All ND football ever needs is the right head coach. ND, like perhaps a dozen or so other traditional powers, can exhibit a rebirth quickly with the right man at the helm. Oklahoma and USC are two recent examples of programs that were down on their luck for a decade or more until they found the right coach.
Trying to create a winner from scratch is a much harder job. If Jeff Tedford turns California into a consistent winner, he probably deserves more praise than if Weis returns ND to the status of a consistent winner.
Why is this? Let's start by taking a somewhat long view of things.
Most would agree that the Irish have had less-than-inspired coaching over the last decade. Those 10 years have seen a thoroughly distracted Lou Holtz over his last two years, five years of Bob Davie (who has apparently not been seriously considered for a head coaching job since) and three years of Tyrone Willingham (who has lost nearly 45% of the games he has coached for his career).
So it hasn't been a great decade. But let's compare ND's record over the last decade to its opponents of last year and this.Tennessee 101-25 (.802)
Michigan 95-29 (.755)
Southern California 82-40-1 (.670)
Brigham Young 76-48 (.613)
Syracuse 74-47 (.612)
Notre Dame 73-47 (.608)
Washington 70-48-1 (.592)
Purdue 69-51-1 (.574)
Boston College 66-54 (.550)
Michigan State 64-55 (.538)
Pittsburgh 58-60 (.492)
Stanford 54-59-1 (.478)
Navy 50-65 (.435)
The Irish are really only behind three programs in this group: Tennessee, Michigan and USC. BYU's and Syracuse's records are essentially identical to ND's, but earned against vastly easier schedules.
And note that for several of the programs (including those below ND), this has represented something of a "golden age" for their programs. Syracuse's Pasqualoni (107-59-1) was only the second coach to go over 100 wins at that program and he coached that entire decade. BYU was coached by its greatest coach, Lavell Edwards, for six of the 10 years. Joe Tiller at Purdue (62-37) is second on Purdue's career win list and he coached for eight years of the decade. Ditto Walt Harris at Pittsburgh (52-44), who's second on that program's career win list since the end of World War II, and Boston College's Tom O'Brien (57-39), who's already third on that school's career win total and will probably take the lead in 2007. Half of that decade, MSU had the highly successful Nick Saban (34-24-1 with the Spartans) as its coach.
But even without the advantage of great or even good coaching, ND has equaled or exceeded the records of these programs and done it against better competition. ND has managed to be a roughly 7-4 team on average against some of the hardest schedules in the country.
As the season previews start to drift out, there will be lots of "knowing" commentary on how ND's talent is only comparable to, say, Vanderbilt's or Wake Forest's and that for ND to go 7-4 will require a miracle of sorts in the coaching department.
But any objective assessment of these claims reveals them to be nonsense. The truth is that ND historically hasn't proved to be difficult place to win, largely because of better access to talent both in terms of players and assistant coaches.
Consider that ND head coaches who were at the helm elsewhere have had their greatest success at ND.
Ara ParsegheinMiami of Ohio 39-6-1 (.859)
Northwestern 36-35-1 (.507)
Notre Dame 95-17-4 (.836)
Dan DevineArizona State 27-3-1 (.887)
Missouri 93-37-7 (.704)
Notre Dame 53-16-1 (.764)
Lou HoltzWilliam and Mary 13-20 (.394)
North Carolina St. 33-12-3 (.719)
Arkansas 60-21-2 (.735)
Minnesota 10-12 (.455)
Notre Dame 100-30-2 (.765)
South Carolina 33-37 (.455)
Tyrone WillinghamStanford 44-36-1 (.549)
Notre Dame 21-15 (.583)
As we can see, with only some trivial exceptions, those coaches have had their best records (and by far their greatest success) at ND. It's true that Devine at Arizona State and Ara at Miami of Ohio had slightly better win rates there, but that was truly small college football.
Arizona State, though now a major conference team, was a member of the "Border Intercollegiate Athletic Association" when Devine coached them, and they beat up on the likes of Hardin-Simmons, Wichita State and the San Diego Naval Academy. Ara at Miami of Ohio was battling Marquette, Dayton and Xavier.
So why have coaches done better at ND, and why is it that even in a down period ND has averaged about 7-4? The answer is that ND is still the biggest stage in college football, which gives coaches better access to talent both in terms of players and assistant coaches. The coaches like Ara, Devine and Holtz who were willing to take advantage of those opportunities vaulted to heights that did not see at any other points in their careers.
Willingham (a trait he shared with Davie) saw ND's stage not as an opportunity, but a threat. Rather than changing his approach, he kept essentially all of his former assistants and his other ways of doing business. Had Holtz kept his assistants from the end of his Arkansas days and his Minnesota stint he probably wouldn't have improved much on the 16-17 record he had his three years before coming to ND. Had Ara not changed any coming from Northwestern, he might not have gained much on his .507 record there.
The question essentially is whether Weis will prove to be more like Willingham or more like Holtz. Holtz was willing to step out of his comfort zone to find the best assistants and to manically recruit the best players. Willingham was not willing to leave his comfort zone on assistants, and though he landed some excellent players, was far more willing to let them come to him.
If Weis's first few months are any indication, he shares a lot more with Holtz. If so, ND will be rebuilt, and rebuilt in a hurry.