So, without further, adieu…
Christmas has come early this year for Irish haters. In fact, those who live for ill to befall the once haughty ‘Domers are once again getting more chortles than a comedy club employee because for the third time in three years (and fourth time the last eight years) the they are looking for a head coach. After an ugly mess in 2001 when George O'Leary was unceremoniously canned just a few days after being hired and Tyrone Willingham rode in on a white steed to save the day, it was thought the Irish could not botch a search any worse.
Tyrone Willingham found himself the latest victim of unrealistic expectations in South Bend. Despite having just three seasons (one of them with 10 wins) to turn around a program that has been down since it first forced out and then attempted to trash Lou Holtz, he was fired. Undoubtedly the Irish Eyes were smiling on hot coaching candidate Urban Meyer who has made no secret of love for Ohio State, Michigan, and Notre Dame. However, those eyes which were just days ago misty-eyed thinking the era of Rockne and Parsegian had returned are now brimming with tears. The Irish have not only been turned down by Meyer but by a host of others who before even being offered the job simply signed contract extensions for big raises with their current schools. While it clearly is a sad reflection of the times when an SEC program with their traditionally lower (you might even say ‘bargain basement') academic standards is the more desirable job, one can't blame Meyer for going to Gainesville where it will be easier to win.
What is the solution?
I sit here in my easy chair and see three worth discussing:
1. The Irish administration must be honest with its alumni and fan base – The choices of the ‘powers that be' are making winning in South Bend increasingly difficult. It should be publicly acknowledged not only must the future head coach maneuver his team through an oft-brutal national schedule (though it probably is no worse than playing in the Big Ten, SEC, or ACC), he must do so at a severe recruiting disadvantage.
And yes – though it is unfair, administrators should tell fans that firing a black head coach after only three seasons (again – one of them with 10 wins) will be used against the next coach and program for years to come. Recruiting is a dirty business and many less than ethical programs will use any advantage they can create. A few years back one SEC program reportedly walked a blue-chip recruit committed to a Big Ten school into a large freezer – and told them this is what their life would be like every winter unless they were willing to break their word…
Bottom line, the administration needs to tell the alumni and fans, "Do not expect national titles or even BCS bowls these days. We have chosen academics over wins – so live with it."
* 2. The Irish administration must at least be honest with themselves and with coaching candidates in private -- If the Irish administration is unwilling to admit their unrealistic expectations and refuse to be honest in public, they should at least tell each coaching candidate up front that they understand their open position is less desirable than it was in the past. Admit it will be tougher to win. Admit that the academic issues will make recruiting more difficult. Tell the coach up front that the administration has botched all but one hire in the last 25 years and that was simply because Lou Holtz leaped into their laps. Admit that not playing in a conference in many respects hurts the Irish these days. After coming clean, they should guarantee the coach seven years or more on the initial contract with a tremendous buyout if he is fired before his fifth season. They need to make the risk of being canned worth his financial while with incentives in the contract guaranteeing him $100,000 for each win over eight per season. Offer him a cut of the bowl payouts – something like 5-10 percent of the total take. Use past mistakes and make them a selling point instead of a negative in order to offer the coach the needed support within the organization that is Notre Dame.
I don't see this option as likely since it would require not only a great deal of humility from a group of top echelon administrators, but it would also demand thinking outside the box when it comes to financial packages and contracts. Sadly, most bureaucrats are not noted for their creativity.
3. The third option is for the administration to back down when it comes to academics -- To be blunt – to ask a coach to try and win at the same pace as Oklahoma or Michigan or Florida or Miami (Fla.) – while having higher academic standards is borderline insane. Why accept the job at Notre Dame when you can go to Oklahoma and recruit junior college players and guys who scrape in by the skin of their teeth? Why go to Notre Dame and be forced to steer clear of any recruit who is less than an Eagle Scout when you can coach somewhere like Tennessee or Miami where recruits like Jason Respert or Willie Williams are tolerated by the administration? Why go to Notre Dame with tougher admission standards when Michigan has a well-known jock major that a great many athletes use to stay eligible?
A university can still have an outstanding academic record if it allows its coaching staff to be discerning with players they will and will not recruit (within reason). A player like Willie Williams would not be acceptable, but perhaps someone like a Larry Fitzgerald or Ernie Wheelwright might be the type that a coach could risk if an administration would simply show faith in the men they hired.
In the end, Notre Dame has clearly painted itself in a corner. They have repeatedly hired the wrong coaches, have spurned the Big Ten's offer to join the conference, and have raised their academic standards. Winning will be difficult in the future. Don't get me wrong, I don't doubt for a moment this program will win again. I don't even think the academic standards make it impossible to bring in national titles. What I do find ludicrous is that the administration and fans think the job is still the peach that it once was. College football has changed.
You do the math:
You are Dan Hawkins at Boise State and can earn $500,000 (and incentives) per year for the next 10 years, you're king of Boise, have less pressure to win, and recruit whoever you want or you can go to Notre Dame and coach for possibly four years at $1.25 million per season, be called an idiot if you don't win 10 games and vie for a national title every season, have your family put through the ringer, and have your coaching career prematurely ended after not even being given a chance to fulfill your contract --- what would you do?
I would stay at Boise State, and I wouldn't even need time to think about it.
Jeff Tedford, Bobby Petrino, Mike Shannahan, John Gruden, Les Miles, Kirk Ferentz --- all of these coaches are going to make more money and likely have greater job security by staying where they are instead of heading to coach at Notre Dame.
All that being said – for any haters out there, laugh while you can as I fully expect the Irish to come out looking pretty good when all the dust settles. USC was roundly mocked for hiring Pete Carroll a few years ago. The hires of Kirk Ferentz and Bob Stoops were said to be indicative of the far falls of Iowa's and Oklahoma's football programs. National writers poked fun at Ohio State and said the Buckeyes had to ‘settle' for some lousy Division I-AA coach when Jim Tressel was brought aboard…
There are too many excellent coaches available right now for Notre Dame not to end up with one of them. Someone's ego will get the best of them. They will accept the job believing that where others have failed they will succeed, and for all everyone knows right now they just might.
The only real question at hand is will the powers that be in South Bend be able to pick the right applicant among the number of future stars who would take the job if offered.