Saturday, January 01, 2005

Closing the Books on Willingham | by Sean

Before I get going, I have a trivia question. As we all know, Oklahoma (coached by Bob Stoops) and USC (coached by Pete Carroll) face off in the Orange Bowl on Tuesday night for the national championship. Can you name the only head coach who has an undefeated record head-to-head against both Stoops and Carroll? (Answer below).

Now, a few thoughts as I sit here watching the Gator Bowl and wondering just how bad a Bill Diedrick-run offense with Chris Rix at quarterback would be...

First, regarding the game on Tuesday night. The players and coaches had told us all for the last two weeks how they were going to use the Insight Bowl to conjure a fitting tribute to their departed leader, Tyrone Willingham. And after watching four hours of predictable play calling, uninspired blocking, bubble screens on 3rd and 20, and severely charred Notre Dame defensive backs, I have two words - MISSION ACCOMPLISHED.

I mean, is there a more appropriate way to close the books on the Tyrone Willingham Era than a double digit loss to a mid-level Pac 10 school on national television in which the Notre Dame secondary gives up 350 yards and four touchdowns? The only thing missing was Willingham himself after the game giving us his usual cryptic answers to very direct questions, and telling us how proud he is that the team improved over last year's 5-7 season.

Is this what rock bottom feels like? Funny how the Willingham apologists have clamed up. Mark May, Rod Gilmore, now do you see? I think the most frustrating part in this whole ordeal has been recent Notre Dame legends like Rocket Ismail, Aaron Taylor, and Chris Zorich actually taking up for Tyrone Willingham. I mean, would any of them have stood for the underachievement marked by this regime? Seriously, I think Zorich would have dismembered somebody after the Michigan game in 2003.

And while last night's game I'm sure ran the gamut of emotions for all of the players and coaches involved, when the clock finally struck 0:00 at the BOB on Tuesday night (yes, I stayed up until the bitter end), as a fan and alum to me it felt great, like there was a purging going on. Frankly, watching this coaching staff leave the field, I could hardly contain my joy. I wasn't watching the end of the 2004 campaign, I was watching the beginning of a better life for all of us. The outcome of the game was secondary. To me, I just couldn't wait for it to end, win or lose. Time to turn the page....

Along those lines, as I endured sixty minutes of Baer-ball the other night, I started to jot down a short list of things I won't miss from the Ty Willingham Era:

Fixation on Grant. Let me preface what I am about to say by acknowledging that Ryan Grant, by all accounts, is a great kid and a solid leader and I have nothing but respect for him as a Notre Dame student and person. He's played hurt, he's played hard. But the fact that he continued to get as many touches as Darius Walker did late in the season was baffling. Again, not to bash, but please tell me one facet of the tailback position at which Ryan Grant is even slightly above average. From a speed standpoint, he makes Lee Becton look like Rocket Ismail. He is about as elusive as the Washington Monument, which would be fine if it took more than a strong sneeze to knock him off his feet. In 2002, I understood Grant getting the bulk of the carries, since the only other options were Marcus Wilson (and his stellar 1.4 yards per carry) and Rashon Powers-Neal (who was 5 months away from becoming an undersized fullback). But in 2003, when it took Willingham five games to figure out what the rest of us figured out in five minutes - that Julius Jones should be the starting tailback - and in 2004, when a gamebreaker like Walker would get fewer touches than Grant, that was enough for me. There is a new stat that has become trendy the last few years - YAC (Yards After Contact). Grant might be the first player in history to accumulate negative YAC. Seriously.

The Swinging Gate. Or the Picket Fence, or the Hot Tin Roof, or whatever that silly looking formation we run on extra points is called. Seriously, what is the purpose of that? I know there has to be a reason we do it, but since (a) I've never seen us do anything except proceed to kick the ball through the uprights (most of the time) after scrambling from the Picket Gated Roof into PAT formation, and (b) I've never seen USC, Oklahoma, LSU, Auburn, or any of the, you know, GOOD teams use this, do we really need to have this thing in our arsenal? Riddle me this. Before we run out there to kick the PAT, does the Irish coaching staff have an equivalent to Dennis Hopper from "Hoosiers" yelling at the kick team to "not get caught watching the paint dry"? Maybe they'd have been better off using the time spent perfecting the Swinging Picket Fence on other things like...oh, I don't know, punt coverage. Seriously, I know I'm nitpicking and semi-clowning around, but at the risk of sounding juvenile, the Swinging Gate is stupid.

Bill Diedrick's "System". What does it say about our offensive coordinator when my 7-year old son is predicting the bubble screen on 3rd and 20 in the first quarter? Frankly, it probably doesn't say anything that hasn't already been said for the last two years. Diedrick is brutal. This offense that was supposed to be the staple of the "Ty Willingham as Head Coach" package turned out to be one big, predictable turd. And I don't expect many to be able to relate to the venom I am about to spew because it involves the last eight minutes of the Insight Bowl, and I'm sure most sane people were either sleeping or had switched over to a movie at that point, but Diedrick was absolutely clueless. At that point it was 31-14 with around eight minutes to go, and Notre Dame still had a puncher's chance to get back into it with a quick strike. So instead of going to a shotgun, hurry-up offense, Diedrick decides the best way to get back into it is to huddle up and take the full 25 seconds in between handoffs to Ryan Grant. On the first play, Grant tripped over the 25 yard line, and on the next handoff, I think snipers shot him in the left leg because he went down without an OSU defender touching him. Even Mike Gottfried, who sounded like he had a cooler full of Miller Lite in the press box, was wondering why Notre Dame wasn't moving with more of a sense of urgency. Go ahead and toss Diedrick on top of Rogers and Colletto in the scrap pile of former Notre Dame offensive coordinators. Good riddance.

The rest of the coaching staff. Thanks for coming, gentlemen. I will miss none of you. Seriously, go to sometime and check out the bios on this crew. First, none of them have ties to Notre Dame. Second, most of them were just brought over mindlessly by Willingham from Stanford in 2002 without any regard to what recruiting outside of the Pac-10 might entail. Finally, by all accounts, this group was entirely ill-equipped to sell Notre Dame to young kids in today's aggressive recruiting environment, like having a bunch of Hyundai salesmen taking over a Porsche dealership. Part of being a great leader is surrounding yourself with a good support staff. Weis is assembling a "dream team" staff that will include some huge names on the recruiting circuit - Haywood, Ianello, etc. Willingham's only hire in the last two years is a secondary coach (Wilks) whose last four stops were one year stints at Bowling Green, East Tennessee State, Appalachian State, and Illinois State. Is it any wonder that Notre Dame finished 118th out of 117 teams in pass defense this season?

And while we're on the topic of Willingham's coaching staff, thoughts on Kent Baer. First, all things considered, I think Baer did about as commendable a job as one could expect in taking over the reins for the Insight Bowl. Unlike other members of the staff, he went about his business without using the last four weeks to bemoan the fate of Tyrone Willingham. It was a baptism by fire under bizarre circumstances, to say the least. That said, any Division 1-A athletics director watching that game that ever had Kent Baer on their theoretical "potential head coach" short list probably scratched him off immediately after his halftime interview with Erin Andrews. Did you see him? Oh my God, he looked completely baffled and overwhelmed. His eyes were darting around like they were chasing a strobe light as his brain was furiously cobbling together canned answers to Andrews' questions. Not a good performance. Decent coordinator, good man, mesmerized interim head coach.

In closing, kudos to a couple of players. First, Brady Quinn. I am giddy to see what this kid with all of his talent is going to do under Weis' tutelage. I think it's safe to say now, three years in, that the ineptitude of the Willingham/Diedrick offense has more to do with the guys designing it than the guys running it. I am excited for the future with Quinn for the next two years. For the last two years, the kid has taken more punishing hits in the pocket than any college quarterback I can remember and, without fail, he always picked himself back up. Just a tough SOB.

Finally, Carlyle Holiday. He came in as a highly touted option quarterback, endured a coaching change, and didn't complain at all when Diedrick and Willingham inexplicably tried to pound a square peg into a round hole by putting him into a West Coast offense (seriously, would Charlie Weis in a million years ever do this?). When it all came collapsing on his head at the beginning of 2003, complete with "The Holiday is Over" t-shirts, his response was to smile and say "maybe I'll buy one". When they moved him to wide receiver later that season, he did so willingly. Anything to help the team. Week after week this season, it would have seemed the coaching staff should find a way to use him. Here you have a weapon, a guy who can run and throw, playing wide receiver. A reverse, maybe? An option pass? And week after week, he ran his ten patterns, blocked downfield, and returned his three or four punts. (They would eventually use their "secret weapon" - in typical Diedrick/Willingham fashion, on consecutive plays coming out of a timeout, when the entire USC defense could see it coming. Thanks for that, coach. Sheesh.) At the final pep rally, when they introduced the seniors and their parents, the ovation for Holiday was not only the loudest, but it was the only one where everybody stood. Fans, players, coaches. Everyone. Clearly, he had the love and respect of his teammates. Frankly, I would be surprised to see Carlyle Holiday on an NFL roster this time next year. Two years of Davie and three years of Willingham have stunted his growth as a player to say the least. But whatever he ends up doing, I'll be rooting for him.

TRIVIA ANSWER: Bob Davie is 1-0 against both Bob Stoops and Pete Carroll. At Notre Dame, Davie defeated each one in their respective first years at Oklahoma (1999) and USC (2001). That piece of trivia goes right alongside Willingham's 10-3 record in 2002 in the "first year of a coaching regime is not indicative of future results" category.

Now, time to flip the calendar over to 2005. Let the Weis Era begin.