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Saturday, August 23, 2008

How the Irish Lost their Fight

When I hear “Irish”, I think of potato famines, soccer hooligans, leprechauns, lots of green, lots of alcohol, and the NRA. When I hear “Fighting Irish”, I envision the Golden Dome, Touchdown Jesus, Ara, Lou, Frank, and, of course, Knute, tradition, history, championships, four horsemen (of the non-apocalyptic variety) and everyone’s favorite diminutive college football player not named Flutie.

Last year, Coach Weis and his charges left the Fight at home.

“Three-and-nine doesn't even sound right, especially in the same sentence as Notre Dame” -Senior fullback Asaph Schwapp in Athlon Sports

That’s because the Domers haven’t been that inept since 1963. Ara Parseghian arrived in 1964. Over the next quarter century, the Fighting Irish won 4 AP national championships, a couple Heismans, and a lot of football games.

Ara Parseghian, Dan Devine and Lou Holtz did as much in that run to revolutionize football as Knute Rockne himself several decades earlier. In 1966, Notre Dame and Michigan State gave college administrators, coaches, broadcasters and journalists a taste of the potential draw for college football, and thus reinvented the way the game is marketed.

Less dramatically, in 1993 a story about a steel mill worker who gets in one play for Notre Dame inspired one of the better sports movies of all time that was alternatively titled, “Notre Dame is Cooler than Your Stupid School.” It grossed over $20 million at the box office and people will forever think “Rudy” when an athlete is carried from the field.

College football is better off because of Notre Dame, its tradition, accomplishments, and fans. College football will be better off in the future if the Irish get their Fight back.

But in 2007, the neighbor boy’s pee-wee football team would have looked like the ’85 Bears against the Fight-less Irish. More important, Notre Dame football, like the variety played in Nebraska, seems to be drifting into a state of permanent mediocrity since the resignations of the most recent members of their respective coaching pantheons in the last half of the 90’s.

The old excuse for any gridiron failure is that Notre Damers are too smart to be good at football. This justification was invented with Deemphasis in the 50’s – that good schools sacrifice athletic accomplishments for academic acumen. “Notre Dame”, administrators cried, “is not a football factory”. To retain this image, Notre Dame has theoretically restricted its access to some athletes that are talented on the field, but not in the classroom.

Paul Hornung, a Domer legend, brought this excuse to the forefront when he controversially proposed in 2004 that Notre Dame lower its academic standards to attract more black athletes.

Apparently, this fine academic institution wasn’t good enough to keep Mr. Hornung from shoving a foot in his mouth.

But even if we ignore the stupidity of publicly making that kind of comment, we can see that it’s not even true. If Paul Hornung thinks it’s hard to recruit the best talent to South Bend, try recruiting 5 star athletes to Annapolis. But high standards and military commitments didn’t keep Paul Johnson and the Midshipmen of Navy from beating our dear Irish in 2007.

Boston College is the nation’s other Catholic university with tough admission standards, but while Notre Dame sent out the nation’s least productive offense, BC spent a good portion of the season in the top 5, played for the conference championship, and graduated a Heisman candidate.

And when it comes to recruiting African-American athletes, Notre Dame has an inside track paved with gold compared to Brigham Young University, a program that has won as many national championships, produced as many Heismans, and won more games than Notre Dame since the end of the 1970’s.

If Charlie Weis, a fatter gentleman competing in a world dominated by young, flamboyant coaching personalities, can pull in one of the nation’s best recruiting classes after a 3-9 season, recruiting athletes to South Bend is not the problem.

If recruiting isn’t the issue, the next potential target of our inquisition must be the coaching.

If you would have asked a solid Notre Dame football fan about the future of Notre Dame football in early 2003, it would have been all roses. Ty Willingham had pulled out a 10 win season and a top-5 recruiting class. And the guy was as snappy dresser, the snappiest in Notre Dame coaching history. If you ignored the SC beat down, all was well in South Bend.

The situation was very similar to what Ohio State had experienced a year earlier with the arrival Tressel (assuming, of course, that you also think sweater vests are snappy). The team was scrappy and tough, winning games that they should have lost. Ty Willingham won every coaching award worth accepting, and some coaching awards were invented just to make him feel even better about himself.

Notre Dame is a school of tradition, which is a synonym for myth. Listen to a Domer talk about the four horsemen and you would think they scored a touchdown on every play. Watch “Rudy” and you’ll never realize that Notre Dame was quite mediocre in Rudy’s big year. The standards, set by almost mythical creatures, are too high to live up to, but have one successful season at Notre Dame and fans will have you convinced that Rockne-like success is your birthright. You will be labeled a “Golden Boy” until you fail and start getting the hate mail—but Notre Dame is not a football factory.

Ty Willingham bought into the hype and, consequently, his team lost that scrappy mentality. In 2003, Notre Dame lost its Fight. They opened the season with a tough win over Washington State (a good team), but then got blasted by Michigan. The wheels quickly fell off and Coach Willingham was getting death threats.

In comes the next candidate for apotheosis—Charlie Weis. The program was in disarray, but he is able to get folks to rally around him. He got the Fight back. He has two very successful seasons with Ty Willingham’s players, and praise is dumped on him faster than he can dig out from under it.

Charlie Weis, like Willingham, bought the hype. Rumor has it that Coach Weis forgot in Spring 2007 that football was a contact sport, thinking he could out-scheme opponents—he was smart enough to win games with his brain. That lack of physicality in practice led to poor performances on Saturdays. Really poor performances. “Worst offense in the country” kind of performances. And offense is supposed to be Weis’s forte. In 2007, Notre Dame lost its Fight.

This was a best case scenario for the Irish. Notre Dame, like Michigan, was engulfed in its own mythology and needed a dose of reality (which, in Michigan’s case, came in the form of Appalachian State). Charlie Weis was humbled but the situation did not become unmanageable. Some players left, but more are arriving. The coaches, players and fans have reevaluated their expectations, and, hopefully, the Irish have got their Fight back.

But let this be a warning to the college football nation (including you, Alabama). A little success creates expectations and cultures of hero worship that can be self-destructive. They lead to instability and performance-inhibiting self-aggrandizement. And impossibly-high standards of success and myths of the past are much easier to build up than to bring down.

1 comment:

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