Even with its greatest coaches at the helm, Notre Dame has suffered equally bad or worse losses than Saturday's Trojan romp. The 40-6 loss to Nebraska in the Orange Bowl and the 55-24 loss to U.S.C. during Ara's reign come to mind, as do the 1987 loss to Miami followed by the Cotton Bowl loss to Texas A&M during Holtz's tenure.
Of course, the problem is that we've suffered these beatings during the tenure of our weaker coaches, such as the 41-9 loss to Oregon St. in the Fiesta Bowl and the horrendous loss to Miami in Faust's last game in 1985. How do we get a read on where we stand?
Often much can be learned about how a team will progress under a coach from the first year. The simplest measures, but probably the most reliable, are to look at the change in win total and point differential from the year before the coach took over to the coach's first year.
Notre Dame's first coach to stay more than two years was Jesse Harper who was a stellar 34-5-1 from 1913 to 1917. His .863 win rate is almost the equal of Rockne's .881, though Rockne's legend is built in large part around winning recognized national championships in 1924, 1929 and 1930. Harper had no consensus national champions, though his 7-0-0 1913 team is recognized by some minor services as being the national champion as is his 7-1-0 1915 team.
Let's look then at how the win total and point differential have changed for every first year N.D. coach starting with Harper's successor Rockne.
Coach Wins Points Career
Rockne -3 -38 .881
Anderson -4 -16 .630
Layden +3 +100 .770
Leahy +1 +24 .855
Brennan 0 -32 .640
Kuharich -1 -42 .425
Ara +7 +261 .836
Devine -2 -71 .764
Faust -4 -48 .535
Holtz 0 +84 .765
Davie -1 -209 .583
Willingham +5 +96 .833
Rockne probably qualifies as a special case because N.D. played so few games his first year. The Irish were 6-1-1 in Harper's last year and 3-1-2 in Rockne's first and had Rockne had the benefit of two more games the point differential likely would've been about even and he could well have notched two more wins.
Notice, however, that only five coaches were able to move the point differential the right direction in their first years and all of them also moved the win total the right way, except for Holtz who kept it level. Those five coaches are Layden, Leahy, Ara, Holtz and now Willingham.
The combined records of those four pre-Willingham coaches is 329-71-18 which translates to a stellar win rate of .826. In their combined 40 years at the helm Notre Dame had 7 recognized national championships and 8 other years where some services gave Notre Dame the national championship. Only Layden failed to win a recognized national championship, though his 8-1-0 1938 squad was given the national championship by one minor service. Thirty of those 40 seasons ended with two or fewer Notre Dame losses. The fact of the matter is that at Notre Dame a successful turn in the right direction the first year has always meant a successful coach.
A turn in the other direction does not always mean disaster, particularly if the program is functioning already at a high level. So the arguable downturn in Rockne's first year and the moderate downturn in Devine's first year certainly did not signal impending doom (though in the latter's case N.D. fans showed little patience for his opening 8-3 campaign).
But often a downturn the first year has meant trouble ahead. Anderson, Brennan, Kuharich, Faust and Davie all turned the program the wrong direction the first year and would go on to coaching careers well below Notre Dame standards. Davie's first year impact was, in terms of point differential, the most dramatically negative in Notre Dame history and the drop of only one game from the win total was due in part to the fact that N.D. played 13 games his first year and only 11 in Holtz's last. Kuharich's start was also worrisome because he was taking over the program at a relatively low ebb (Brennan's last year N.D. was a disappointing 6-4). Faust's impact was actually more dramatic in terms of wins and signaled a problem that would haunt Faust throughout his career, which was an inability to win close games (his 6-15-1 record in games decided by 7 points or fewer is by far the worst in Notre Dame history).
So, no matter how painful the U.S.C. game, based upon the history at Notre Dame there can be little doubt but that Willingham is headed in the right direction.
Now, let's look at some fairly recent hires at other schools to see whether any of this holds true generally. Let's start with coaches who have had successful years this year. The first number is the change in win total for the first year followed by the change in point differential for that same year.
Snyder (KSU): + 1, + 62
Coker (Miami): + 1, +79
Carroll (USC): +1, + 119
Harris (Pitt): +2, +195
Meyer (Bowling Green), +6, +233
Friedgen (Maryland): +5, +184
Amato (N.C. St.): +2, +99
Stoops (Oklahoma): +2, +246
Leach (Texas Tech): +1, +81
Miles (Oklahoma St.): +1, +62
Richt (Georgia): 0, -16
Ferentz (Iowa): -2, -70
Tressel (Ohio St.): -1, -41
As we can see, most of these coaches managed to turn things the right direction in the first year, though only Friedgen and Meyer matched or bettered Willingham's 5-game improvement. As with Notre Dame coaches, a slight downturn the first year has not always meant disaster. In Richt's case he matched his predecessor's 8 wins the previous year but this year has taken Georgia well above previous levels. Tressel at Ohio St. almost matched Cooper's 8 wins and this year has won 13. Ferentz at Iowa had a very difficult situation left behind by longtime Iowa coach Hayden Fry but by the next year had restored Iowa to the level of the end of Fry's tenure and the next year had Iowa in a bowl game. In a sense they all proved what Devine proved at N.D., which is that a modest downturn the first year can sometimes be reversed.
Let's consider some coaches who have struggled this year to see how they did in their first years.
Williams (M.S.U.): -5, -169
Steele (Baylor): -1, -169
Solich (Nebraska): -4, -196
Mackovic (Arizona): 0, -74
Zook (Florida): -2, -295
All of them suffered downturns their first year and all except Mackovic's were enormous. Williams and Steele, of course, have been fired, Mackovic is in deep trouble at Arizona and while Solich remains in charge at Nebraska a big shake-up is apparently coming at the staff level. Zook, of course, is completing his first year, but in many ways he has almost exactly matched Davie's first year performance at N.D.
Even with the disaster in Los Angeles, there can be no doubt that N.D. and Willingham are on the right track.
Brushing off the dust
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