Saturday, December 18, 2004

Backlog of Thoughts.... | by Sean

Some random thoughts before heading out into the Christmas battlefield that is the Fox Valley Mall.....

DALLAS COWBOYS, NEW YORK YANKEES, NOTRE DAME....

Oftentimes, when people mention Notre Dame football they draw the analogy to the New York Yankees and the Dallas Cowboys. All three are the "name" brands in their respective sports. When going on the road, they are the darling of opposing teams' box offices: their fan bases span the globe, and they always buy lots of tickets. When things are bad, their futility is as big a story as their past success, which is considerable, since nobody's won more Super Bowls, World Series, or national championships than the Cowboys, Yankees, and Irish, respectively. In short, all three are worldwide institutions, long on resources and short on patience.

But, unfortunately for Notre Dame, the analogy falls apart there, and here's why - the Dallas Cowboys and New York Yankees run their teams like a 21st century business. If they need something, the people in charge go and get it, costs be damned. They can afford to do business like this because they have the financial resources and actually USE them to their fullest extent. Conversely, Notre Dame runs its football program like a 1950's university. (To be fair, at least they've finally decided to pay their head football coach market value, so maybe they've crept into the 1980's.) What made me think of this was the report late this past week that Al Golden, noted UVA defensive coordinator and recruiting guru, has decided (for now) to stay put at UVA. A Charlottesville TV station reported that he got a bump up in pay from $180K to $220K to stay with the Cavaliers.

Let me point out that by all accounts, Golden is the top recruiter on the East Coast and is the main reason UVA has turned into a juggernaut on the recruiting trail. As critical as recruiting is to the lifeblood of a college football program - especially one, like Notre Dame, whose head coach is basically AWOL until February and whose previous head coach managed to recruit the worst class in the history of the school the year before - you'd think "Golden to ND" would be a done deal. To be more specific, what would George Steinbrenner and Jerry Jones do in this situation?

I'll tell you what they would do. They would make this a no-brainer. Golden would have a minimum $350K contract. Not only that, but they'd go to Charlie Weis and find out the names of every single guy he wants on his staff and they'd offer them deals that are at least $100K more than what they make right now. They'd assemble the "dream team" of coaching staffs. They'd set the market instead of lagging twenty years behind it. The staff would be fully assembled in about a week because it would be sheer idiocy for them to turn down the package Notre Dame was offering - prestige, exposure, money. And it would pay off in spades. The recruiting engine would be up and running with an energetic, reknowned, well-paid staff.

You can't tell me Notre Dame doesn't have the resources to make this happen. The amount it would cost to set the bar for paying a coaching staff would be peanuts for Notre Dame. Hearing about great assistant coaches staying at their current jobs instead of coming to Notre Dame over FORTY GRAND makes my blood boil. It doesn't have to be this way. Dallas Cowboys? New York Yankees? Please. If Notre Dame ran the business of its football program like those teams run their respective businesses, we're not even having this conversation. They'd have let Bob Stoops fill in the amount of the check back in 2001.

ROCKET I$MAIL

Hearing the Rocket babble on and on a couple weeks ago on Gameday about how ashamed he was to be part of the Notre Dame family and how those who made the Willingham decision must "repent" was about as comical as it was infuriating. What Rocket and others chastising the school fail to understand is that this was a BUSINESS decision. The Notre Dame football "brand", after five years of mediocrity on Bob Davie's watch, was still circling the drain with Tyrone Willingham as a coach. A very critical and lucrative element of the school's identity was at risk, and the leadership at Notre Dame sought to minimize that risk and protect their very profitable venture - Notre Dame football.

You, Rocket, of all people, should understand the business end of Notre Dame football. After all, you did pose for this Sports Illustrated cover back in 1991, didn't you?



I thought so.

REBEL, REBEL

Thursday, Ole Miss named USC defensive line coach Ed Orgeron as its new head football coach, replacing David Cutcliffe (who coincidentally appears poised to become the next Notre Dame offensive coordinator). Orgeron, 43, is a reknowned recruiter with ties to the deep South. Oh, by the way, he was also charged with repeated domestic violence back in the early 90's when he was an assistant at Miami (damn, I thought it was just the Cane players who did that kind of thing back in the day). Orgeron had a restraining order filed against him in 1991 by a Dade County woman. He was also involved in an incident in 1992 where he head-butted a bouncer at a Baton Rouge nightclub.

Despite these transgressions, Ole Miss went ahead and hired Orgeron. Let me be very clear that I have no problem with the hire. The incidents occurred many years ago and I'm all for giving people second chances. The guy, by most accounts, is a pretty good coach. However, the headline on ESPN.com for the article about Orgeron getting this job - an article which included the list of his brushes with the law - was "Orgeron promises Ole Miss will compete".

Am I being overly sensitive when I surmise that if Notre Dame were to have hired Orgeron the headline would have read something like "Irish settle for woman-beating, bouncer-assaulting first-time head coach"?

WILLINGHAM...."THE MESSIAH"?

I have to admit, Tyrone Willingham has played this thing perfectly. To his credit, he has been completely accountable for his poor record during his stint at Notre Dame. He rightfully took the high road the day after being terminated by the school, handling himself with the same class and dignity that he had since he arrived in South Bend three years ago. Frankly, there was no need for him to try to drag Notre Dame through the mud - ESPN, Fox Sports Net, and every English-speaking sports columnist in the Western hemisphere were doing a fine job of that all by themselves.

Then a couple weeks after being let go by Notre Dame, he lands the head coaching job at the University of Washington. All of a sudden, idiots are writing columns saying that Washington's future is rosier than Notre Dame's, and bigger idiots are saying that Tyrone Willingham will have Washington in the BCS within three years. Never mind that the latter would require a Tyrone Willingham-coached team to show improvement without any regression over a two year period or longer - something that statistically has NEVER happened in the coach's less than illustrious history.

Somewhere along the way over the last two weeks, the media has managed to snow itself into thinking that Tyrone Willingham is a first-tier candidate, or to steal a term from Monk Malloy, a "Messiah Coach". Despite a huge body of evidence that we've rehashed here at length (blowout losses, losses to heavy underdogs at home, poor recruiting), Tyrone Willingham is all of a sudden a savior in Washington and his absence from the home sideline in South Bend is "Notre Dame's loss".

It's not surprising that most people who espouse the "Willingham will be U-Dub's savior" line of thinking do so without citing any empirical evidence that supports their argument, since...well, there isn't any. Most people that are in the "Willingham will be U-Dub's savior" camp support their argument in one of three ways:

(1) Tyrone Willingham is a good man, a man of dignity whose focus on graduating players is to be commended.

My response to this school of thought? I agree wholeheartedly. You won't find a classier guy out there than Tyrone Willingham. He's a true man of integrity. Unfortunately, this does nothing to explain the inconsistent nature of Willingham's football teams, particularly the lackluster efforts of the 2003 and 2004 versions of the Fighting Irish. Wilingham is a good guy. Great, there's a lot of good guys out there, classy guys. I'm not saying it's not important, but it obviously doesn't correlate directly to wins and losses on the field, otherwise Willingham would still be employed at Notre Dame.

As for those who use "Willingham graduates his players" to support their pro-Willingham stance, puh-lease. The guy has coached at Stanford and Notre Dame. Last I checked, both places had a long history of graduating players before Tyrone Willingham got there. If you're giving him credit for this, then why stop there? Go ahead and give him credit for getting dressed in the morning and driving to work without getting into an accident.

All kidding aside, it will be interesting to see what happens from an academic perspective with Willingham at Washington. While it's not a bottom-of-the-barrel institution from a graduation rate perspective, it's no Notre Dame or Stanford. Last I checked, Washington was in the low 60 percent range in graduating its players (with a virtually identical rate for African American players). If that rate improves significantly, then I'll buy into "Tyrone Willingham, Bastion of Academia". If it stays the same, then he's just another football coach. (Somehow, I think the mainstream media will ONLY bring this up if the number goes up in a few years. Otherwise, if it goes down, well, you better know how to "google" to find the percentage.)

(2) Tyrone Willingham took STANFORD to the Rose Bowl in 1999. Yes, Stanford! He MUST be a great coach, right?

Uh, wrong. First, let me point out that this will be the closest that a Willingham supporter will ever get to proposing any type of statistical evidence that Willingham is a "great coach" - that he took Stanford to its first Rose Bowl in decades in 1999. Of course, here is what those Willingham backers will not tell you, either because they don't want to or they haven't bothered to look: the Pac-10 in 1999 made the 2004 Big East look like the SEC. The only thing separating the Pac-10 that season from powder puff football was shoulder pads and a TV contract. There were two teams in the entire conference that year (Stanford and Oregon) that won more than seven games. Six of the ten teams finished .500 or worse. USC was in the midst of the Paul Hackett Era. The conference went 1-4 in bowl games, including a 17-9 Stanford loss to Wisconsin where Ron Dayne ran for roughly 650 yards (at least it felt like it).

Also in 1999, Willingham's signature season according to his supporters, the Cardinal got blown out by Texas 69-17 in their opener, a game Willingham had nine months to prepare for. (And we thought the BYU game was bad!) Oh, and Stanford also lost at home to San Jose State in 1999, which is sort of like Notre Dame losing at home to Bethel College. The Cardinal finished the 1999 season unranked in the AP poll (24th in the coaches' poll).

(3) They don't support it at all, but instead spend their entire column bashing Notre Dame, presumably doing so under the assumption that each lame one-liner will add a point to Willingham's football IQ.

See Dodd, Dennis.

CONCLUSION

When Willingham was fired by Notre Dame, I was happy for the school because I knew we could do better (and I think we have done better with the hire of Charlie Weis), but at the same time I felt for Willingham because he did represent the school with class and dignity (albeit with the personality of a damp sponge). I even vowed to myself that I would root for Willingham wherever he might wind up coaching in the future.

And then "they" started coming out of the woodwork. The Mark Mays and Dennis Dodds of the world, trashing Notre Dame for letting Willingham go and subsequently putting Willingham in the elite class of college coaches, despite having no evidence at all to support their argument. They do realize a Willingham-coached team has never lost fewer than three games in a season, don't they? I mean, EVER. They must know this, right?

And so now I'm forced to root against Tyrone Willingham. Not just on September 24 next season, but for the entire time he is at U-Dub. I can't help it. I'd rather Notre Dame be vindicated and Dodd and May (and others) be (further) exposed for the dolts that they are than see a good man succeed.

Willingham is taking over a 1-10 outfit, so improvement will likely occur next year under (in spite of?) Willingham. How can it not? Frankly, improvement would probably occur under Rich Kotite. I just hope that in four years, after Willingham has gone something like 4-7, 6-6, 8-4, and 4-7, that the Mark Mays and Dennis Dodds of the world will say that Notre Dame was right to fire Willingham. Somehow, I doubt that admission will ever come.

How do I know that Willingham will go 4-7, 6-6, 8-4, and 4-7 in his first four years at Washington? Well, I don't. But there's a whole lot more data to support my argument than there is to support the argument that he will turn Washington into a juggernaut again.