Great coaching will win football games, but great coaching needs great talent to win national championships. A coach's ability to reel in that talent depends in no small part on 17- and 18-year-old's perceptions of how "cool" his school is. In recent years, Notre Dame has not been a cool school among high school athletes. While not descending to the depths of Rush-like uncoolness, we haven't exactly been Miles Davis either.
Consider the views of Robby Parris's peers at St. Ignatius, a Catholic school in the Midwest, as detailed in Bob Wieneke's South Bend Tribune article:
As Robby Parris struggled with deciding between Notre Dame and Michigan, he began to notice a pattern forming in the free advice he was being offered.Michigan, given their superior record to Notre Dame overall (though not head-to-head) over the last eight years, is regarded as cooler than Notre Dame.
Family and other parents were telling the Cleveland St. Ignatius wide receiver to pick Notre Dame. Kids Parris' age, on the other hand, were touting Michigan.
It was not ever thus. Back in the day, Notre Dame was the choice not just of parents, but their kids, too. Of course, back then, many of our best players rocked haircuts like this.
Achieving renewed coolness is simple and requires one thing: winning. Charlie Weis undoubtedly understands that winning is the key to making Notre Dame cool with today's high school athletes. (Hell, Mike Krzyzewski was able to accomplish the monumental task of making this school cool, just by winning games.)
However, Weis, unlike some of his predecessors, understands that there are other things he can do to help Notre Dame's reputation among today's youth. Bob Davie, for instance, upon discovering that Notre Dame was different than Texas Agricultural & Mechanical, decided that Notre Dame was hopelessly uncool and conveyed this message to recruits. Recall the television interview he gave wherein he claimed that Notre Dame was "as much fun as one of the military academies." If this
While Willingham did not appear to share the distate for Notre Dame shared by his predecessor Davie and his hagiographer Alan Grant, he had no idea how to relate to today's youth. His attempts to establish a rapport with Lorenzo Booker would have been comical if they hadn't cost Notre Dame a recruit.
Charlie Weis's most important tool in changing perceptions of Notre Dame is his coaching acumen. Nothing that happens off the field can be a substitute for on-field competence. But Weis also understands what off-field actions will effectively supplement on-field success. Consider Weis's whirlwind tour of the nation's high schools. Charlie could not seek out recruits, but he knew how to make himself the topic of conversation among recruits' peers. Charlie was not shy about loaning out his "bling," to use the parlance of our times. During his June 7 press conference, Weis remarked that, "There are schools where there are probably 150 kids that have pictures of them wearing a Super Bowl ring." Weis has demonstrated an ability to connect with kids that his predecessors lacked.
The loss of prestige among today's high school athletes is a serious problem for the Notre Dame program. However, Charlie Weis seems to have recognized this problem and to have tackled it head-on.
The early returns, according to Jeff Yelton, James Aldridge's coach:
"When he walked down the hall, you saw a lot of necks snapping around quickly."