Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Odds and Sods | by Teds


As it pertains to Jay's piece immediately below, the first thing that jumped out at me was the difference in the breadth of Malloy's opening remarks for the two coaches. If nothing else, the considerably more brief introduction of Weis is consistent with Malloy's reduced (and quite possibly nonexistant) role in this latest search, not to mention his impact on the prospects of the University in general with his retirement rapidly approaching.

In retrospect, his effusive praise of Willingham last time around practically screams out to the world that the decision was his baby, an attempt to put his own personal stamp on the football program and its future course. Malloy briefly hits on the topic of "social change", instilling in every columnist from Anchorage to Zanesville whatever motivation they weren't already possessed with to prattle on about everything other than the wins and losses themselves. And as noted, there's all sorts of idealistic and subjective mumbo-jumbo about what amounts to little more than a vision of Notre Dame through Malloy-colored glasses. His appreciation for and stewardship of the Irish football program was sorely lacking from the outset of his reign, and this moment in history stands as the most damning evidence of Malloy's shortcomings in those terms.

His appearance in the Weis introduction press conference was little more than an opportunity to pay respects to an outgoing president, as well as offering televised proof of the passing of the torch to Father Jenkins. Suffice it to say that those who care deeply about the University and its football team are better for it.

Weis' Lays Down the Law

Weis opened his press conference last Friday with a monologue directed toward the media figures who had gathered to cover the event. The subsequent reaction to those comments has swung wildly from enthusiastically supportive to caustically dismissive and most everywhere in between. A couple things should be made clear on the subject.

First of all, it's Weis' team now. He's the one will ultimately be trumpeted as a legend or branded as an incapable washout based on Notre Dame's performance, so I don't find it unacceptable that he'd desire to establish some ground rules. And better that he communicates this in an upfront manner now than to take some reporter to task at a later date for a violation of Weis policy that wasn't clear from the outset. Weis' statements might have been unusual, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they will prove to be unfair, nor that the Irish team will be inappropriately inaccessable to those covering them.

Further, the Irish football program gets more media attention than any other on the college landscape and ranks among the most prominent in all of sports. Weis' comments mark him as someone who recognizes the saturation of coverage that Notre Dame attracts, specifically the potential pitfalls associated with that level of coverage. He's obviously not blind to the role that the media plays and the sort of impact it can have on a football team in performance as well as perception. That he considered the subject important enough to broach at the outset of his first regular press conference as Irish head coach is a undoubtedly positive sign. What sort of coach at this level would treat the relations between his team and the media as if he were doing nothing more than opening the gates to an amusement park?

I'm also getting a kick out of the notion that Weis has offered an example in this instance of just how unfit he is to be a big-time head coach. This is a man who has spent the last fifteen years of his life coaching exclusively in New York and Boston, home to quite possibly the two most aggressive and unfriendly media klatches on the face of the earth. Certainly, Weis hasn't had the sort of direct exposure to them that he'll have with reporters as Notre Dame's coach, nor will that target on his back now be much of a carryover. But Weis is undoubtedly an intelligent man, and I have no reason to think that he hasn't accumulated as much knowledge of the media, their tendencies and how to effectively deal with them as he has how to read and break down NFL defenses.

In summary, to conclude that Weis is in over his head based expressly on those remarks is more ludicrous than the remarks themselves.

Nuts and Bolts on the Q&A

There's already been a great deal of dissection of Weis' comments on Friday, and he's certainly hitting on many of the points that Irish fans have been thirsting to hear from their head coach for some time: finding a balance between coaching ability and recruiting skill in his staff, attracting coaches with past connections to ND, tailoring schemes to suit the strengths and weaknesses of his personnel, finding football players and not necessarily combine warriors and winning in the near future with no excuses or references to rebuilding.

One of the remarks I found interesting that hasn't been discussed is Weis' breakdown of prospective players into "linemen" and "skill guys". It seems that high school players are often inappropriately pigeonholed long before they're done developing, and it's not unusual to hear Tom Lemming or some other recruiting analyst speak authoritatively about what these kids are capable of achieving at the next level. But most of them are 17 years of age at the time of recruitment, and placing a ceiling on their potential as football players doesn't make sense given the important years of higher-quality instruction and physical growth still ahead.

Someone with Weis' track record for player development and who has worked at the high school, college and professional levels of football at various points in his career probably understands this better than the average coach. So when he speaks in general terms about "linemen" versus "skill guys", Weis impresses me as a coach who will likely be more open to change and different applications of potential than many others in his position might. If nothing else, it should be interesting to see the makeup of the Irish roster a year from now, specifically how many of the incumbent players will have switched positions between now and then. In the long run, I expect a significant number of conversions.

The other comment that struck me which hasn't received much coverage is his praise of line coaches John Latina and Jappy Oliver as "tough guys". Notre Dame's offensive lines have often been maligned over the past decade as underperforming, inconsistent and generally lifeless units. The defensive line seemed to perk up the past several seasons under the direction of Bob Davie holdover Greg Mattison, but this has also been a trouble spot for the team at certain points in recent years.

I won't go so far as to say that every football game is won and lost in the trenches, but a team most certainly can make up for clear deficiences in athleticism and performance on the fringes of the field by consistently beating its opponent up front off the snap. And although talent undoubtedly plays a role in who wins those types of battles, there's also a great deal to be said for the line that plays with more passion and a sense of urgency. So compared to the perceived attitude of Willingham and many of his assistants, it's refreshing to hear Weis talk frankly about "tough guys...who like to coach the guys tough." Perhaps it also ushers in a return to the program's fabled roots, when Irish football teams would rather bury their opponents three feet deep in the turf than engage them in an impromptu track meet.

In closing, it occurs to me that one of the specific passages of Malloy's introductory speech from January 1, 2002, which was most worthwhile and resonant ("(The Notre Dame job) takes a person who knows himself well, who is not acceptably sensitive, who can speak straightforwardly, who is not trying to impress the masses, but simply do a good job.") describes Weis much more appropriately than it did the coach Malloy happened to be hiring for the job that day.