Lame duck Wadsworth passes the buck on the schedule. "When I walked in the door [in 1996], the schedules were complete through 2005," he says. Fine. What did Wadsworth do after he took charge? How about the '06 schedule, which includes Georgia Tech, Alabama, Michigan, Michigan State, Purdue, Stanford, UCLA, North Carolina and USC? The '07 schedule is nearly identical.
Notre Dame plays a national schedule because it always has, and because it has fans in all parts of the country. When Gene Corrigan took over as athletic director in 1980, the schedule frightened him. "I tried to soften it up," he says. "When I was looking for a game in the South, I'd try to get Vanderbilt instead of Tennessee. I'm not saying Notre Dame should play the bottom of every conference, but it shouldn't always play the top, either."
As an independent, Notre Dame has to schedule aggressively and more than 10 years in advance. Conference teams have the advantage of playing against the weakest teams in their league. Florida State merits props for playing nonconference rivals Miami and Florida every year, but the Seminoles also get breathers against Duke, Maryland and whatever other ACC programs are down in a given year. Notre Dame was given a chance to join the Big Ten in 1998 but turned it down because the Irish would have lost their lucrative television contract.
NBC, which in 2000 begins its third five-year arrangement to broadcast all Notre Dame home games, loves the schedule. It allows the network to promote games against attractive opponents. However, both the Irish and NBC deny that the network has even subtly influenced scheduling. The denials make some sense: Games on the current schedule were made in the early 1990s, when Notre Dame was rolling and any game was marketable.
As a television show, however, the Irish are slipping. Once the surest thing in college sports, Notre Dame telecasts in 1999 were consistently beaten in the ratings by games on ABC and CBS. On Oct. 2, when Notre Dame rallied for a 35-31 victory over Oklahoma on NBC, the game had a 3.2 Nielson rating, lower than both ABC's regional telecasts (3.9, including Michigan-Purdue) and the CBS broadcast of Florida-Tennessee (3.5).
"If you look at the schedule for the next few years, you'd say, What idiot put that together?" says Malloy. "We know now that the schedule is a variable. You don't want to play a schedule that no other team in the country could survive, but the problem is that it's done 10 years in advance." Before the schedule issue is resolved, Davie will be fired or sainted, the Notre Dame legend brought back to life or dead.
In the end, could it be simply that the coach isn't any good? If the Irish had hired Gary Barnett or Mack Brown in '96, would things be different? "It's high-risk, high-reward," Malloy says of the job. Maybe it isn't meant for a coach who is merely good. Maybe it takes a Rockne, a Leahy, a Parseghian.
Is Davie a good coach? "I don't think he's worth a s—," says one NFL personnel man. There is no shortage of people who will-anonymously—blame Davie for Notre Dame's slide; there are few targets as large as a struggling coach of the Irish. The truth, however, is that the jury is still out.
Notre Dame's December 1996 hiring of Davie, a 20-year college assistant, including three as Holtz's defensive coordinator, broke an unwritten rule. "Everybody who has succeeded in that job has been there and done that before," says Corrigan. "I'm not saying Bob Davie isn't a good coach, but the people who have done well there have had head-coaching experience."