Let it be known from the get-go that I’m going to try and make it so this doesn’t turn into a Charlie Weis bashing extravaganza. Really, I’m going to try and challenge myself a little more. It’s just too easy right now.
I mean, the Irish did lose to Syracuse last week. This, even to someone who is mostly indifferent to Notre Dame, is truly bizarre and slightly appalling.
So let’s dive in.
Here’s a summation about my stance on Notre Dame football: It’s pretty much like the Yankees. You might not like them, in fact, you might hate them, but when they’re relevant and factoring in the national championship race in some way the sport is better for it.
At the very least, you can hate on them because they’re so good.
That said, the sideshow atmosphere in South Bend for the last couple years has been every bit as interesting.
We all know last year, with a 3-9 record, was the worst season in the program’s storied history. There were embarrassing losses to Navy and Air Force at home, etc. The offensive line was putrid, the defense porous. Jimmy Clausen made freshman mistakes. Generally, it was awful.
But people thought that was a bottoming out of sorts. Weis had brought in three consecutive highly regarded recruiting classes, so people could chalk up last year to a lot of those growing pains. Expectations for 2008 were, by Notre Dame’s lofty standards, pretty low.
Only the biggest zealots would even utter the words Bowl Championship Series, but certainly improvements were expected against a schedule that, on its face, looked softer than usual.
Things started well — sort of. The Irish started 4-1 with wins against San Diego State (barely), Michigan, Purdue and Stanford. None of those teams are any good, but hey, that’s more wins than a year ago.
Then, starting with a Clausen interception returned for a touchdown on the first play of the second half at North Carolina on Oct. 11, everything started to fall apart.
Clausen has been a turnover machine since North Carolina (nine interceptions in six games). They haven’t been able to run the ball (and basically haven’t been able to all year). Notre Dame is 2-4 during this stretch with victories against a winless Washington team and Navy.
In a lot of ways, the dysfunction and bland offense looks very similar to 2007.
Things hit a fever pitch this weekend after the Irish let lowly Syracuse march right down the field in the waning minutes of Senior Day in Notre Dame Stadium for a 24-23 win. A loss. To Syracuse. At home. That, friends, is not sitting well in South Bend.
Fans thew snowballs at the players during the game then hurled insults at Weis as he made his way off the field afterward. The message boards and comment sections below stories absolutely blew up.
There was no way to spin it positive during the post-game press conference. Weis was asked if he was worried about his job (he said he worried about everyone but himself) and put off assessing the program’s direction until he could gain a little more perspective. His words:
“I’m not passing on questions,” Notre Dame fourth-year head coach Charlie Weis said when asked repeatedly about the direction of the program and his ability to redirect it. “I never pass on tough questions. I think it’s really important for me not to be making big-picture analyses after a tough loss. I think big-picture-analysis questions are things you better sit back and reflect on rather than just come up and give an answer off the spur of the moment. I don’t do things that way. Let me do some thinking on that one, OK?”
Now Notre Dame fans are resigned to a blowout, if they weren’t already, when their Irish head out to Los Angeles to play USC this weekend. With that likely loss, they will finish a disappointing 6-6. Weis will have gone 9-15 in the last two years.
Notre Dame administrators fired Tyrone Willingham for less.
But hey, after a lot of meandering, we’re making our way to the point. The question isn’t so much about this year. The Irish did, after all, improve their record. How much the team is actually improved is an open question.
And it’s a question people are going to be asking in the ensuing weeks. Notre Dame will probably take a crappy bowl bid, get a few more weeks of practice and play out the string.
What people want to know right now, however, is where this program is actually going and who is best to lead it. Is it going to be nationally prominent any time soon? Is the talent actually there? If it is, why isn’t it developing? Most importantly, is Charlie Weis the man to make it all happen. And maybe just as importantly, will he get the time to do it?
Athletics director Jack Swarbrick has politely declined to comment on Charlie’s status since the Syracuse debacle. Swarbrick told reporters before the Syracuse game that he’d evaluate Weis just like he would any other coach — at the end of the season. Swarbrick’s words:
“That’s how it works for Randy Waldrum, who has the top-ranked (women’s) soccer team in the country, headed into the NCAA tournament as the No. 1 seed,” Swarbrick said. “The way I approach it, we take every one of our sports and we develop a traditional business plan for each, with the objective of winning a national championship.
“Wlll every one of our sports get there? Of course not. But the way we organize our efforts and the way we value what need to get better revolves around that single question. We’ll take that plan and that objective and at the end of the year say, ‘Have we made progress to that objective?’”
Fair enough. Although you have to wonder what went through Swarbrick’s head after watching Syracuse celebrate like school children on Saturday.
In an effort to bring this to a close, here’s the crux of the thing: Will Charlie Weis be back next year or will he be taking his “decided schematic advantage” elsewhere?
For my money, he’s back. With a caveat. It’s going to be one of those “Win right fucking now or this is over” deals.
A BCS game is shooting a little high. I’m thinking more along the lines of get to nine wins, be a top 20 team and beat some quality teams along the way. That seems realistic and achievable. If he doesn’t get there, if it’s more of the same, goodbye Charlie. I think even Weis would say that’s fair.
What it really boils down to is likely the enormous buyout Weis would get and Swarbrick’s desire to let Weis coach his way out of this mess with some more mature talent. But I’m just speculating there.
Do I really think Charlie is the type of college football coach you want to win with today’s athlete in today’s game? I don’t know. Maybe is about the best I can say. I’d rather have a guy coaching my team that doesn’t run a boring, pro-style offense. I’d also like a guy that can recruit talent where it matters most — on the offensive and defensive line. That’s the team’s biggest deficiency right now.
But hell, Bill Lynch is the coach at my alma mater, so I’d take Charlie in a heartbeat.