The Kind of Winner Notre Dame Needs

With the dismissal of Bob Davie, The EyeGlass takes a look at what kind of "winner" Notre Dame needs. F. Richard Ciccone, noted author and observer of the Notre Dame scene, says the administration hasn't always made the right choice. It isn't perfection that makes a winner at Notre Dame, he writes. A special essay for IrishEyes' subscribers.

Copyright by  Global Electronic Telecommunications, publishers of IrishEyes.Com

December 2, 2001

The EyeGlass--Commentary

The Winner Notre Dame Needs

By F. Richard Ciccone
For The IrishEyes.Com NewsService

Just when what appears to be Bob Davie's final edition at Notre Dame was about to disappear in another heartbreaking last minute win for the bad guys, Clifford Jefferson stepped up.

It was ironic that Davie ended up a winner and equally surprising that given Jefferson's history the Hail Mary pass did not bounce from his helmet into the hands of a Purdue receiver in the end zone.

It was all about Notre Dame not being able to win the games it should have and it wasn't just Stanford a week ago or Boston College two weeks ago or Michigan State two months ago. It was five years. It may have been Davie's dilemma but it was Notre Dame's fault.

Notre Dame doesn't hire too many head football coaches, about once every decade. Despite the good fortunes the Irish had for most of the 20th Century, the university has a terrible record at picking winners. Notre Dame's brain trust has had to hire a new coach seven times in the last half century and they were wrong more often than they were right.

They don't always learn from their mistakes.

In 1954, in its determination to rid Notre Dame of the "football factory" reputation that had built by the glorious Frank Leahy years, Notre Dame hired Terry Brennan, a coach from Mount Carmel high school. They fired him five years later.

In 1958 they picked a pro coach who had never taught the college game. His name was Joe Kuharich and when he departed after the 1962 season the pundits said that Notre Dame couldn't win playing big time schedules, that recruits no longer were fascinated with Notre Dame, that the academic standards were too tough.

In 1964, Notre Dame hired Ara Parsehgian who took exactly what Kuharich had left him and went 9-1 and came within two minutes of a national title. Several of those inept Kuharich leftovers were still around in 1966 when Notre Dame won the national title with what was surely one of the greatest college teams in the last 50 years.

In 1975, Notre Dame hired a pro coach who had been a successful college coach. While Dan Devine somehow never seemed comfortable with Notre Dame—and vice verse—he won a lot more than he lost including a national title in 1977 that was built on the players Parseghian had left him.

In another spasm of moral rectitude, Notre Dame then hired a coach who had never taught anywhere but high school. The Gerry Faust years were unhappy ones and the pundits again predicted Notre Dame could no longer expect to play a dominant or even prominent role in big time football.

Enter Lou Holtz, whose fine record at Notre Dame is now blemished by reports and rumors that he was allowed to enroll the kinds of players who usually end up at Florida State or Miami. Yet, Holtz's 1988 championship squad was filled with seniors left behind by Faust.

Then came Davie who had no head coaching experience at all. Maybe the cupboard was bare. Maybe Holtz didn't leave behind players who were as good as those he inherited a decade earlier from Faust. But all the excuses about academic standards and recruiting difficulties won't be a barrier to a coach who knows how to win if Notre Dame wants one.

And history seems to prove that after a period of lean years Notre Dame manages to find someone to restore order. The goal certainly is not a slew of national championships or national championship contenders. That was the reality in Leahy's day and expected during the 1960s and 1970s.

A glimpse at the last few weeks of the season indicates how difficult it is for anyone to match expectations. Oklahoma, Florida, Nebraska, Michigan and Texas couldn't beat the teams they were supposed to beat—albeit most of them were narrow expectations.

Only Miami, benefiting from an early schedule of powder puffs managed to stay unbeaten.

Some of the best teams in the country have two losses and will settle for less than a BCS date. What Notre Dame needs is to return to that tier and when some supposed powerhouse turns up weaker than expected, or when the Hail Mary passes bounce the right way, perhaps a national championship opportunity arises.

There was no reason other than coaching for the 2001 Irish team to finish with six losses. It was nice that Bob Davie got to go out as a winner. He is a nice guy and probably has a chance somewhere to learn from the mistakes he made at Notre Dame.

But it was even nice that people like Shane Walton, Anthony Weaver, Tyreo Harrison and Rocky Boiman got to finish their careers on a high note, something no bunch of Irish seniors has done since 1993. More than a few of the stalwart Irish defenders will be be playing on Sunday next year, a clear signal that Notre Dame is not completely outmatched by schools whose recruiting methods are suspect.

Tennessee, for one, is possibly a win away from the national title game against Miami and Notre Dame showed it was every bit as good as Tennessee except for a fumble here, a mistake there.

Notre Dame outplayed Boston College for three quarters before throwing up on itself. In turn, Boston College outplayed Miami for three quarters before succumbing.

There is not that much difference between No. 1 and No. 25. No. 25 was where Colorado was a few weeks ago and now there are people saying the Buffaloes might just be the best team in the country. But at 10-2, no title shot.

It is no accident that the coach at Colorado is Gary Barnett, the same one that Notre Dame toyed with before it hired Davie and the same Barnett who in a brief period took Northwestern from its century of defeat to the Rose Bowl.

It doesn't matter if the next coach is obsessed to the point of madness with victory a la Leahy, or a whimsical martinet like Holtz, or a stoic football genius like Parseghian. It doesn't matter if the next coach wants to install a pro set, a West Coach offense, a wishbone or an option.

 It only matters that he knows how to win.

 Not all the time. But not half the time, either.

(F. Richard Ciccone, Notre Dame '61, is former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune and an author whose most recent work is "Royko: A Life In Print.")

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