Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Weis Era (error?) nears its inevitable end

Charlie Weis has to be done, right? I mean, 9-3 was pretty much the absolute, no-questions-asked, must-be-achieved minimum this year, and that probably didn't include a home loss to Navy for the second time in a row.

The ironic thing is that Weis probably did his best job of coaching this year. He was able to adjust his gameplans to mitigate injuries to Armando Allen, Jimmy Clausen and Michael Floyd, and I don't think there's much in any of the losses that could be pinned on him directly. Weis didn't fumble twice inside the 5-yard line against Navy, let Tate Forcier escape the pocket time and again in the final two minutes against Michigan or call an obvious incomplete pass a fumble against Pitt. It doesn't take much stretching of the imagination to see Notre Dame at 9-1 right now.

But on the flip side, there's no reason the Navy game was as competitive as it was given ND's massive talent advantage on offense, and when you look at how fortunate the Irish were to beat Michigan State, Purdue and Washington, it's also not hard to envision this team being 3-7 right now.

And at the end of the day, that's the one thing that's been obvious about Notre Dame under Weis: They don't dominate mediocre teams the way they should (far too often losing to Syracuse, Navy, etc.) and they NEVER beat the elite teams, even when they play well. This was supposed to be the team for Weis, the year when everything would be in place for a national title run. Even if you ignore everything from the previous four seasons (obviously you can't do that), the underachieving finish is a microcosm of Weis' entire tenure.

It probably doesn't matter if he wins out; there's nothing victories over UConn and Stanford would tell us that would override the past five years of mediocre performances and lack of player development. The death certificate has already been written, and NDNation is in the midst of an autopsy.

This quote is from five years ago and has nothing to do with Notre Dame, but it seems incredibly appropriate:
"What must be done eventually should be done immediately."
That's from Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley, and he's referring to the firing of Ron Zook. If it's clear that a guy isn't the long-term answer (and I think Weis has established that), there's no point dragging your heels and delaying the inevitable transition. Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick must realize by now that the Irish will never be a true national contender under Weis, and I -- like everyone else -- will be stunned if he still has a job in three weeks.

So what's next? Well, as with every major job opening, big-time names have been thrown about with reckless abandon. Bob Stoops, Brian Kelly, Jon Gruden, Kirk Ferentz, Urban Meyer, Mike Shanahan and Jim Harbaugh are just a few of the names I've heard so far, and that list will certainly be growing.

If I'm Swarbrick, I'm on the phone with Kelly every morning, afternoon and night figuring out what it'll take to get him in South Bend. I've covered this before (right before the season, in fact): Kelly is one of the best coaches -- if not the best -- in all of college football. His track record is as good as anyone's, and as an Irish Catholic guy with Midwest roots who's never denied interest in a possible opening at Notre Dame, everything about him makes sense. There are only two questions:

1. Will ND be smart enough to offer him the moon?
2. If Cincinnati is unbeaten and looking at a potential 13-0 season and top-three finish in the polls, will Kelly leave?

I've gone back and forth on this over the past couple days, but it's hard to see Kelly passing up the job if it's offered to him. Cincinnati isn't a bad place to coach -- fertile recruiting area, manageable expectations, relatively weak conference that's ripe for a few years of domination -- but running the show at Notre Dame is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. You don't think a guy with Kelly's background dreams of having his name mentioned in the same breath with Ara Parseghian, Frank Leahy, Knute Rockne and Lou Holtz?

Stoops and Meyer are also interesting propositions. Both are approaching a transitional period (Oklahoma's has already started, while Florida's will begin next year once Tebow and many of the defensive starters have left), and while neither coach has expressed any interest in leaving, moves are often a matter of timing more than a matter of fit. The problem is that both guys are already making in the range of $5 million a year; Notre Dame pays well, but it won't be a step up financially. And when you factor in the stringent admission standards, the overwhelming national attention, the sky-high expectations and the fact that Indiana isn't exactly a hotbed of NFL talent, Meyer or Stoops would have to really want to coach at ND to take the job, because their current positions are better in almost every aspect. Meyer is probably a pipe dream -- especially since he said just a few months ago that he would never coach at Notre Dame -- but I wouldn't be surprised if Stoops at least listens to an offer, primarily because of the discontent that's crept into the Oklahoma fanbase as Stoops' "Big Game Bob" reputation has been blown apart the past few years.

Ferentz and Harbaugh seem like reaches, Plan B guys who would be acceptable and represent a change in philosophy but wouldn't have the alumni and fans digging for their checkbooks to subsidize Weis' $18 million buyout. It's also worth mentioning that both guys have baggage: Harbaugh just loves to stir up controversy -- he's no Lane Kiffin, but he isn't far off -- and has a DUI in his recent past, while Ferentz has overseen an Iowa program that's had a ridiculous 26 players charged with crimes (including his own son -- twice) in the past two years. He was also accused of helping the school cover up an extremely shady sexual assault investigation, and while nothing official ever resulted from those accusations, even the most loyal Iowa fans were ashamed at the information that was brought to light.

As for Gruden and Shanahan ... meh. I don't see why a lot of Notre Dame fans are so in love with Gruden. He's never been so much as a college coordinator, he hasn't worked in the college game since 1991 (he was a receivers coach at Pitt) and he's considered just the type of offensive "guru" Charlie Weis was when he took over. Oh, and he just signed a long-term contract extension with Monday Night Football. Shanahan has slightly more college experience but has been in the pros since 1984, which is well before any current college athlete was born. He doesn't strike me as the type of guy who would enjoy sucking up to 18-year-olds year-round, and the only connection I can find to Notre Dame is that his last name is Irish-sounding. Shanahan might be coaching somewhere next year, but it won't be in South Bend.

So ... my guess is that Stoops and Meyer are at the top of Swarbrick's list (as they should be), but Kelly is still the most likely option. And if Irish fans are smart, they'll be rooting hard for Alabama and Florida the next couple weeks; their worst-case scenario is one in which Cincinnati ends up playing for the national title, because even an Irish Catholic boy wouldn't pass up that opportunity.

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