in such matters.
"Every meaningful decision that involves athletics involves two people, Father John and I," Swarbrick recently told the New York Times. "I have been absolutely insulated from any form of external pressures. That's what I asked for when I was hired, and that's exactly the way that it's been. "
For all we know, Swarbrick has a completely different plan in mind. He could have his sights set on names that haven't even garnered public speculation. Whereas his predecessor, Kevin White, often seemed beholden to the whims of Notre Dame's national followers, Swarbrick comes across as his own man. He will do whatever he feels best for the university. Maybe that means putting in courtesy calls to Meyer and Stoops. Maybe it means waiting for Kelly outside the locker room following Cincinnati's game at Pittsburgh on Saturday. Maybe that means conducting a longer, more thorough search.
"It's so important for college sports that Notre Dame be able to prove that we can perform at [a high] level academically and compete for a BCS title," Swarbrick told the Times. "Because frankly the consequence of us not being able to do it ... is really a bad thing for college sports."
Obviously, he still believes it's possible. We'll soon find out whether the nation's coaching stars agree.
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