The Notre Dame Football Program has effectively been wrecked for 15 seasons. It was destroyed the moment Bob Davie was hired as head coach to replace Lou Holtz. From that point forward, the program wasn’t run competently, from a program level, until, perhaps, Brian Kelly was hired to replace Charlie Weis. We don’t know. We wont know for a while. Even if Kelly does excellent work in fixing what is broken, the program would still look broken for a while. To get out of this “program debt,” if you will, first the fundamentals must be fixed. It’s like taking steps to balance the federal budget to fix the nation’s debt. Even if you manage the gargantuan task of balancing the budget, you’re still in massive, massive debt. Even if Kelly had set the college football world on fire, and won 10 games this season, or even if he’d just won the Tulsa game by 2 points, it wouldn’t have changed the status of Notre Dame Football. Notre Dame Football would still be fundamentally wrecked.
Before Willingham, there was Davie, the illustration of a fact of life; that if you smile at the right people and subvert the others (or both), you can get ahead career-wise. You may not be able to operate a self-serve hotdog machine, but you can become the head coach at the highest profile football program in the country. And while you do that, you can completely ignore the offensive side of the game because it’s just so much fun watching your defense kick the crap out of it every day in practice. Plus, if you never develop half of your team, you can just keep scapegoating it right into a contract extension, particularly if your boss arrived at his position is similar fashion to the way you arrived at yours.
Before Weis, there was Willingham. I don’t even know where to start. Do we even talk about all of the golf, or is that pretty well covered? Do we go over the fact that Washington went ahead and proved everyone’s point for us, that he was an absolutely incompetent head football coach? Do we discuss that his technique in recruiting consisted mostly of refusing to leave a recruit’s couch until someone snapped? Or that his best offensive recruit in his tenure only got recruited because another actual recruit did the work? Do we discuss that he recruited OL like he was running a flag football team? How about the installation of the
Bubble Screen Offense West Coast Offense with Holiday as starting QB?
Hiring Davie wrecked the program. But all the wreckage was set aflame by Florida State 7 years ago to this day, when they walked into Notre Dame Stadium and scored 37 unanswered points. The Irish were so torched that evening, that it should have sent a signal to any of us who didn’t know it yet. The program was a wreck, just laying there, unable to muster even a semblance of a response to a throat stomping. And Willingham was so dumbfounded as to what had just happened that he actually said, “I don’t know if I can explain it because if we could, hopefully we would have had some answers prior to this moment.”
But sometimes it takes a signal, like the light of a flaming wreck of a program, quite a while to be received. And sometimes it can be hard to see if you’re looking the other way.
Enter Weis, with the gleam of his superbowl rings, a fresh breath of bravado to infuse into a down-trodden team, and the capability to slice and dice his way out of most games, at least until it was time to pay the piper for sins committed before he took the reigns and after. Weis never had a plan to rebuild a program. Weis could just keep calling plays that should work. Right? So long as he had the players.
At least Weis realized he needed the players. And he realized he needed to go get them. He at least did that. He needed to consort with sports psychologists, ND faculty members, and the Patriots to even decide on a direction – every year – in terms of how to go about building his program, but at least he knew he needed talent to do it. Unfortunately, he apparently thought that talent, once on campus, was a finished product. And meanwhile, that talent was not working on blocking or tackling in practice, and was competing in tater-tot eating competitions.
And remember, through the vast majority of all of this time and all of these coaching regimes, we had Kevin White, the “Athletic Director” of Notre Dame, busy trying to figure out a way to create synergy between the ND brand, and local car dealerships. Answer: Jumbotron! The guy never even considered that the answer to “maximizing the ND Brand” could be “win.” And if you demanded wins, then he was going to schedule the way Bob Davie had always wished ND would.
This is the wreckage. This is the thing first cratered by the hiring of Bob Davie, set aflame by Florida State, and then left smoldering in front of its fans as it loses to Navy 3 out of the last 4 years and Tulsa after the worst week in program history. But do the fans even see it? Can they allow themselves to see it? When they look in the abyss left after 15 seasons, do they appreciate the depth to which it plummets, or do they fool themselves into thinking that where the light stops, so too must the drop?
This isn’t to say that things can’t be recovered. This isn’t an estimate as to how long it might take to recover the program. It’s not even an argument over who actually can and will complete the massive job. It’s just an effort to create some context and derive some appreciation for where things stand.
This program is wrecked. It’s been wrecked for a long damned time. And the only way to actually “rebuild” the program is to actually do some program “building.”
But thus far, fans seem to be caught up in minutiae. If the program’s direction were a forest, many of them would be walking into trees, and saying, “Ah ha! I recognize this tree! It looks just like others I’ve seen recently! We need a new forest!” And they’d be saying that without most of the forest having even been planted yet.
I’m as frustrated as any ND fan out there. Probably more so, really. Because whereas so many other fans want to identify and correct the “some thing” that is broken with this program, I’m the one standing off to the side right now, shaking my head, wondering why it is that these fans have no idea.