New Sheriff: Part II

Part II of our review of Irish coaching debuts shows a coach's initial season doesn't always offer a portent of things to come.

This is Part II of our look back at Notre Dame's coaching debuts over the last 45 seasons. To read Part I, featuring Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine, Gerry Faust, and Lou Holtz, click here.

Bob Davie

  • Replaced: Lou Holtz 1996
  • Previous Situation: Holtz's program had regressed from national powerhouse and NFL factory to a solid Top 15 team a rung below the reemerging national powers of Florida, Florida State, Ohio State, and Nebraska. Davie inherited the 10th ranked offense and 11th ranked defense (one which he coordinated for the last four seasons).
  • Year One Changes: Davie was purportedly the young "breath of fresh air" that the program needed for the new millennium. (Nice call, by the way). His '97 squad had a 5th-Year starter at quarterback in Ron Powlus and established junior Autry Denson in the backfield as well as future pros Allen Rossum and Deke Cooper in the secondary and Kory Minor at linebacker. The Irish dropped 53 spots in the national rankings offensively and 49 spots on the defensive side.
  • Star players that emerged after the change: Bobby Brown and Malcolm Johnson as pass catchers; Denson, already a 1,000-plus yard rusher as a sophomore, had his best season in '97 with 1,268 yards and 12 touchdowns. Jimmy Friday and Melvin Dansby emerged as tackle leaders defensively.
  • End Result: After a season-opening win over underrated Georgia Tech in the Dedication Game of the new Stadium, Davie's Irish dropped four consecutive games and five of their next six before saving face with a 5-0 finish to earn a bowl bid (and rematch loss to LSU in Shreveport). His 7-6 debut was forgiven when the Irish challenged for a BCS berth until Thanksgiving Weekend the following season (in which Davie was named a finalist for the Walter Camp Coach of the Year Award) but an uneven five years and 35-25 overall record, with losing seasons in '99 and '01, forced a change.

Tyrone Willingham

  • Replaced: Bob Davie 2001
  • Previous Situation: Davie's final squad was stocked with defensive talent and ranked 14th nationally in total defense but just 110th in total offense including 114th via the pass and bereft of the passing quarterback needed for the new regime's version of the West Coast Offense. Willingham was named Notre Dame's coach in late December 2001 after Georgia Tech's George O'Leary resigned five days after his initial hire due to inaccuracies on his resume.
  • Year One Changes: The stoic, disciplined Willingham was to set the Notre Dame program back on course two seasons after Notre Dame was found "guilty of major infraction involving players and a former member of the Quarterback Club," also known as The Kim Dunbar fiasco.

    The Willingham era started with a 22-0 shutout over Maryland in the Kickoff Classic and remained perfect through Week Eight including an upset over then No. 11 Florida State in Tallahassee (the Irish, ranked No. 6 at the time, were 11-point underdogs). A season of hard hits, clutch plays, and fortunate bounces unraveled in Game Nine as the unranked BC Eagles upset No. 3 Notre Dame, 14-7, effectively ending the team's dreams at a Cinderella run to the BCS Title Game.

  • Star players that emerged after the change: Shane Walton was named 1st Team All American and finished third in the voting for the Bronco Nagurski Award presented to the nation's best defensive player. Gerome Sapp, Vontez Duff, and Glenn Earl each had career seasons in the secondary as did defensive linemen Cedric Hilliard, Darrell Campbell and Kyle Budinscak. Future star Justin Tuck saw his first action as a pass rusher as did eventual three-year starter Derek Curry at linebacker.

    LB Courtney Watson finished third in the voting for the Butkus Award given to the nation's outstanding linebacker and junior Mike Goolsby paced the squad in tackles for loss. Converted QB Arnaz Battle was the team's chief playmaker at WR and Ryan Grant led the squad with rushing yards as a sophomore and first-time starter.

  • End Result: The 8-0 start devolved into a 10-3 finish with a 31-point loss at USC knocking the Irish out of the BCS and subsequent 28-6 Gator Bowl beating at the hands of NC State. Willingham finished 21-15 overall. He was named national Coach of the Year by ESPN, Scripps, and The Sporting News in his debut season.

Charlie Weis

  • Replaced: Tyrone Willingham 2004
  • Previous Situation:Willingham had lost 11 of his last 26 games but left Weis with plenty of underdeveloped talent in the upper classes. Weis' first squad featured talented juniors Rhema McKnight, Tom Zbikowski, Trevor Laws, and Victor Abiamiri as well as seniors such as Anthony Fasano, Maurice Stovall, Brandon Hoyte, Corey Mayes, Derek Landri, Mark Levoir, Dan Santucci, and Dan Stephenson who became key players in the squad's '05 revival. However, it was the continued improvement of sophomore RB Darius Walker, emergence of little-used junior WR Jeff Samardzija, and development of previously shaky QB Brady Quinn that keyed the apparent return to the top of the college football world.
  • Year One Changes: Weis was a Notre Dame graduate that embraced the school and its place in history. He entered as a taskmaster that would demand the best from each player and demand excellence after consecutive mediocre seasons. He delivered in Year One. Notre Dame improved from 81st offensively in '04 to 10th in '05 while averaging more than 36 points per contest. The rush defense dropped 30 spots (from No. 4) though the '04 defense ranked 116th vs. the pass, a fact that skewed its sterling national ranking vs. the run. Weis' first team finished 75th in total defense (a 21-spot drop from '04).
  • Star players that emerged after the change: Brady Quinn, Jeff Samardzija, Maurice Stovall, Darius Walker, and Tom Zbikowsi all became national names with Quinn, Samardzija, and Zbikowski earning All America honors. Samardzija was one of three finalists for the Biletnikoff Award (presented to the nation's top WR) and Quinn won the Sammie Baugh Trophy as the nation's top passer. Anthony Fasano developed into a second-round NFL draft pick at tight end.
  • End Result: One of the most exciting teams in program history, Weis' first squad finished 9-3 with a BCS Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State. They entered the 2006 as the No. 2-ranked team in the nation (finishing with another BCS loss, this time a 41-14 debacle vs. LSU in the Sugar Bowl).

    After winning 19 of his first 23 games, Weis dropped 23 of his next 39 to finish 35-27 overall. Weis was named national coach of the year by Schutt Sports and the Football Writers Association of America.

Head-to-Head: Ranking the Last Seven Debut Seasons

  1. Ara Parseghian, 1964: Hard to argue with a team that improved from 2-7 to 9-1 and the brink of the national title. Began the season unranked and finished a consensus No. 3 overall.
  2. Charlie Weis, 2005: From 6-6 to 9-3 and the difference in the on field product, especially offensively with no impact freshman, was staggering. Began the season unranked and finished No. 9 in the AP poll (reached No. 5 entering the Fiesta Bowl).
  3. Tyrone Willingham, 2002: From 5-6 to 10-3. You could argue Willingham for the second spot but two losses by a combined total of 53 points to finish the season left a sour taste in the mouths of Irish fans. Began the season unranked and finished the season No. 17 (ranked as high as No. 3 in early November).
  4. Lou Holtz, 1986: From 5-6 and miserable to 5-6 and dangerous. Holtz completely transformed the program in one season but suffered five close losses in his opening season. Began and ended the season unranked (but briefly moved up to No. 20 following a season-opening loss to No. 3 Michigan).
  5. Dan Devine, 1975: From 10-2 and a No. 4 national ranking to 8-3 and a No. 17 finish. Two of Notre Dame's three losses were to unranked teams. Began the season No. 9 but finished No. 17 in the UPI poll.
  6. Bob Davie, 1997: Davie's squad regressed from 8-3 to 7-6. Began the season No. 11 but finished unranked.
  7. Gerry Faust, 1981: From national title contenders at 9-2-1 and a Sugar Bowl loss to 5-6 with two blowout losses. Began the season ranked No. 4, made it briefly to No. 1, and finished unranked. Top Stories