It’s no secret that Notre Dame football and its dedicated fans have become a national punchline in the past fifteen years, and especially over the last two and a half seasons. After an unprecedented bowl losing streak, mediocre performance against all but the weakest competition and four failed coaching hires that the Irish faithful would gladly banish from our collective memory, that punchline has been well-used and well-justified. Nonetheless, some would point to the end of the nation’s most ignominious bowl losing streak and the influx of talent-laden recruiting classes as reasons for continued optimism about Coach Weis’ tenure.
Fellow alumni, students and friends of Notre Dame: do not be fooled. Don’t be distracted by the snapping of losing streaks against Boston College or by Hail Mary touchdown receptions against triple coverage. Our football program is teetering on the edge of the abyss right now. Lest we be written off as deluded crackpot alums who think football is the most important thing in the world, let us explain why we feel more desperate now than we ever did as students when Tyrone Willingham was our coach, during last year’s lackluster performance, or even 2007’s unprecedented 3-9 humiliation.
Given current circumstances, we feel a complete lack of hope for the future of our storied program, if allowed to continue on its current path. Weis has been given a longer leash than Willingham received, and, upon watching Tate and Floyd and Clausen (arguably the best college QB to ever lace up his cleats in the shadow of the Dome), it is easy to appreciate why. Weis’s recruiting acumen is undeniable. However, overall team management is another matter, and Irish fans have been left with an unholy litany of questions that highlight Weis’s ultimate and irredeemable failure as our head coach.
Why have we lost two consecutive home games to Navy? Why has our losing streak to USC been extended by five more years, with losses by an average of 19.8 points? Why have we gone 3-16 in the last three seasons when playing teams with a winning record? Why is Ian Williams publicly derided by his coach in a childish “he-said, she-said” manner for daring to suggest that our defensive scheme was ineffective against Navy? And how can a Notre Dame coach get away with announcing after a humiliating loss that his coaching methods don’t, and will never, change? These last two occurrences are perhaps even more damning than on-the-field performance of Weis’ teams. We heard it straight from his mouth: things aren’t going to change. Coming from the same man who titled his autobiography “No Excuses,” and once hung a defiant banner proclaiming that “9-3 Isn’t Good Enough,” the hypocrisy is palpable.
However, there is still a larger, more ominous reason for our desperation. Even after Saturday’s debacle, we cannot be sure that the Powers-That-Be at Notre Dame will show Weis the door by the end of the season and hire a worthy replacement. Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick has expressed confidence that Weis is moving our program in the right direction. With all due respect to Mr. Swarbrick, the data has spoken unequivocally for the opposite conclusion. This season has been an object lesson in poor team management, from the maddening defensive failures, to consistent mediocrity from our offensive line, and beyond. Further, Weis’ career winning percentage of .593 is on the precipice of sinking to the fatal .583 level, which earned both Bob Davie and Ty Willingham dismissals from the head coaching job. The only remaining question is whether Mr. Swarbrick, University President Fr. John Jenkins and the Board of Trustees will do what needs to be done. Sadly, we cannot be confident in the judgment of an AD who scheduled a game against Western Michigan and happily filled our schedule with games against Purdue for the next 12 years, or of an administration that would agree to a money-grab scheduling scheme like the 7-4-1 model. Mandating a schedule with three teams per year that do not require return trips to their campuses, and scheduling “neutral-site” night games against subpar opponents that allow us to keep all the revenue, are ill-conceived plots to maximize short-term revenue. However, they demean the long-term value of the Notre Dame football program, insult Notre Dame’s national fan base, and ultimately do great harm to the University.
We love Notre Dame for far more than football, and truly believe that it is one of the most special institutions in the world. To us Notre Dame stands as a symbol that one can accomplish great things without taking shortcuts or giving in to taking the easy route; it has been a great source of hope and inspiration for our lives, and we know the same is true for countless others, whether alumni or not. Truly, our school is great because it has stayed true to Father Sorin’s admonition that we should never dream too small. If Our Lady’s university is to continue to uphold this lofty principle, it must do so on all fronts: academic, religious and yes, athletic. So, Mr. Swarbrick, Fr. Jenkins, Trustees and Fellows: prove that we aren’t just satisfied with complacency, easy money and posturing. Restore our football program to a platform that showcases the values that the Notre Dame family so proudly claims. Demonstrate, as we used to, that a program run the right way can excel. Until there is a sea change in our school’s priorities, we will be forced to wonder: if we are satisfied with mediocrity and the path of least resistance with respect to football, what’s next?
John Strong is a 2008 and 2009 Notre Dame graduate. Brendan Hanehan is a 2007 Notre Dame graduate and is currently a third year law student.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.