Great Minds Think Alike
In mid-October (following Notre Dame's 34-27 defeat to USC) I mentioned at the end of a Sunday morning column that "Weis will and should be back for the 2010 season." I felt this way because the Irish appeared on an upswing and were set to bring back a wealth of Weis-recruited talent for '10.
The Irish later lost to Navy (and as Swarbrick mused: "we didn't see that coming" though I don't think he was talking about the two of us) as well as their next three contests.
As the season played out, a coaching change became the obvious and only answer, but I was relieved to hear the Irish A.D.'s reasoning regarding Weis' removal.
"As you look at the entire course of the season," Swarbrick began "It led you to the conclusion that you couldn't have enough confidence that a jump up was imminent. That you could know with sufficient certainty that next year's results would be significantly different so I think that was the tipping point."
"Football is important to Notre Dame," Swarbrick later added. "And from Father Jenkins through the academic leadership of the institution, through my office; everybody wants to see us succeed. That's why when people wanted us to act more quickly, we thought it was more important to take our time to try to make sure we had done everything we could to try to make it succeed in its current form before we changed it."
Swarbrick was asked why change would be effective this time and offered that, unlike the ouster of Bob Davie following the 2001 season and firing of Tyrone Willingham after 2004, Weis, though just 35-27 on the field of play, left the program in a much healthier state going forward.
"I think for some of this period of time there may have been some foundational issues: Were the facilities good enough? Could you demonstrate the ability to bring in the student-athlete you need to win at this level? I frankly think those have been addressed in various ways in recent years and so I think the whole key (to success under a new regime) is leadership. I believe our ability to take the next step and return to a level of prominence is all about bringing the right individual in here."
As for the time-table of the search?
"It is open-ended. It will have its own pace," Swarbrick admitted. "We'll begin immediately and move as expeditiously as we can. There is always the possibility that bowl commitments or other things play a role for some of the people we're interested in, but we'll go full bore and close it as fast as we possibly can."
So the search won't include Cincinnati Moeller this time?
Candidates for the vacant head coaching position (both real and imagined) abound, but what characteristic in particular, if any, is Swarbrick searching for among his list of successors?
"I won't go into the specific criteria," Swarbrick understandably stated. "We have developed a list to help shape the search, but I will say it is important for us to look into people who have demonstrated an ability to build and sustain a Division-I college football program.
"It certainly helps to have the evidence that someone has been able to do it," Swarbrick later reiterated regarding the need for an experienced top-level college coach. "That they have succeeded in terms of building and sustaining a Division I program."
And though he won't have the final say, it does appear the Swarbrick will plan and execute the key steps of the search.
"The (hiring) decision, much like the decision to make a change, will be based on a recommendation from me to Father John (Jenkins)," Swarbrick explained. "We will involve other people along the way but there's no search committee; no interview committee. There's a group of student-athletes from the team that I've asked to help me and be a resource to me and they will also be involved."
Easy? Is there such a thing?
Swarbrick's Q&A session with the media understandably reverted to general questions regarding the coaching search and if the list of potential candidates (at least those interested in the gig) was as voluminous as rabid Irish fans imagine it to be.
In other words: does anyone of relevance really want to take on this job and its apparent restrictions in 2009?
"I get that question a lot about recruiting here," Swarbrick responded while using the recruitment of an athlete as an analogy to that of his pending search for a leader. "In a sense its not (hard to recruit at Notre Dame) because there's a self-selection process that goes on.
"If you're a student-athlete who's not really focused on both sides of that definition, we're not the place for you. You don't look at us; you don't come into the process, so we see a smaller number of kids and net out a higher number.
"I think the same is true of the coaching search: For people that value our approach to college athletics and for people that value being the coach that restores Notre Dame to a place of prominence in college football…I think they'll be so excited to come it will be an easy marriage."
I hear Buddy Ryan's available
Swarbrick was asked one question that was undoubtedly on the mind of every Irish fan in November:
Question: "Given the defensive struggles this year, is there any priority given to a coach that tends to have experience on one side of the ball?"
Answer: "I don't think you can afford to be that narrow in your approach to candidates. My personal view is, given that where we play, and who we play…we need to be able to play good defense. And if you look at the defensive rankings of the leading teams this year there's a correlation between BCS standings and defensive abilities, so it's important to us, but its not a limiter in terms of the background of the coach.
The 16-Year Itch
1996. That's the season most fans point to as the end of Notre Dame football as they knew it due largely to Lou Holtz's "resignation" after 11 seasons. But in reality, the most recent season of title contention for the football program was 1993, an opinion explained to Swarbrick near the end of his press conference.
"I don't think you can infer from a 16-year period that there's some continuing deficiency that you have to overcome," he observed. "I think all of the great institutions in sports go through that period. (Swarbrick went on to mention that the Yankees, Celtics and Cowboys have each had a "drought" of their own as have all of the other prominent college programs).
"This is a drought, and I have every confidence we will end the drought and succeed spectacularly."
No Delusions of Grandeur
Where then, does Notre Dame stand in modern college football and how high can the program fly under the right leadership?
"I think Notre Dame remains a critical piece of the college football landscape," Swarbrick proclaimed. "There is no denying our recent struggles, but that doesn't destroy the equity of brand, or the importance of Notre Dame being able to succeed.
"We need to prove that Universities that are committed to integrating the student-athlete, first and foremost into the University as students, can also have them achieve optimal football success as athletes.
"It's important for the entire industry that we be able to do that. We have the background and I believe the equity to do it, and we now have the foundation laid through improvements made in the program in recent years to put us in a position to do that."
While Notre Dame: "the standard-bearer" has a plausible ring to it, what about Notre Dame: BCS Champion?
"I think it is absolutely realistic," Swarbrick asserted when asked if future Irish teams can compete in the rarified air of the college football elite. "I don't think there are any endemic reasons why we can't. Is it harder for us? Yes, because of the standards we choose to apply to the program ourselves, but that doesn't mean we can't get there.
"And the standard for success in this industry now is to be in position to be in the BCS each year. And sometimes we may not make that but our standard isn't particular wins and losses...it is: are we in position to compete for a BCS berth?'"