Sunday, February 26, 2006

Off we go | by Pat

Only a short twenty-four days after the 2006 Signing Day, Coach Weis landed his first verbal commit for the 2007 recruiting class. North Carolina linebacker/defensive end Kerry Neal jumped on a scholarship offer and quickly made his choice to play for the Irish.

"I love Notre Dame," Neal said. "That's where I want to go to school. It really hasn't hit me yet that I get to go."
The under-the-radar committment caught just about everyone outside of the Gug by surprise; most of that is due to the whirlwind nature of Neal's annoucement.

Weis watched a tape of Neal at 5:30 a.m. on Thursday and immediately called Bunn coach David Howle, leaving a message that the Irish were offering Neal a scholarship.

Later in the morning, Weis called back and Neal left his U.S. History class to talk to the Notre Dame coach.

"I was speechless," Neal said. "It was Notre Dame. I watch them all the time on television."

Neal said he first remembers watching Notre Dame play football when he was in the fourth grade and his love for Irish football deepened when he watched the movie "Rudy," which is about a walk-on at Notre Dame.

Neal said Weis, the former offensive coordinator with the New England Patriots, told him that he knew what kind of player he needed to win at Notre Dame.

Then he repeated his offer of a scholarship, which Neal accepted.

If only all recruiting were that easy.

While it was most likely completely unintentional, I do like the fact that the first verbal of the latest recruiting class is a defensive prospect and a potential speed rusher at that. Only ten of the incoming 27 freshman are coming in as defensive players, so landing some quality defensive prospects -- especially at linebacker and defensive line -- is a big need for this current recruiting class. Neal plays outside linebacker for his high school but as he keeps growing might find himself with his hands on the ground at defensive end. The North Carolina native has drawn a few Julius Peppers comparisons from locals, and while that may be just a tad bit premature, it's still nice to hear.

When he selected the Irish, the 6'3", 220 pound Neal had offers from East Carolina and Wake Forest, with North Carolina and Virginia just about ready to pull the trigger as well. As a junior, Neal amassed 327 yards and 7 TDs on only 16 receptions at tight end, and chalked up 111 tackles and 14 sacks from his linebacker position. Here's an excerpt from a local paper detailing his sophomore year efforts.

Real deal Neal oughta transform into a “monster,” Coach Stewart added. “He has athleticism and smarts. He can drop back and cover receivers. He’ll line up on the strong side. Any adjustments we make, we’ll make with him.” The man manufactured 75 stops (5.8 per performance) and picked pockets apart for eight sacks along his 2004 terrorizing tirade. He vandalized Warren County for a career-best 14 carrier cagings, then hammered Northern Vance for seven socks and an interception, then saddled Southern Vance with eight lassoings and two slinger bringdowns, then pulverized Pender County inflicting seven tackles and three rifler bashings during the first round of the playoffs.

(To be honest, the main reason I included the previous paragraph is the writing style. Stuart Scott himself couldn't come up with so many synonyms for sacking a quarterback. Then again, I can't be too critical as I once did use "hogskin wrangler" to describe MSU's Jerramy Scott.)

Neal also plays forward for his high school basketball team, which is always a good sign that a player is more than just a large lumbering mass. Basketball is one sport that really does help to develop a player's quickness and ability to efficiently change direction. While I'm reluctant to bring out any Justin Tuck comparisons on Neal, I will note that Tuck was also a hoops player in high school, twice being named MVP of his Alabama state champion team. Neal doesn't seem to be up to that level of hardwood production, but nevertheless it's a good sign for ND's speed rushing hopes that Neal also plays a sport that relies more on speed than strength.

Furthermore, an article on Irish Illustrated about Neal notes that he started at cornerback as a freshman. That reminds me of incoming freshman defensive end Kallen Wade who started out his high school career as a safety before moving to linebacker and then defensive end. While I don't expect either of them to be lining up in man coverage against any receivers in college, it is nice to know that on certain blitz packages when they drop back into coverage that it won't be a completely foreign experience for them.

With over 300 days between now and Signing Day 2007, it almost seems too early to be concerned with recruiting, but as recruits seem to be voicing their choices earlier and earlier, it's a great sign to see one of the early announcements fall Notre Dame's way.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Re-writing the record books | by Pat recently updated all of the online documents that list out all of historical records and awards for the Notre Dame football program. Now names like Stovall, Samardzija, Walker, and Quinn are scattered throughout alongside the great names from the past. In fact, Quinn's name now appears probably more times than any other in the book.

However, Lou Somogyi of BGI makes a great point in a recent article about the NCAA's decision to include bowl games in season and career statistical records.

In 2002, the NCAA suddenly decided to include bowl games as part of a player’s statistics. Inflating the stats of today’s players isn’t the problem. What’s at issue is not making the stats from the past retroactive.

Until 1974, Notre Dame played only 10 regular season games. Now, 12 regular season games will be the norm – with bowl game stats added into the data base as well. Those extra two or three games make a dramatic difference.
Somogyi goes on to point out that if bowl games stats had counted for pre-2002 players, that players like Darius Walker and Jeff Samardzija wouldn't have broken some of the records that they did.

Obviously, extra games mean more chances to break records, but Somogyi does a good job digging up situations that were affected by the recent rule change. Check it out.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Let's Go to the Tape | by Jay

Did you see this release from the NCAA last week? They standardized instant replay rules across all conferences. Booth officials will still have the power to review any close play, but they also added the ability for each team to challenge a call once per game.

After allowing instant replay to review a game official's call on the field for two seasons on an experimental basis, the committee approved one procedure for all institutions and conferences that choose to use it. The procedure, which was used by the majority of Division I-A conferences last season, calls for the replay official in the press box to review all plays on the field and stop the game. The official may only stop play if the play is in the list of reviewable plays and has a direct, competitive impact on the game...

The committee also decided to allow each team one challenge during the course of the game. The head coach may request a review by signaling for a timeout. If the challenge overturns the call on the field, the coach retains the right to challenge later in the game and is not charged a timeout. If the call on the field is not reversed in the challenge, the team is charged a timeout and the coach does not have the ability to challenge again in the game.
I like it. Seems to straddle the divide between the system we used in most of our games last year, where coaches were powerless to call for a replay (except by calling a timeout so the booth official could, you know, think it over for a while), and the NFL's system, where the entire onus is on the coaches to throw the red flag and make a challenge. This way, the booth will still be calling the majority of the challenges, but there will be a recourse in case they miss something. (And we know Charlie is a big proponent of the replay challenge.)

For consistency, a script the referee will use when reporting the results of a replay stoppage was included as part of the rule. Additionally, a visiting non-conference institution is not able to opt out of using replay if the host institution chooses to implement the system (that means you, Poodle).

With all this standardizing of referee activity going on among the conferences, you kind of wish the NCAA would just bite the bullet and do away with conference-affiliated referees altogether. There's a pretty interesting thumbtacked post over on NDN from a former college ref on some of the inside dirt of officiating a game; item #1 on his to-do list is the elimination of conference ties:
For obvious reasons, these men work in conferences that are located near where they live. In other words, there aren't any guys living in Los Angeles that work football games for the SEC. Does this create bias? Hell yes it does, especially in a non-conference game. It's a simple case of not biting the hand that feeds you.
(Speaking of eliminating bias, here's a proactive move that ND and Kevin White could accomplish all on their own. Next time we play say, USC at home, don't hire Pac 10 refs to work the game. This habit of getting home-conference refs to work games for their own conference teams at ND Stadium is absolutely infuriating. Even if the refs were 100% unbiased in their calls, at the very least you still have the appearance of impropriety, especially on close calls that go in the other team's favor. I don't think the Bush Push would have been called by any conference crew, but just the fact that it was Pac-10 refs on the field makes the moment all that more bitter and tainted. Eliminate the conference affiliation by hiring neutral-party refs. But I digress.)

The rules committee also agreed on a few more changes this year in an effort to shorten games:

• Shortening halftime from 20 minutes to 15 minutes (both teams can still agree to keep it at 20 minutes if they choose, to account for band shows and such). While this won't affect the Jim Collettos of the world (who once famously said, "Halftime adjustments are overrated"), for guys like Charlie it's closer to the rush-rush break of the NFL than 20 minutes of luxury he's gotten over the past year.

• Starting the clock on kickoffs when the foot of the kicker touches the ball, not when the returning team touches the ball.

• Shortening the length of the kicking tee by one inch, which hopefully will result in fewer touchbacks.

• Starting the clock when the ball is ready (instead of the snap) on change of possession.

Still, they missed the easiest way to keep the clock running: after first downs and out-of-bounds, start the clock when the ball is set (as opposed to the snap), as they do in the NFL. This would entail adopting the 40-second play clock that the NFL uses (which starts at the end of the previous play), and probably some rule about stopping the clock in the final two minutes of the game (currently the NFL stops the clock on out-of-bounds with two minutes in the half and five minutes in the game).

In any case, the average NFL game has about 20 fewer plays and runs about 3:06; college games go 3:26, with some going over the four-hour mark. The bowls are interminable: with extended TV timeouts and halftime, the Fiesta Bowl was the shortest at 3:41...but if the NCAA were really serious about shortening the games, they'd reduce the number and length of TV timeouts. And you didn't see any mention of that in the NCAA release, did you?

Friday, February 17, 2006

Hiben thinkin' | by Jay

Freshman tight end Joey Hiben quit the team a couple days ago, preferring to focus on his architecture major rather than play football. It's good for Joey that he's zeroing in on what he wants to do with his life -- after all, what's college for if not discerning your future direction. Architecture, with its heavy workload, third year abroad, and five-year commitment, is a difficult route for an athlete at Notre Dame, and not too many football players have ever pursued the major. (BGI documents a few cases here.) So good on Joey for figuring out his priorities.

That said, his absence will hurt the depth at tight end. Hiben was slated #3 after John Carlson and Marcus Freeman, but knowing how often this team likes its tight ends, Joey was going to see the field a bunch this year. Konrad Reuland, tighten your chinstrap. (Will Yeatman, line two.)

But go back and re-read the first linked article above, and tell me if you understand this response from Charlie in the SBT this morning:

"Here's the problem I have,'' Weis said. "When a kid wants to leave the football program, I have no problem with that if that's what they so choose. But when the implication is that Notre Dame football would not allow him to pursue his academic dreams, I think that sends a very bad message.

"Just basically, this kid is saying he's choosing architecture over football because he had to make a choice, and that's not the case. He wanted to make that choice. He didn't have to make that choice. There's a big difference between the two.''

"I think it's very important for anyone, for the next architecture major out there that I'm talking to in recruiting, to understand that this kid leaving the program had nothing to do with him not being able to get a degree in architecture and play football. It had absolutely nothing to do with it," Weis said.

"It had to do with the fact that he didn't want to play football anymore. And there's a big difference between what he said to you and what the truth really is. I'm not putting the kid under the bus because I wish him well. He's a good kid. This is not an adversarial relationship. It was a very cordial relationship. I just think it came down to he just didn't want to play football anymore...

"What I basically was saying to him was that I'd be totally supportive of his academic interests and make the architecture major go for him no matter what, by allowing him his third year to go to Rome, which I thought was above and beyond the call of duty for me to do that," Weis said. "It was addressed both before he came here and it was addressed after he brought it up again, and with academic support people in hand. It wasn't like a closed door, me just saying it to him. I made sure that he heard it reiterated that this would go. That's what really has us all bothered. We're so pro-academics."
I scoured the earlier article, and all I could find in the way of inflammtory rhetoric that would touch off Charlie's litany was this one line:
"What it really comes down to," Hiben said, "is architecture is more important than football to me."
Seems pretty innocuous. Is that a kid being forced to choose by his football coach? Or a kid simply weighing his time commitments and making a choice? Nowhere was Joey pointing the finger at Charlie. (For his part, Hiben has a clarification in today's article: "I don't blame coach Weis. I don't blame anyone," said Hiben. "I hope it's clear it was my choice.")

Charlie's response puzzles me, and seems a little overkill. Perhaps it's just Charlie zealously guarding against any inference that he put an ultimatum to Hiben. The clear message in the response is that academics + football works at ND, and since that's one of our chief appeals to young recruits, you have to protect that. I get it.

But let's be frank: architecture is a bitch of a major for anyone, let alone for someone putting in 30+ hours in on the football field every week. It takes a little more than a football coach saying "we'll make it work" to actually make it work -- ultimately, the student himself has to bear the burden and keep everything in balance. It's a tall order. Charlie's response is somewhat dismissive of that burden, painting Joey as the culprit who "couldn't make it work."

So I understand Joey's decision. And I understand Charlie's position...I just wish they could have worked out a unified response instead of having to do a contentious back-and-forth in the SBT.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Quick hits | by Pat

A few things to get you through the day...

Mr. Minnesota

Incoming offensive lineman Matt Carufel brought home the Mr. Football award for his home state of Minnesota. It's only the second year for this particular honor, but it is still an impressive accomplishment and just another bullet point on an already loaded football resume.

"It's kind of an upset," Raiders coach Mike Scanlan said afterward. "Linemen don't win these awards very often."

There were 10 finalists, all seniors, and two of them -- running backs Jake Machacek of Eastview and Anthony Christensen of Two Harbors -- rang up single-season rushing totals last fall that rank among the five highest in the history of Minnesota high school football.

That Carufel was picked ahead of them for the Mr. Football Award is an indication of just how dominant he was in the trenches. His efforts on both the offensive and defensive lines played a big part in Cretin-Derham's success last fall.
Really, this offensive line class is just about topping out the scales on the expectations-meter. It should be a lot of fun to watch them fight for playing time and see which ones make the quickest impact.

Third Down Data

Brian over at MGoBlog did a fantastic stats job on a interweb widget that lets you pick your team and see a graphical represenation of their third down efficiency on both offense and defense. Kudos to Brian.

Checking out the results of the Irish, the offense, as one might expect, is above the national average in efficiency at every distance from 3rd and 1 to 3rd and 15, save for a little dip around 3rd and 14.5. Obviously Weis is going to have to spend time with Quinn to correct that 3rd and 14.5 deficiency.

The defensive numbers are a bit more interesting. ND was a bit less efficient than the national average on the 3rd and 1 situations, but then did a much better job in the 3rd and short (read: 2-6 yards). The Irish performed worse than the national average on the 3rd and 7 to 3rd and 10 range (thank you, Mr. Mobile Quarterback?) but once again out-performed the averages once the third down yardage was over 10 yards.

All and all an interesting look at how the Irish stack up with the rest of the country on the all-important 3rd down.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Dual-Sport Star | by Pat

Baseball America just released their annual Top 100 Prospect list (subscription article) and in addition to junior pitcher Jeff Manship (#75 overall), Jeff Samardzija was named to the list as the 94th best prospect in the country.

So what, if anything, does this mean for Samardzija's future at Notre Dame?

According to the editors at Baseball America, Samardzija's spot near the end of the Top 100 list usually translates to a 3rd to 5th round pick, with the qualifier that a lot can change between now and draft day (June 6-7). However, Samardzija's case is a bit different than the average college prospect due to his rising prospects as a pro caliber football player.

In all likelihood, where Samardzija will ultimately get drafted this year will depend on what he tells teams his plans are regarding baseball and football. According to Coach Mainieri, he should still have the option to do both.

"I'd love to see the kid have a great year, get drafted into professional baseball, get to go play next summer and have a taste of professional baseball. Then he could come back the first of August, get ready for football camp, go out and have another All-American football season and lead us to a national championship. And next December he could make his decision if he wants to pursue the NFL or stick with professional baseball.
When it comes to playing minor league ball in the summer, the conditions do look a bit favorable for Samardzija. He's already obviously established a great connection with Brady Quinn on the field and missing some time in the summer might allow the bulk of the younger and inexperienced receiving corps to get more reps with Quinn in the unsupervised 7-on-7 drills. It also helps that Coach Weis and Coach Maineri aren't fighting over Samardzija's talents but rather are working together to do what is best for him.
"If Charlie Weis didn't want him to play baseball, he'd have to make the choice now,'' Mainieri said. ``But Charlie is supportive and together we're making this work for Jeff. Jeff has been great for both our teams.''
Considering that Samardzija will enter his final football season as a co-favorite for the Biletnikoff Award and already is Mel Kiper's top rated wideout for the 2007 NFL Draft, his football prospects do look a little brighter to me. If that is indeed the case and Jeff decides to go the NFL route, this will probably be his final baseball season as next year he will probably have to take time off from the diamond to train for the combine and NFL draft.

In the meantime, Samardzija sounds like he isn't in too much of a rush to decide.
"From the beginning I said I was going to give my heart to both sports and whatever worked out in the end was going to be my decision,'' he said. "After this season my decision has gotten exponentially tougher. Still I'm not worried about it. I'm not leaning one way or the other. I'm just trying to have fun with these guys. It goes so fast, before you know it I'll be playing my last home game at Notre Dame Stadium and trying to figure out what I want to do.''

Monday, February 13, 2006

the case of Meyer v. Weis | by Jay

Orson's got part I of a Charlie/Urban redux. Great stuff.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Returnin' Irish | by Pat

Well, we kicked off last year with a lot of roster question marks, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Now, after a full season of play, our coaches have had ample opportunity for in-depth evaluation. Going into the '06 campaign won't be nearly as murky as it was last year.

Luckily for them, the staff won't have to make too many depth chart moves: the Irish return a highly veteran team in 2006. Right tackle and linebacker are really the only spots that don't have a natural incumbency.

Here now is a breakdown of each position and playing-time percentage returning in 2006. (Keep in mind that the numbers only include regular season games, and not the Fiesta Bowl.)

Overall, the Irish will return 64% of the offense in 2006 and 80% of the defense. If you recall last year, the numbers were a bit more lopsided with 89% of the offense coming back and only 36% of the defense. We all saw the giant leap forward the offense made last year -- with much credit of course going to the coaching staff -- so hopefully the returning experience on defense will spark a similar improvement in production in 2006.

Quarterback - 99%
Once again, Notre Dame returns nearly all of the quarterbacks who took a snap during the regular season. Quinn of course played neary every down, piloted the program to a BCS bowl, and will return for what Irish fans hope is a season for the ages. And while the backup options are still inexperienced, at least Wolke upped his playing time from 2 minutes last year to 22 minutes this season. He even threw a few passes this year. Three to be precise. What this means is that Notre Dame will have perhaps the most experienced quarterback in the country next year (32 career starts for Quinn) but the backup situation will still be a rather large unknown. With Wolke, Sharpley, Frazer, and Jones on the bench, the Irish finally seem to have shored up the depth issues at QB, but Wolke's three pass attempts are all those four players have to show in terms of production.

Quarterback '05 Minutes
Mooney 5
Total 354
Returning 349
Difference (5)
Return Pct. 99%

Running Back - 90%
Darius Walker will enter the second half of his Notre Dame experience as the primary ball carrier in the Irish rushing attack. Schwapp got more playing time than pretty much anyone expected after a strong showing in fall camp and the eventual suspension of Rashon Powers-Neal. The Powers-Neal case is one that makes the percentage in bold rather unscientific. His official playing time stats have not been noted on so I'm forced to make my best guess at his PT and hope you all agree. If his bio is updated I'll update this post as well. Travis Thomas earned more carries as the season progressed and that should carry over to the next season as well. Also, Irish fans shouldn't count out freshman James Aldridge who is now on campus and will add to the running back depth during spring practice.

Running Back '05 Minutes
Walker 249
Powers-Neal 50
Jenkins 12
McConnell 9
Hoskins 3
Total 495
Returning 445
Difference (50)
Return Pct. 90%

Offensive Line - 63%
The most veteran line in Irish history will lose two starters, but return four players with significant experience. Ryan Harris will be a four year starter at tackle and the leader of what should still be a very veteran line. The only question mark looms at filling Mark LeVoir's shoes at right tackle. Brian Mattes, Paul Duncan, and Mike Turkovich are the main challengers for the spot and all three played just about the same amount of time last season. The only real difference is that Mattes will be a 5th year senior whereas Duncan and Turkovich will only be sophomores. There's also the case of incoming freshman Sam Young, who has the size to make things interesting in the fall. With no backup offensive lineman in the senior or junior class, the opportunities for the other five freshman recruits will be plentiful. If for whatever reason 5th year candidates Scott Raridon or James Bonelli don't return, the depth chart will get even younger.

Offensive Line '05 Minutes
Harris 330
Stevenson 303
Bent 26
Mattes 21
Raridon 16
Minutes 1760
Returning 1105
Difference 655
Return Pct. 63%

Wide Receiver - 50%
The numbers for wide receiver are a bit misleading because while ND does lose breakout star Maurice Stovall and dependable Matt Shelton, it will welcome back Rhema McKnight, whose 28 minutes in 2005 pale in comparison to the 499 minutes of game time he accumulated in his first three years under the Dome. But while Samardzija and McKnight will give the Irish a recieving duo that I'd put up against any in the country, there is plenty of room for a third (and fourth) receiver to establish himself above the rest of the pack. Chase Anasatcio has the edge in seniority and over all experience, but it seems that Grimes had the upper hand during the season as the slot receiver/Shelton replacement. DJ Hord is the wildcard as many hope he can provide the stretch-the-field type threat to compliment Samardzija's and McKnight's strengths. A darkhorse is freshman speedster George West who is already on campus and will get the benefit of working with the team in spring practice.

Receiver '05 Minutes
Samardzija 304
Shelton 102
McKnight 28
O'Hara 8
Minutes 734
Returning 366
Difference (368)
Return Pct. 50%

Tight End - 42%
Losing Fasano to the NFL Draft will definitely cut back on the returning experience at tight end. Replacing him might be more of a committee approach next season. 5th year senior Freeman is an veteran player who had an excellent year as a blocker and hopefully will be able to become more of a threat in the passing game. Carlson has a bright future and should really emerge next season as both a receiver and blocker. The Irish ran 3 tight end sets a fair amount last season but might not as much in the coming year unless either Joey Hiben or incoming recruit Konrad Reuland can prove capable of handling the blocking duties.

Tight End '05 Minutes
Fasano 314
Carlson 143
Freeman 63
Minutes 545
Returning 231
Difference (314)
Return Pct. 42%

Now to the other side of the ball, where the veteran presence on the line and in the secondary is negated by a big hit in returning linebacker experience.

Defensive Line - 91%
At first glance it looks like defensive line will be a major strength next year as only one player from the two-deep will not return. However, that is a bit misleading since Beidatsch was the primary backup at both defensive tackle spots. At defensive end, Ronald Talley played well after Chris Frome went down with a knee injury and Justin Brown has potential, but next year the interior of the line will be extremely unproven behind stout veterans Landri and Laws. If Travis Leitko can return he will help to add experience, but the Irish will still need Pat Kuntz, Dwight Stephenson, and Darrell Hand to add size and strength so that they can contribute at the tackle spot in the fall.

Defensive Line '05 Minutes
Laws 214
Talley 137
Frome 98
Beidatsch 96
Brown 70
Kuntz 12
Stephenson 11
Chervanick 9
Minutes 1105
Returning 1009
Difference (996)
Return Pct. 91%

Linebacker - 36%
No position will be harder hit by graduation than linebacker. Hoyte and Mays not only led the unit in minutes played but also were the team's top two tacklers and team leaders. Crum will return and has plenty of football ahead of him, but the Irish are going to need to find two new starters from a group that offers a decent mix of speed, size, and inexperience. Expect the battle to earn a starting linebacking spot to be the major story of spring practice. Vernaglia, Brockington, Borseti, Thomas, Smith, and Quinn all have a legitimate shot at getting the nod. As with cornerback last year, this unit will be a favorite of depth chart engineers during the off-season.

Linebacker '05 Minutes
Hoyte 267
Mays 233
Brockington 11
Borseti 10
Minutes 789
Returning 285
Difference (504)
Return Pct. 36%

Defensive Backs - 99%
Only quarterback returns a higher percentage of experience than the defensive secondary. The only definite departures are all walk-ons although Carney's decision to return for a 5th year won't officially be known until spring ball. And of course, if the coaches decide to move Nduwke to linebacker to bring experience to that depleted unit that would open up a chance for one of the inexperienced underclassmen to move into the starting lineup. David Bruton is a fan favorite to fill that spot and his scant 4 minutes of playing time is bolstered by 144 special teams appearances that don't count in the official playing time calculations. Ferrine emerged as the nickel back although Lambert should make a push for more playing time based on a decent showing in garbage time this past season. Of course, heralded recruits Raeshon McNeil and Darrin Walls are expected to make a push for early playing time as well.

Defensive Back '05 Minutes
Zbikowski 268
Ndukwe 267
Richardson 255
Wooden 253
Hedgemon 7
Herring 5
Whitney III5
Minutes 1207
Returning 1194
Difference (13)
Return Pct. 99%

Monday, February 06, 2006

Much Ado About Nothing | by Mike

In the aftermath of the Super Bowl, a surprising amount of attention has been devoted to Joe Montana’s absence from pre-game festivities that included most former Super Bowl MVPs. While Montana’s reasons for electing not to participate are not of public concern, several sources in the NFL have seen fit to leak their side of the story to media outlets.

From the San Francisco Chronicle:

[S]ources close to the league said Montana refused to attend over money. One of the sources said Montana asked for a guarantee of at least $100,000 for appearances if he came here, and the league said it would not make that guarantee.
Unfortunately, some have taken these limited details from unidentified individuals and used them to level charges of arrogance and selfishness at Montana. Such conclusions are unsupportable by the public record.

Montana is a very private individual. Though perhaps the most confident field general the game has ever seen (before leading the game-winning drive in Super Bowl XXIII, he asked his teammates in the huddle if anyone else had noticed John Candy in the stands), Montana has never been completely comfortable with the public scrutiny brought on by celebrity. He has largely avoided public speaking engagements, and he does not enjoy being swamped by crowds of people seeking to bask in reflected glory.

Given the crowds Montana has had to deal with in the ostensibly friendly environment of Notre Dame, it should be unsurprising that he would not want to deal with the frenzy that is the Super Bowl. Consider the reports that Montana was accosted by autograph hounds while attempting to help his daughter move into her dorm. If Montana cannot count on people to respect his privacy at Notre Dame when (a) he is clearly acting in his parental capacity, and (b) he should be treated with the respect members of the Notre Dame community should afford each other, why should he expect people to respect his privacy at the Super Bowl? Those subjecting Montana to criticism are completely unfamiliar with the wattage of the spotlight focused on the game’s greatest quarterback.

Despite his aversion to public appearances, Montana has made them when he believes in the organization on whose behalf he is appearing. Montana has endured the discomfort such appearances cause him to speak out on the health risks posed by high blood pressure. Notre Dame fans should not forget his willingness to do a favor for college buddy Charlie Weis and serve as a coach for the Blue & Gold Game. The members of the NFL, however, are for-profit enterprises. Why should nominal consideration allow the NFL to dictate how Montana spends a weekend? I can’t call up the Chicago Bears Presented By Bank One and order them to sell me two tickets for a pack of gum, a CTA card, and the change in my couch.

Worst of all is the argument to the effect that, “The NFL made Montana a star, he owed it to them.” At the outset, one can quarrel with the notion that the NFL made Montana a star. (Recall the adidas commercial with Fr. Riehle.) However, even assuming arguendo that the NFL made Montana popular, the NFL and popularity is a two-way street. Sure, the NFL made guys like Montana and Joe Namath more famous. Yet the NFL owes much of its current popularity to past stars like Montana and Namath. When it comes to the stars of past generations, there are several important considerations to keep in mind. NFL salaries were far lower before luxury boxes in taxpayer-funded stadiums, corporate branding, and premium packages on satellite TV, among other innovations, drove up NFL revenues. However, the players who created the audience for such products have not shared in these funds. The NFL has, for the most part, dismissed the needs of retired players. For a concrete example involving one of ND’s own, recall the situation of John Mazur. And Montana himself has experienced the NFL’s disinterest in the medical problems facing former players. Consider these excerpts from Dave Newhouse’s recent Oroville Mercury-Register article (worth reading in its entirety):
Today's heroes are tomorrow's infirmities. It's the nature of the beast, or beasts, 300-pound bodies striking with incredible force, very often after a running start. The most vulnerable target in sports is an unsuspecting, stationary quarterback who's about to be steamrolled from behind by a full-speed-ahead, licking-his-chops pass rusher.

At least a batter in baseball can see a beanball coming.

However, today's football players, as a rule, won't suffer nearly as greatly as their predecessors from 30 years ago. That's because the field of medicine has advanced, and so have salaries. This means current players are cared for much better any way you examine their working conditions.
The subject of whether retired players are taken care of properly in terms of their ailments raises as many doubts as assurances.

Joe Montana first became aware of NFL afterlife at a 49ers alumni function.

"I was watching some of the older guys go up three steps to get onto a platform," he said. "It was almost embarrassing that we can't do something about that."

Montana then discovered for himself how the NFL treats its retirees.

"You want to know how bad they are?" he said of the league. "I'll give you a perfect example. I've been getting my knee done, and my neck. I won a judgment against whoever it is — the 49ers or workman's comp — and the NFL sued me. They fought my case, and all I wanted was medical coverage.

"So I won medical coverage for life. I get a call from my doctor, because I'm working on my knee right now, that (the NFL) has been refusing my claims. They've decided they're not going to pay — after I won my case! I blame it as much on the players association as the teams. ... We have the worst medical coverage, the worst retirement plan of any of the major sports."
It appears that Montana has perfectly valid reasons for resisting the NFL’s overtures. However, even if such stories had not appeared in the media, Montana should not have to justify his decision to abstain from the ceremonies to the public at large. Certainly not to Notre Dame fans.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Last Stop for the Bus | by Jay

Usually there are at least a few different storylines floating through the ether during Super Bowl week, but this year there's only one dominant theme: Jerome Bettis, the grizzled and garrulous warhorse of the Pittsburgh Steelers, returning to his hometown of Detroit to hopefully cap off a magnificent pro career with a championship ring.

He only played two full seasons for the Irish, but Bettis remains one of the most popular players to ever grace the field at the house that Rock built, and one of the most lovable and entertaining players in the history of the game. I don't really have a dog in the hunt today, but I'll be rooting for the Steelers and for Jerome, and I suspect a lot of other neutral-party domers will be doing the same.

Big, lovable, always with a smile on his face, he's a teddy bear with a fire in his belly, built like a gas pump, a fullback playing tailback, dishing out laughter and pain in equal measures. That's how I remember the Bus. I once saw him riding a Honda scooter around campus, with the wheel fenders scraping the ground under the weight, joking with pedestrians as he bumped and sputtered along the sidewalk.

But he was quite nimble for his size, and quickly became the featured back in a crowded Lou Holtz backfield. Bettis carried only 15 times in his freshman year for the Irish but was so impressive in averaging 7.7 yards per attempt that coach Lou Holtz handed him the starting fullback job at the start of spring practice and switched Rod Culver to tailback.

"We saw something in him as a freshman that led us to be believe he would be an excellent fullback," Holtz said. "He's a natural there. He loves the game. He doesn't care whether he blocks or whether he carries the football." He's very intelligent, an excellent competitor, always upbeat and the players like him."

When Bettis was highly recruited out of Mackenzie High School in Detroit, he wasn't sure if he wanted to play linebacker or fullback in college. He averaged 15 tackles a game in his senior year at middle linebacker.

His punishing running style, reminiscent of Pro Football Hall of Fame back Earl Campbell, made up his mind for him.

"Now, I've seen the possibilities in the fullback position," Bettis said. "I can do as much hitting at fullback as I can at linebacker. I can inflict as much punishment while I'm carrying the ball.

"I'll go for the dirty yards, down in the trenches. If I can bust through (the line) as fast as I can and take sombody with me, it always pumps me up. I like to inflict a little pain on people."

In 1991, as a sophomore, he had 23 touchdowns and set a school record for most points and touchdowns, rushing for 972 yards, at a 5.8 yards per carry clip. In his first college start against Indiana, he ripped off runs of 40, 25, and 14 yards and piled up 111 yards on only 10 carries. Against Southern Cal, he tore up the turf for 178 yards and two touchdowns, propelling himself into the Heisman conversation and into the hearts of Irish fans everywhere. As the Chicago Trib wrote at the time:
Watching Jerome Bettis roll over linemen, bash linebackers and strike fear while rumbling toward mere defensive backs, it is hard to imagine there was a time he left the game bruised, battered and whimpering.

He will be the first test for the Michigan defense without linebacker Erick Anderson when the No. 6 Wolverines try to stop No. 3 Notre Dame on Saturday.

If Bettis is not slowed, it opens up the Notre Dame offense. When he plows toward the line-with or without the ball-he freezes linebackers a half-step. That allows the pitch or the handoff to a tailback out wide, quarterback Rick Mirer more time to throw or to tuck it and keep on the option.

But the 250-pound fullback has been considered a crybaby. That's how his grandmother described him as a child.

As a kid growing up in the rough streets on the west side of Detroit, Bettis tried to hang out with his brother, Johnnie, who was four years older, and Johnnie's group of friends, especially when they played football.

"I was one of the littler guys in the group and I hardly got a chance to play," Bettis recalls. "When I did, they'd hit me on the side of the head and I'd get to crying and my brother would tell me to get out.

"I'd go get my mom, my mom would get my brother and tell him he couldn't play unless I played. That made him mad so he'd come in the house and hit me again. I'd be crying with a big knot on my head and he'd keep telling me how I would have to get tougher and tougher if I wanted to play."

The boys played football on the street and on the narrow strip of grass between the street and the sidewalk. It was a hybrid form of touch and tackle.

"It was tackle on the grass, touch on the street, but they'd still hit you on the cement," said Bettis. "The only equipment we had was a football. I still have a lot of battle scars from that."

Bettis said there came a time when he got tired of being beaten up.

"I made it a point to try to hit those guys back," he said. "I told myself, `Next time I get the ball, I'm going to try and find them, and when I find them I'm going to give them a forearm or something.'

"That's how I picked up always wanting to hit somebody. As a kid carrying the ball on the street, I was always looking for somebody to hit out there."

Bettis loves to punish. A onetime noseguard and linebacker, he makes it his trademark.

"Inflicting pain is the most important thing as a fullback," he says. "If that changes, that changes me as a runner.

"The only way I can be effective is if I pound it in there. I need to be able to hit somebody. It fuels me. It gets my adrenaline pumping."

A native son of Detroit, it was surprising he escaped the clutches of Ann Arbor and ultimately cast his lot with the Irish.

To Moeller's chagrin, Bettis-like Mirer and Culver-just missed wearing the maize and blue instead of the blue and gold.

Bettis didn't make up his mind until he woke up on signing day.

"The night before I was in my room and weighed both schools," he said. "In academics, they were even; in athletics, they were about even. I couldn't find anything to go on so I told myself I would sleep on it."

When he awakened at 7:30 a.m., the first thing he did was put on a Notre Dame hat and walked into the kitchen to show his parents.

Bettis can't really explain how he came to choose Notre Dame over Michigan. He was a Wolverines fan his entire life and he didn't make his decision until he awoke on signing day, grabbed a Notre Dame cap next to the Michigan cap on his chest of draws and told his parents.

"To be truthful, I have no reason why I shouldn't have been at Michigan," he says. "All indications led me to Michigan and I can't explain the sudden change in coming here, but it was the best decision I ever made."

His best highlights of his college career had to be the two bowl games, both of which he dominated: first Florida in the '92 Sugar Bowl, and Texas A&M in the '93 Cotton. In each game he scored three touchdowns, was named the bowl MVP, and pretty much carried the Irish on his back.
"Their offensive linemen were the fastest and best I've seen," A&M junior linebacker Jason Atkinson said. "And their backs ran hard. Bettis wasn't as hard-nosed as everyone said. He was faster than I expected."
(An amazing sidenote about games in the Holtz era: there were so many good running backs on those teams, but despite Bettis' dominance Lou still spread the carries around quite a bit. The rushing box score for the Cotton Bowl reads: Bettis 16-150, Culver 13-93, T. Brooks 13-68. Quite a difference from today's conventional wisdom, and its reliance on one 'feature' back. )

After the Cotton Bowl, Bettis faced a tough choice in deciding to go pro or return for his senior year. He had a hardscrabble life growing up, and in the end, it was financial concerns -- plus a lingering foot injury his junior year, a reminder of the short window and flickering fate of this chosen career -- that caused him to jump to the NFL and forego his senior year.

The decision wasn't easy for him.

"I made a commitment to the guys on the team, guys I sweated with, bled with and cried with. To leave them has to hurt in a way, but I think they understand."

Bettis, whose father works two jobs, said money wasn't the only consideration in his decision to enter the draft. He suffered a sprained ankle last fall, and although he played through the gimpiness, it made him realize the fragility of a football player's career, particularly one who plays fullback.

"We will respect (Bettis' and Carter's) decision and wish them well," Holtz said when reached by telephone. "I hope they still realize the importance of a Notre Dame degree, and will pursue it vigorously. When they receive their degree, I will be satisfied with their decision.
Interestingly, Bettis has already returned once to campus to take some more classes, but still hasn't finished out his degree. A New York Times article the other day documented Bettis' 'old college try'.

Bettis returned to Notre Dame in time for the spring semester of 1996 and marched into the office of Sam Gaglio, assistant dean in the Mendoza College of Business. If Bettis was really going to quit football, he was going to need his college degree. Having left Notre Dame as a junior in 1993 for the N.F.L., he filed a readmit application and wrote a letter to the faculty. He started mapping out a class schedule as if it were a run up the middle.

"Jerome came back with the enthusiasm of a normal student," Gaglio said. "That's one of the reasons the faculty was willing to readmit him. He made it a point of fact that he was going to be a serious student. He wasn't going to come in and just get credit."

Although Bettis's student records are confidential, he once told reporters that he took courses that semester in history, philosophy, marketing and business. In all, he said, he took 18 credits, as heavy a load as the 255-pound running back has ever carried. Bettis walked to class amid the maple trees. He lived in an apartment off campus. He exercised with Notre Dame football players on the track and in the weight room.

Would he return to finish it off? Don't bet against it.

The image “” cannot be displayed, because it contains errors.In the meantime, Bettis has been feted this week like no other player in recent Super Bowl memory. He's such a great advocate for his beaten-down hometown, and Detroit adores him in return. Knowing how much this stage means to him, members of the Steelers donned green #6 'Bettis' jerseys in his honor when they arrived in town.
By the time Bettis and five Steelers teammates (all still wearing those kelly green jerseys) showed up to talk about Sunday's showdown with the Seattle Seahawks, almost 50 print and broadcast media were waiting for him, three times the amount at any of the other tables. "Hello everybody! Welcome to Detroit!'' his booming voice trailing off to laughter. Any doubt that Jerome Bettis wasn't already going to be the official feel-good story of Super Bowl XL, was erased by the time the Steelers' interviews were over Monday afternoon.

His coach and teammates gushed over the NFL's fifth-leading all-time rusher, about his talent and commitment, leadership and personality.

The 33-year-old Detroit native talked with almost wide-eyed wonder about how much being in this game meant to him. He told story after story about his childhood, his parents, his school teachers and being a bowler before he was a football player. There was a kind of open sincerity that's usually missing from these big, scripted events filled with athletes who seem more like corporate suits than entertainers. Bettis talked time and again about how both he, and this city, need this game - one to cap a career that's missing a Super Bowl ring, the other to convince America it's on the way back from decades of decline.

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"If I'm the ambassador, I'm willing to carry that flag, because I love the city,'' Bettis said. "(The Super Bowl) gives the country an opportunity to see Detroit in a better light. From a corporate standpoint, you didn't want to have your headquarters here in Detroit, and I think it's important the thought be changed, and it takes an event like this to change the minds of people, to get them to actually come here.

"I don't think Detroit was on the destination list most people have. It needed to get this boost for them to see, hey, Detroit is on the upswing. We all have bumps in the road, but I think Detroit will rise as a great city, and I'm committed to this city. I'm willing to put my resources into this city and try to make it the city it can be.''

And it's not just lip service. The kid from Detroit, whose mom was first reluctant to let him play the game, has turned his talent and his opportunity into something great, a charity called The Bus Stops Here, which helps out about 500 inner city Detroit kids each year.

So tip your hat today to one of the game's greatest ambassadors, and one of the Irish's favorite sons. When Jerome Bettis takes a handoff today, and churns his legs, and hits the line, and the Seattle linebackers brace for the collision, and grit their teeth, and wince at the impact, and the Bus is tackled, finally, and he pops right back up, and smiles, and pumps his fists, because you know, he almost got an extra yard on that run...well, you're watching someone for whom the struggle of life is still joyful, equal parts pain and laughter, and in the end, you come home...and it all works out just fine.

Update, 10:22 PM:

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Friday, February 03, 2006

Seen and Heard | by Pat

In what was one of the bigger days in their lives thus far, Notre Dame's recruits all went through some sort of celebration as they signed their Letters of Intent and officially became college football players. Some had subdued signings with family, many took part in a ceremony at their high school, and some even took part in larger scale organized events, such as Morrice Richardson (right) who joined high school teammates and other local players in a signing event at the ESPN Zone in Atlanta.

Here is a collection of quotes from the newly minted Irish football players and their coaches on Signing Day and the few days leading up to it.

"It was August 6 at 11:23 in the morning in Coach [Charlie] Weis’ office. When I left his office at Notre Dame, I was ready to sign."

- Bartley Webb, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

"You really have to see it for yourself. You hear about it and think, 'Oh, wow that's nice.' But to see that building, it's just, well, really you have to honestly be there to understand what it's like."

- Leonard Gordon on Touchdown Jesus, The Leaf-Chronicle

"I think every kid dreams about playing Division I football in front of 80,000 fans every Saturday on NBC on national television. It's a dream come true. When you commit, it's a different story, and then when you finally sign, it's official, there's no turning back. This whole day has been great."

-Leonard Gordon, The Leaf-Chronicle

"I am excited to learn. Between (Quinn) and coach (Charlie Weis) it’s going to be one (heck) of a learning experience."

- Zach Frazer (left), Sentinel Online

"This is a big event. It’s not very often that these kind of opportunities come along for a kid to get a full ride to an institution like Notre Dame. You’ve got to enjoy it while you can, it might not happen again.”

- Bob Lichtel (Frazer's coach), Sentinel Online

"After that we went to the football stadium and walked around. I walked down the stairwell and onto the field. I had been there once before in the summer but walking down that stairwell never gets old. It will probably always give me goose bumps just because of all the tradition and history. I tapped the `Go Irish' sign three times and then tapped the 'Play Like a Champion Today' sign once. That's the tradition.''

- Sam Young, Miami Herald

"It just feels great knowing that it's finally over and that my dream has become a reality. Everyone asked me if I had any influence on [Young] or vice a versa, but it really came down to each of our individual feelings on Notre Dame, and apparently we both had the same ones."

- Dan Wenger, Miami Herald

"It was hard to turn [USC] down, but it was the perfect fit for me. At Notre Dame, it just felt right."

- Konrad Reuland, Los Angeles Times

"It was more of the senior’s team than anyone else’s and they had more at stake. Those guys took us a long way and Toryan (right, in suit) was a leader because of what he brought to the defense.”

- Sid Fritts (Toryan Smith's coach), Rome News-Tribune

"He's a kid that's going to succeed. I don't think you'd ever understand his work ethic unless you were around him. He kind of lives for football, it's kind of his passion."

- Chris Faircloth (Jashaad Gaines' coach), Las Vegas Review Journal

“I don’t think it puts more pressure. I kind of like that. It gives me the ability to prepare for it and get ready.”

- Ryan Burkhart on the pressures of replacing DJ Fitzpatrick, Journal Gazette

And last, but certainly not least, future media quote machine, Demetrius Jones in the Chicago Sun-Times.

"You don't choose your college based on people. People can leave. I was considering Notre Dame when they had Coach [Ty] Willingham, and look what happened to him."

- Jones on reasons for choosing a college.

"I hear it all the time, from everyone. But they hated Jesus, so I won't go through anything he didn't. No one is going to be able to go to school for me or play for me, so I had to pick the place that I felt right in.''

- Jones on being told Notre Dame wasn't the right place for him.

"He always had the talent, they just tightened the screws."

- Jones on Brady Quinn's junior year improvement.

"I saw a lot of schools and a lot of traditions, but never anything like that. It was incredible, having thousands of people there just to watch you walk over to your field."

- Jones on the team walk from the Basilica to the Stadium.

"They might be underestimating me because I haven't gotten the most extensive training or had the best facilities. But if they wanted to move me, I'm sure they would have picked up Mustain."

- Jones on moving to another position.

"It's not going to be easy at first. But nothing that good ever is. It's a lot of people's dream to go to Notre Dame, and I know I'll be fine. If you're a baller, you're a baller."

- Jones on playing quarterback at Notre Dame.