Friday, November 04, 2005

Extension Tension | by Pat

Major Misconceptions, a new novel by Phil Taylor. Among his sage wisdom:

Weis parlayed a 5-2 record into a 10-year extension...
False. Weis had a six-year contract and received a five-year extension. Ty Willingham also started with a six-year contract, by the way.

More sagacity:
...the powers that be at Notre Dame, who haven't made a truly smart coaching decision in recent memory (with the possible exception of hiring Weis), still don't have a clue.
Again, false. The "powers that be" aren't the same "powers that be" that presided over the Davie and Willingham errors; there's been a regime change and an attitude adjustment that Taylor fails to note. (In fact, attitudes towards the football program often shift when a new prez is sworn in: Elmer Layden was gone a year after Fr. Hugh O'Donnell became president in 1940, and Frank Leahy retired a year after Fr. Hesburgh took over in 1952.) As any casual fan of ND can tell you, the energy instilled by Jenkins is striking and dramatic, and the old attitudes have been mostly swept away.

Let's approach this extension like a financial analyst would. Let's approach it like, maybe -- just pulling names out of a hat here -- Morgan Stanley CEO Phil Purcell would, or a valuation and asset-pricing-model expert like John Affleck-Graves would. Contrary to the constant refrain of "just seven games into the season...", Charlie's actually been on the job for about ten months, which is a pretty good amount of time to form an opinion about the man, his approach, and his prospects for the future. What would your typical Titan of Finance say about handing Charlie a five-year extension at this stage in the game? They might look at the following indicators...

Indicator #1: He hires great assistants.

Cutcliffe. Minter. Lewis. Latina. Ianello. Haywood. When Weis named his assistant coaching staff, the football world was impressed (you've probably heard the mall cops/SEAL team line before, presumably uttered by an NFL scout). Charlie's got a big ego, but there's nothing immodest about the way he hires assistants; Charlie's not afraid to go after the best of the best, even if it means hiring people smarter than himself. Case in point: he'd never been a head coach before, so he hired three previous head coaches to help him out. It had been a while since he was out on the recruiting trail, so he hired one of the top recruiters in the country to lead the effort. A rumor's making the circuit that he had initially foregone a larger contract, so he could spread the difference around and offer his prospective assistants a higher salary. More important than a competitive salary, however, is the sense that Charlie attracts coaching talent because of his own NFL experience and acumen. Haywood said that the top reason he returned to his alma mater was to learn at the foot of a multiple Super Bowl winner.

This bodes well for the future. When one of his coaches should leave for a job elsewhere -- and they will -- I expect Charlie to do what he did back in the spring: identify the next "best of the best" and get him on the staff. When David Cutcliffe missed spring practice due to health problems, Ron Powlus was already in position to slide from behind a desk to the practice field to help coach the quarterbacks; in June, when Cutcliffe officially resigned due to health reasons, Weis quickly named the overqualified Peter Vaas as his replacement only two days later. Cultivating his own "coaching tree" is something the very best coaches in the history of football (Lombardi, Walsh, Parcells, Belichick) have always done, and Charlie's planting the seeds right now.

Indicator #2: He recruits his ass off.

Charlie's first recruiting class was hindered by a) the awkwardness of the coaching transition and b) his pledge to finish out the season with the Patriots. Results were mixed; he lost a couple of guys that were solid under Ty and gained a few back in the final month. But after signing day, he was already onto the 2006 class, and kicked things off with a whirlwind cross-country recruiting trip that was impressive, to say the least. Early returns are nothing short of incredible; ND should have their first top-5 recruiting haul in a long time. Most importantly, Charlie just enjoys it.
"I'm going to recruit like they haven't been recruited before," Weis said. "This is no slight on any of the coaches before me. But I just love recruiting. I have a passion for recruiting."
Most coaches get a recruiting bounce during their first year: the novelty of a new coach, a new spirit, etc. Still, no one was predicting that Weis would be able to land twelve recruits before the Irish even snapped a football; the total count is already up to nineteen, and the class is almost full. The defensive backfield, much maligned in recent years, has already received committments from five defensive backs, two of whom are Army All-American cornerbacks. One of the top running backs in the country chose Weis earlier this summer, before Pete Carroll could even get a home visit. And not one, but two highly-ranked quarterbacks already committed to the Irish. If Weis could land these kids when public perception of the program was knocked down a bit, imagine what he can do with ND as a hot ticket.

Indicator #3: He knows how to coach.

What Charlie's done in the short span of seven games is almost a work of alchemy: he turned a moribund, leaden offense into a golden powerhouse, ninth-best in the country. It's worthwhile to note that he did this with only three players named to any awards watchlists (Quinn, Fasano, and Fitzpatrick), and no preseason All-Americans. (By point of comparison, Bob Davie left Ty with seven preseason All-Americans, including Jeff Faine, who was 1st-team. Ten of Ty's starters on offense in 2002 made the NFL; five of them are currently starting. But I digress.) Quinn's probably the most striking example of Charlie's coaching ability; he turned an NFL draft day afterthought into a likely top-5 pick.

The point is Charlie maximized the talent in a way that Ty couldn't; ten starters returned from the offense, but to look at last year's ineptitude, you wouldn't realize it. Would Jeff Samardzija be an All-American candidate under the old coaching staff? Hell no. Anybody with eyes can see the improvement on the field; statistics just back up what we already know. Let's look at the relative improvement between Ty's first year and Charlie's first year.

Category 2001 2002
2004 2005

Run Off. Rank 30 45
85 55
Pass Off. Rank 114 104
54 5
Total Off. Rank 110 107
81 9
Run Def. Rank 39 6
4 25
Pass Eff. D Rank 38 8
98 58
Total Def. Rank 14 10
54 96
Point Differential -1 +74
0 +88

Willingham made a good defense a little better, and failed to revive a terrible offense. Two years later, the offense was a smidge better, but the defense was terrible. Charlie, in one year, took the 81st-ranked offense and made it top 10 -- again, with all the same players. Raise an eyebrow at the 2005 defensive ranking if you like, but let's visit this number again at the end of the year. If anything, the huge increase in pass efficiency defense indicates that while we are giving up yards, we are keeping teams out of the endzone better than we did last year. I'm betting we'll see continued improvement on the defensive side of the ball.

Indicator #4: He loves ND.

This isn't a deal-clincher, because if it was, Gerry Faust would still be our coach, working under a lifetime contract. But genuine affinity for the University is a job requirement for the head coach at ND, I believe. I think to recruit at ND, deal with alumni, and steward the football program effectively, you have to exhibit some authentic Irish love. You have to see the place as a destination rather than a stepping-stone to other jobs, and to take advantage of the lore and the "mystique" -- for all that mumbo-jumbo to work, you have to believe it. You have to live it, and you have to breathe it.

Charlie legitimately breathes it.
"The week of the first bye, Kevin (White) and I sat down and I said there would be a possibility that people would start talking about things like (the NFL). I wanted to confirm to him that he never had to worry about there being any interest on my part.

The problem with that is, as the season goes on, it becomes more problematic the more it is brought up. It can have a negative effect on recruiting. It has a negative effect on the people you are around. We wanted to nip that in the bud. I told Kevin in the first bye week that we would re-visit it the week of the second bye week because I would never talk about anything like this other than if it was a bye week because I think it would be a distraction.

Between Kevin, Father Jenkins, Phil Purcell and the Board of Trustees, our lawyers and our Sports Information people, everyone worked together with my family and Bob LaMonte and we decided to get this out of the way now and erase any doubt. My intent was the same from the day I got here. I said the same thing from day one and anyone that has been around me. When I say it, I mean it. I don't just say it for idle chatter. This puts and end to any of those questions/rumors.

I am goal-oriented but I am more loyal than anything else. This isn't just any job for me. This is my alma mater. When I came here, the thought of people thinking that I was here for a short time fix - those type of things do effect me. It is very important for me to be loyal to this University.
Weis mentioned how he wants to be at Notre Dame until his son, Charlie Jr., graduates from Notre Dame. Charlie is in the 7th grade now, which means he will graduate from college in the spring of 2015, which, incidentally is the final year of Charlie's contract. I don't think that date is a conicidence.

So, that's four stand-alone indicators of future success; four pillars that show that Charlie Weis is worth having around at ND for a while. And that's before mentioning any extenuating circumstances, like the possibilty of a job opening in the NFL (the ostensible reason for signing the extension in the first place). Just because Charlie is a known and presumably wanted commodity in the NFL doesn't mean it's good to lock him up; after all, this is a league that provided employment to Jerry Glanville for long stretches. No, the reason you sign Charlie is because you've looked at his record to date, contemplated his chances for future success, and concluded that he's a good risk.

In that context, then, the contract extension itself was largely a symbolic gesture. ND didn't suddenly come to the conclusion that Weis was a good bet just last week; the idea has been silently understood for a while now. Yes, I'm sure some monetary concerns were addressed, but the larger reason this extension was vocalized was for peace of mind: peace of mind for Notre Dame fans that their head coach wanted to stay at Notre Dame for the long haul; peace of mind for recruits that the coach recruiting them is going to be there four years later for their graduation; and peace of mind for Charlie and his family, so he doesn't have to deal with pesky distractions while he gets down to the business of winning football games.

This was a pretty easy bet to place.