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The frustrations persist

Andrew Soukup | Friday, April 23, 2004

Mike Coffey runs a Web site Notre Dame fans of all sports visit to post on the site’s message boards.He recently had to take down a post that heavily criticized Irish basketball coach Mike Brey that Coffey said had gotten out of hand. But when the webmaster of NDNation.com confronted the poster, the offender admitted that his frustration about the football team’s struggles motivated his blistering comments.”They want to believe that good things are around the corner. They want to believe that going into a big game they have a chance to win,” Coffey said. “The problem is as the evidence mounts, the fans are getting psychologically beaten down because it doesn’t seem like they have any hope.”They have nothing that they can look at and nothing to latch on to.”Since No. 2 Notre Dame beat No. 1 Florida State in 1993, the Irish football program has been in a steady state of decline. The Irish haven’t won a bowl game since 1994 and have suffered through three losing seasons in five years for the first time in school history.Worse, there have been off-the-field problems that prompted additional criticism. Notre Dame lost an age discrimination suit to Joe Moore in 1997, got hit with NCAA sanctions for the first time in program history in 1999 and endured a scandal-ridden coaching search in 2001.It’s not hard to sympathize with alumni like Tim Kelley, who grew so fed up with how the football program was managed that he helped author a letter to the Board of Trustees signed by more than 400 alumni criticizing how the football program was managed.”What frustrates me the most is an apparent lack of acknowledgement that football is an emotional engine and the thread that binds generations of Notre Dame alumni,” Kelley said. “That’s the underlying problem that I see.” The response That’s an idea associate athletic director John Heisler disputes.”I think everybody understands emotionally and culturally what football has meant,” the 27-year Notre Dame employee said. “There’s certainly no lack of commitment in terms of the hierarchy and priority. Can you go out and mandate you’re going to win 11 games in a year? That’s hard.”Instead, Heisler said athletic director Kevin White maintains a close relationship with Irish head coach Tyrone Willingham to ensure the football team has the resources it needs to be successful.And the root of that success, he said, lies in the school’s ability to attract top-quality recruits who are able to compete in the demanding academic and athletic environment in South Bend.”Recruiting is the lifeblood of what you’re doing,” Heisler said. “What you want to do is put your program in a position where you make your institution an attractive place for a young man to come and play football, or any other sport.”To that end, the Irish are scheduled to complete the Guglielmino Family Athletics Center in 2005, a massive building that will house a new weight room, locker rooms, meeting rooms and offices for the football team.And director of admissions Dan Saracino said a month ago that the Irish don’t rely purely on hard numbers when deciding if any recruit is academically eligible for Notre Dame. The main criterion the University examines for admission, he said, is to make sure that a prospect can graduate from Notre Dame.”I don’t really know, but I am frustrated that we seem to be having less success in recruiting [top players] compared to the past,” Saracino said, while acknowledging that not every top prospect is eligible to come to Notre Dame. “It could be that our current coaches just don’t understand Notre Dame and its ‘positives’ well enough to convince these young men that Notre Dame is the place for them.””The problem,” recruiting analyst Tom Lemming said, “now is that Notre Dame isn’t cashing in on the breaks it creates for recruits.”But Heisler disputes the notion that Notre Dame’s 2004 recruiting class – rated low by many recruiting experts – is an indicator of football struggles. “It remains to be seen what this last year will turn out to be,” said Heisler, who then praised the 2003 freshman class that saw six freshmen earn significant playing time. Criticism persists But that isn’t enough to convince some alumni who believe Notre Dame isn’t doing everything it can to ensure its football program is successful.”The words are there,” Kelley said. “But if you looked at it and you said championship football is incredibly important to Notre Dame, if you really believed that, then there would be some things that are different.”Kelley points to coaching search processes that he said limited the athletic director’s ability to select a candidate independent of a search committee’s oversight. And while he praises the construction of the Guglielmino center, he wonders why it wasn’t built before.”If we were truly devoted,” he said, “then those things would have been done a long time ago.”Heisler said, however, that the steps being taken to ensure success in the football program are an indication that the program is on the verge of returning to the nation’s elite. But he adds the process is a long one that can’t suffer “knee-jerk” reactions when a team has a losing season.”You can’t just flick a switch and guarantee that you’ll win games by doing that,” Heisler said. “It’s not that simple. It’s a building process.”We changed coaches two years ago. You didn’t do that because you won 11 games for the last 10 years. There’s a reason that happened.” Focus on the field What everyone agrees is that no matter what goes on behind the scenes, all that matters is that Willingham and the Irish win on Saturday. “Just because you do all these support things doesn’t guarantee you’ll beat Michigan or anything else,” Heisler said. But many alumni both want and expect the Irish to compete for a national championship annually.”This is an area where people tend to view in extremes,” Coffey said. “I think we always have the goal of the national championship. I think it’s good to set standards high. Whether they are set too high is a function of the capabilities of the team.”Heisler echoes that comment by saying Lou Holtz often joked that you don’t want to be successful too early. When Holtz won his only national title in his third year, fans expected the Irish to win them on a regular basis.”That was tough,” Heisler said. “We understand the mindset of people, it’s what have you done for us lately. That’s the way our fans are going to be, and that’s the way our alumni are going to be. We obviously lost some games last year, and I don’t know that there’s anything people can do to change those people’s impressions until you go back on the field.”Dave Duerson, a member of the University’s Board of Trustees and a former Irish football player, remains optimistic. His son, Tregg, received a scholarship to play for the Irish in the fall.”Every program has its ups and downs, but that is not indicative of the direction the program is heading,” he said, later adding, “It’s time to move on [from the criticism]. Nobody is more upset about last year’s finish than those student-athletes and the coaching staff.”Alumni like Coffey and Kelley are cautiously optimistic that the football program is ready to turn the corner. Besides a letter from the Monogram Club, Kelley said he still has yet to receive a response to the letter sent to the Board of Trustees. That doesn’t matter, he said, as long as progress is made.”The thing I would like to see change,” Coffey said, “is the administration look less uncomfortable when talking about athletics in general and football in particular. Every time they say something about football, it’s always qualified.”In the end, Heisler said the fact that everyone wants to give an opinion about the state of the football team is an indication of a shared passion for Notre Dame football. Even if that opinion, like many Coffey sees on his Web site, is a frustrated one.”You have to find the middle ground from an emotional standpoint,” Heisler said. “If you win your first game in a given season, people want to make their reservations for a national championship. If you lose your first game, people want to jump off a building.”Somewhere in the middle is reality.”