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Give seniors credit for ND team’s progress

Mike Gilloon | Friday, November 18, 2005

Somebody tell them it’s a bad dream. Somebody tell them it’s just some cruel trick. Somebody tell the Notre Dame senior class of 2006 that they will be back next season, that they aren’t really leaving when they have been the ones front and center, turning the tide of Notre Dame’s football current.

Unfortunately for Brandon Hoyte, Corey Mays, Maurice Stovall and the other 23 seniors playing their last game in Notre Dame Stadium tomorrow, they aren’t coming back next season. They won’t have a chance to experience how far Irish coach Charlie Weis leads this team in years to come.

If not for a couple plays against Michigan State and USC running back Reggie Bush’s helpful push of quarterback Matt Leinart into the end zone, the Irish might be on the verge of a senior trip to sunny Pasadena this season.

Much of the credit for the turnaround has to be given to Athletic Director Kevin White and the Notre Dame administration. They finally hit the jackpot with Weis. This season isn’t built on luck or a forgiving schedule. Weis is a darn good football coach who has a job in South Bend as long as he wants it. His play calling is world class, and he evidently knows how to motivate college kids.

For this success, Weis too deserves a lot of credit.

But more of the applause for the marvelous season should be directed right at these seniors.

When Weis was hired last December as the fourth (counting George O’Leary) Irish coach in the past five seasons, it was this class that held the team together.

None of these men knew Weis would be a success. None of them knew whether the first-year coaching staff would abandon them, preferring to build for the future by utilizing younger players.

None of them knew if sticking around for their last season at Notre Dame would be worth it.

They could have transferred to a Division 1-AA school, where their talent would have assured them a starting role. They could have ignored their new coaches and let animosity over the public-relations fiasco of the Tyrone Willingham firing divide the team and hinder the resurgence of the program. They could have simply quit.

But they didn’t. And even if this season is just an appetizer for what’s to come in 2006, sticking around was worth it.

Too many recent seniors have ended their time at Notre Dame on a dreary note.

Nick Setta, Julius Jones and the rest of the class of 2003 finished up their careers in the Carrier Dome, on the ugly end of a 38-12 score.

Carlyle Holiday and his class of 2004 fell to Walt Harris and Pittsburgh in their final home game last season.

Even the 1993 team – whose 31-24 win over Florida State was one of the few games in Irish history that can match the excitement of this season’s near-upset of USC – walked out of Notre Dame Stadium in tears after being booted by David Gordon and Boston College.

There should be no tears this weekend – at least no tears of frustration. These seniors have nothing to regret about their time at Notre Dame.

Yes, they spent four years wondering why their talent wasn’t being used properly and if the administration would ever find a coach who could handle the massive expectations under the Golden Dome. But they’ve done something so monumental it overshadows any past failure. They’ve set the foundation for a championship.

If these seniors didn’t stay, this team would have fallen apart.

Without the leadership of Hoyte and Mays, the Irish aren’t 7-2. Without the strength and heart of Mark LeVoir and Dan Stevenson, Notre Dame’s offense flounders; it doesn’t flourish.

Without every one of these seniors, the negativity that surrounded this program in December keeps Weis from winning like he has.

Next season, Notre Dame will be on television every weekend, favored in most every game.

But Levoir won’t be there. He might be at home, resting up for his NFL game just like Stovall, Hoyte, Mays, Stevenson and D.J. Fitzpatrick hope to be.

Craig Cardillo intends on going to San Diego to fulfill his Naval ROTC commitment. Matt Shelton might be working a desk job for the University. Jeff Jenkins wants to be earning a paycheck from the FBI.

Weis is loading up the car, ready to drive Notre Dame back to national prominence. And these seniors, instead of buckling up and settling in for the ride, can only watch. But that’s O.K. for them. They filled up the tank.

Contact Mike Gilloon at mgilloon@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.