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Commentary: Loss on Senior Day really hurts

Matt Gamber | Monday, November 23, 2009

Only being a junior, I didn’t think the emotions of Notre Dame’s Senior Day would get to me. But when Connecticut’s Andre Dixon scampered into the end zone and handed five fifth-year seniors, including captains Kyle McCarthy and Scott Smith, their second straight Senior Day loss — well, it got to me.

It wasn’t just about the loss, which dropped the Irish to a shocking to some, disappointing to all 6-5 record this season, exactly where Notre Dame was a year ago. And while most Notre Dame fans are angry, to say the least, I can’t help but just feel sad for the Notre Dame family, from the students and alumni to the players and coaches.

Some would argue that you can’t hurt for Charlie Weis, a man paid millions to coach football at his alma mater and who, by most any statistical measure, hasn’t lived up to expectations. But for all Weis’ shortcomings — and they’ll all be discussed over the next week or so, until an official announcement about the program’s future is made at some point after Saturday’s game at Stanford — I still have a great deal of respect for him.

Just after Weis’ Sunday press conference, I happened across the 2005 ESPN video story on “Pass Right,” when Weis famously stuck to a promise he made to a dying 10-year-old Irish fan to pass to the right on Notre Dame’s first play against Washington, even though the Irish were backed up inside their own 1-yard line.

That was five years ago, just three games into the Weis era that seemed so full of promise. The contrast was stark between the Weis in the video — fresh, energetic, optimistic, well perceived — and the one who sat in front of the media Sunday, appearing worn out, physically and emotionally, despite trying to take a light-hearted approach with the local beat writers before the press conference.

Weis has been the subject of as much pointed media speculation as any figure in the sports world in recent weeks, and it hurts to see that happen to a man who loves Notre Dame and has put so much into turning his program around.

Despite his disappointing win-loss record, the fact is he is still part of a Notre Dame family that prides itself on its closeness even in tough times, and this may be the toughest of times for Weis and his players. To hear the boo birds come out for the Band’s traditional 1812 Overture — usually played as a tribute to Notre Dame’s head coach — following the singing of the Alma Mater as the team, and particularly the seniors, slowly trickled into the locker room stung, for me at least, more than another close loss that, unfortunately, didn’t come as a huge surprise.

No, Weis hasn’t beaten USC in five tries. He’s lost at home to Navy twice. He’s lost two straight Senior Day games. His winning percentage is lower than those of both Bob Davie and Tyrone Willingham at the time they were fired.

Those damning statistics don’t lie, and I can no longer believe he could, should or would be retained. While he’s taken the right tact with the media by politely declining to answer those loaded “big picture” questions until after the season, I’m not sure I believe him when he says he hasn’t reflected on the program’s progress and how it affects his job status.

No, I haven’t believed in a lot of the moves Weis has made this season, and I don’t believe a lot of what he’s said as the pressure turned up in recent weeks. But when he says he’ll continue to prepare for Stanford, I believe him. When he says he’ll continue to recruit “full speed ahead” until he’s told he’s not coming back, I believe him. And when he says he cares most about his players in these uncertain times, I believe him.

Charlie Weis is a good man. He is a Notre Dame man. And, perhaps even more importantly, his players, and especially his seniors, are Notre Dame men. It is admirable the way they have stood by their embattled coach over the last three tumultuous years, and the way in which the team emerged from the tunnel Saturday — standing behind their four captains and their head coach, both literally and figuratively — made me proud to support this team, even if the final result didn’t.

Just as the struggles of Notre Dame’s players in certain areas of the game — an inconsistent ground game and poor tackling fundamentals come to mind — are a reflection of their head coach, so too is the way with which these players carried themselves before and after what might have been the most painful loss for a group of players who have endured more than their fair share of painful losses.

Of course I wish the offensive line played a little nastier, the linebackers tackled much better and the defensive backs were more aggressive with the ball in the air. Those are only three examples of concerns and criticisms any casual observers of this Irish team would make, and, fairly or unfairly, those ultimately fall on the shoulders of the head coach, as Weis acknowledged Sunday.

But if you listened to the seniors talk about their Notre Dame experience leading up to their final game in the Stadium, and if you watched the pain with which so many of them lingered on the field after this gut-wrenching defeat, you know these guys have given it all they could. And so has their coach.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
Contact Matt Gamber at mgamber@nd.edu