Drinking Of The Soda

<P>Summer is here as we reach the dead period of Notre Dame football. The Players are taking summer classes, lifting and enjoying the peace and quiet of the lovely summer day. No more microphones shoved in their face asking about the future of Notre Dame football. No more questions of talent or expectations left unfulfilled<P>

The Notre Dame coaches also get a nice little break. Two weeks off to just get away from everything. No more meetings about strategy. No more thumbing through the atlas to find the next great linebacker. No more cellular phones or pay phones at the airport. Two weeks to relax and discover your family again. If only it were that easy....

I am going to guess that coach Willingham isn't going to relax a whole lot during his two weeks of heaven. I am going to guess his mind is going to be occupied most of the time trying to figure out how he can turn this program around in a very short period of time.

Here is my guess on what will run through Willingham's head countless times during these two weeks. ‘Let's see, are the boys lifting hard and working hard? check! Are we in good shape with recruiting? check! Do we have a good plan for the fall? check! Did I gain their trust and respect? check! So why can't I enjoy this two weeks?'

Coach, the reason you can't enjoy these two weeks and probably won't sleep many nights in the future is that now the hard part begins. Setting up a program is the easy part. Sending your vision in motion is the easy part because you can control every facet of your plan. You can control recruiting, lifting, the fall practice schedule and plan. You can push your athletes to perform both academically and athletically. You cannot control the pressure. You cannot control expectations or the media.

About 10 years ago, I used to coach little league and senior league baseball. I loved baseball but I loved coaching more. It was such a fantastic experience and I will never forget it. In my 5 years of coaching baseball, I am going to guess I won around 70% of the games I coached. I will never forget the games we lost. I will never forget the player's parents asking me why their son wasn't playing. I won't forget the parents asking why I didn't send Johnny home and held him at third. I won't forget the disappointment or disgust I saw on their faces and the disappointment I saw in the player's eyes when we lost. Losing is not fun.

I remember walking off the diamond after the traditional shaking of the hands in good sportsmanship and wanting to crawl under any rock available. I remember having to go meet the parents for the traditional drinking of the soda after a game win or lose. It's was like the sacrificial lamb in now being served. Most of the parents were nice, appreciative and supportive but disappointed none the less. Then you had "those" parents. The type that didn't look at you or wanted to tell you how things could have been better if they were calling the shots.

We can take that mental image and now add 80,000 fans booing you off the field. We can add 1 million more who have scared their families to death after watching this loss and wondering if Dad is going to go "postal." We can add the many big-dollar boosters you have to pass in the hallway into the locker room. You can add your buddy, the Athletic Director. You can add your peers, the faculty and the students. The students are always kind. Do not forget your favorites, the enemy. "Hey Coach, we all want our soda time too."

To be a college coach, the parents are probably the least of your concerns. As a college coach, after the loss you have to answer to the Athletic Director, the faculty, and the students. The alumni, the subway fans, the parents will also want answers. And then you have the enemy. I am part of the enemy. I don't like being the enemy and don't act like the enemy but I am still classified as "one of them."

Now we have to add the players into the equation. A group of roughly 80 men who have seen a lot of disappointment over the last few years. A group that just didn't believe they were given the tools to win these games. They aren't going to be as trusting anymore and man, are they low. Lots are worried that their dreams of the NFL have been crushed. Many do not enjoy playing football anymore. I am going to guess that many question if they are really that good.

Can't forget about chance either. You can prepare and prepare all year long but fumbles happen. Interceptions happen and so do missed assignments. Any error at any given time can cost you the game. No one single error can cost you the game but one crucial error at the wrong time will cost you the game. These things are simply out of your control but preparation and stressing fundamentals and the importance of holding onto the football is in your control. No matter how much you stress, people are human and they make mistakes.

The expectations seem to be set. Many fans are predicting a 9-3 season. Is it fair to expect that this team will be 9-3? I have no idea but that seems to be what the expectations are. What are the media expectations? I can only comment on mine. I would like to see a well-disciplined team that fights to the end. I would like to see the players given the chance to win with "good" play calling on both sides of the ball. I would like to see a coach that loves Notre Dame and embraces and respects its' rich tradition. The wins and losses won't matter much to me as long as I see the future.

So coach, enjoy your 2 weeks. Enjoy your family because I am sure they love you very much. None of the expectations are going to change. The media isn't going anywhere. The problems and concerns will be here waiting for you when you come back. It's quite easy to say that but I doubt it will happen. The pressure is starting to build and I am sure coach Willingham is starting to feel it. I firmly believe he can and will handle it with dignity. I do think we have the right man for the job.

Don't worry Coach, I am one of those nice, appreciative and supportive "enemies" but I will be disappointed none the less. The first drinking of the soda is schedule for 62 days from now. I like Diet Coke but if you have a beer handy, I like Coors Light.


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