Thursday, November 13, 2008

My Take | by Jeff

"You're never as good as everyone tells you when you win, and you're never as bad as they say when you lose."

- Lou Holtz

After an ugly BC loss, ND fans are leaping off the Weis bandwagon in droves. Everyone still remembers the debacle last season, and while this season has shown some improvement, it is not what most Irish fans expected. Barring an upset of Southern Cal in the final game, even the most generous of fans would probably grade out this season as a C-. Personally, I don't believe that Weis is doomed to fail as a coach, but I'm not convinced that he is a National Championship caliber coach either, at least not yet. I believe he is a smart man who is willing to make adjustments to his approach and learn from his mistakes. I also know that he is an excellent recruiter, and I believe that he has been humbled a bit in the last couple of years.

The albatross of six straight losses to BC (even though Weis accounted for only two of them) joined its cousins (nine straight bowl losses and six straight home losses to Michigan State, again Weis accounted for two each of those) around Weis's neck, and media outlets and ND "fans" are claiming the buzzards are circling overhead. So much so that the AD felt it necessary to come out in support of Coach Weis yesterday. Looking at Weis only over his last four games is certainly not a fair evaluation of his performance or potential, but fans are flocking to whatever trends they can find.

The struggle I have with the Weis hire is that we violated a cardinal rule of hiring a football coach at Notre Dame. The head coach at ND needs to have prior head coaching experience in order to know how to build a program, not just install an offense or defense. The last two head coaches at ND without prior head coaching experience were Davie and Faust, and coincidentally, Weis's winning percentage after 46 games is nearly identical to theirs (Weis 27-19, Davie 28-18, Faust 25-21). But, four years ago, Urban Meyer went to Florida, and Weis was the best guy available that was also willing to take over a team with a dearth of talent* and the odds stacked against them. As the Patriots marched further into the playoffs, Weis lost more and more of his headstart on the season, and ended up putting together a patchwork staff and recruiting class. Fortunately for ND fans, Weis came into a decent situation in '05. He inherited a experienced team with strong leadership and players who were hungry to win. Weis used his offensive prowess to guide that team toward the upper echelon of college football over his first two seasons.

In '07, Weis started over -- in a big way. Holes in his approach that had been masked in '05 and '06 began to burst out all over the team. Many of the problems (poor fundamentals, inexperience, lack of talent, etc.) were not problems that could be fixed in the middle of a season, and Weis attempts to manage around them (for example, the spread offense run by Demetrius Jones) were futile. And so the team started to build for the future. With youth at every position, a brief flicker of hope emerged at the end of the season and there was reason for optimism heading into this season.

So, here we are in 2008, trapped in another sub-par season by every historical ND standard. So, we all want to know where we go from here. For those fans that want to fire Weis, who would you get to replace him? Dust off that dream list we all put together four years ago and tell me why those coaches will come to ND now. There is better talent, to be sure, but coaches like Bob Stoops, Urban Meyer, Tom Coughlin, Jon Gruden, etc, etc, are not going to drop their current jobs and come scrambling to ND. So, does that mean we are "stuck" with Weis? Maybe, but I'm not sure that is a bad thing.

The key questions I want to resolve in my mind are: "Is Weis improving" and "How long is his runway?" In other words, is the team getting better over the course of the season, and does Weis have the aptitude to take ND to the next level (or can he develop it in the next year or two)? Let's look at each of these questions.

Is Weis Improving?

I think Weis is a head coach in training. Without having prior head coaching experience, Weis is capable of fixing problems as he sees them, but has not yet demonstrated the ability to design a program and develop his team and coaching staff through that program. Coincidentally, this is very similar to Weis's offensive philosophy of "taking what the defense gives you," so I am curious to see if Weis can develop this aspect of his program or if he simply is wired as an "improver" rather than a "builder." Arm-chair psychology aside, I think it is far too early to label Weis as lost and confused, randomly trying ideas to see what works. Here's what we know.

As Pat mentioned below, the coaching staff (including Weis) is very young and inexperienced. Weis took a bit of a gamble in replacing the experienced Rick Minter with unproven Corwin Brown, but he had recognized that the team was not going to get to the next level with Minter. In hindsight, he probably would have been better off keeping Minter for at least another season, but I think he recognized this mistake and tried to correct it by bringing in the experienced Jon Tenuta. (As another aside, I don't know how long you can keep two guys on as defensive coordinators, but we'll see how this plays out.)

The team has struggled in several areas this season, but at least some of the problems are getting fixed. As Jay mentioned below, the defense is playing much better with some attention from Weis and the kicking game is showing indications that the ship has been righted. However, the offense has struggled over the past few weeks which may be the result of play calling, or may be the result of Weis's attention to the defense. The running game has yet to show any real improvement in scheme or execution, and while this season's execution is certainly better than last season's Keystone Kops performance, fundamentals are still sub-par. And finally, the team has looked flat all to frequently this season. Over the next four (hopefully) games, we will see whether Weis is simply playing Whak-A-Mole, adressing the problem of the moment, and in the process letting everything else slip. Personally, I think Weis has a long list of problems, and he is scratching them off more quickly than they get added. But to be a truly successful coach, Weis needs to focus on establishing a program, not just addressing issues as they come up.

How long is his runway?

A big step in personal development is knowing what you don't know. In other words, knowing where you are deficient and taking steps to counter those deficiencies. I don't think Weis knew what it took to build a program, and I don't know whether he does now or not. I do know that Lou Holtz knew how to build a program, so let's look at him as a comparison.

A report card for Holtz might look something like this:
Offensive mind B
Defensive mind C
Recruiting A
Fundamentals A
Motivation A++
Holtz is a motivational genius and very good at recruiting and coaching fundamentals. His offenses were fairly vanilla and his defenses were good when he had a good defensive coordinator (Alvarez, Davie, etc). Overall, he had enough for his teams to consistently compete at a high level. As much as I hate "argument by anecdote", Pete Carroll is an excellent defensive coach and recruiter whose teams excelled when he had a great offensive coordinator (Norm Chow). He is also a good motivator and coaches fundamentals well. I suspect you would see similar profiles among other successful coaches: Bob Stoops is similar to Carroll, Urban Meyer is an offensive innovator and strong motivator, etc.

A four-year report card for Weis might look something like this:
Offensive mind B
Defensive mind C+
Recruiting A
Fundamentals D
Motivation C
Weis can develop the passing game but has yet to show he can run the ball. Like Holtz, his defenses are best left to better coaches, and he is an excellent recruiter. But, unlike Holtz he has not show an ability to coach fundamentals (blocking and tackling, which were probably not as much of an issue in the pros) nor does his business-like approach seem to inspire his team.

So, is his runway long enough to get us to a national championship? I think so, but only with a very good (and experienced) defensive coordinator and improvement in coaching fundamentals and motivating the team. The good news is that fundamentals can be taught, but I'm not sure about motivation. Certainly, Weis has the ability to inspire high school kids and their parents in their living rooms, so perhaps he can translate that into the locker room. A team doesn't need to be "up" to win every game, but it is a necessary requirement to win big games against strong competition. The team has come out inspired in some situations ('05 Southern Cal comes to mind), and I doubt you need to be Holtz-esque for every game to succeed (very few people are), so this is certainly something that can be overcome. I suppose the big questions for Irish fans are "If" these will be overcome, followed closely by "If so, when?" Let's hope we don't have to practice patience for too much longer.

Barring a collapse at the end of the season (translated: losses to Navy and Syracuse), I think anyone that has passed judgment on Weis now is jumping the gun. If Weis is as smart as I think he is, he will realize the errors he's made, make adjustments, and the team will be better next season.

* One note on the "lack of talent" excuse". Yes, it has been played over and over. But, guess what, sophomores do not become juniors after a couple of games. Just because we have heard the excuse over-and-over doesn't mean it no longer applies. If you believed that the team was inexperienced at the beginning of this season, it is a bit hypocritical to ignore that simply because you read it 30 times per day.