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Commentary: Weis not answer, but future is bright

Sam Werner | Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The worst-kept secret in South Bend is finally out of the bag.

Around 3 p.m. Monday, Notre Dame students received an e-mail confirming that Charlie Weis will not return as head football coach next season.

While the announcement may not have come as a surprise, it was a jarring reminder that, for the third time in a row, Notre Dame had failed to find the right coach to return the Irish to their place at the top of the college football world.

By now, everyone knows the damning statistics about Charlie Weis’ tenure at Notre Dame.

He presided over the worst three-year stretch in Irish history, guiding the team to a 16-21 record since 2007. Losses to Syracuse, Connecticut, Air Force and Navy — twice — rank as some of the most indefensible in Notre Dame history.

The 2007 season will undoubtedly be remembered as the tipping point in Weis’ term. From a mismanaged preseason quarterback derby to the first loss to Navy in 44 years, the season set a slew of record lows for the Notre Dame football program. The optimism that surrounded the BCS berths of the previous two seasons was replaced with a now-infamous 3-9 record.

Still, the Irish won their last two games of 2007 and — as Weis himself would often say — the arrow was pointing up.

But Notre Dame struggled to play up to its potential in both of the past two seasons. Sure, there were high points: A rain-soaked win over Michigan in 2008, dominating performances over Hawaii and Nevada and coming oh-so-close to finally beating USC this October.

The systemic deficiencies, though, were present throughout. During Weis’ entire tenure, and especially over the past three years, the Irish have suffered from a lack of emphasis on the defensive side of the ball, an ineffective and poorly-developed rushing attack and a general lack of fundamental football skills. The Weis era will likely be remembered for missed tackles, poor line play and wasted opportunity.

In the end, Charlie Weis’ greatest shortcoming was simply that he couldn’t be something he was not: a college football head coach. Coming from an X’s and O’s NFL mentality, Weis never fully understood that college football games are ultimately won and lost in the trenches.

While Golden Tate and Jimmy Clausen have flourished in Weis’ pass-first system, players like Armando Allen and Sam Young just haven’t quite seemed to live up to their potential.

Amid all the rubble, however, there is hope.

Whoever the next coach is — and there will be plenty of speculation over the next few days — he will inherit a team that is ready to contend for a BCS berth. Not in two years, not down the road, but right away.

Even if Clausen and Tate don’t come back next season, the talent is there for the Irish to be an elite football program. Dayne Crist will be a more than capable starting quarterback once he recovers from ACL surgery, and with the flashes Allen has shown, a focus on the running game could elevate him to superstar status.

At the same time, the new head coach will be able to utilize recruiting pipelines that only recently reemerged. With classes consistently ranked at the top of recruiting service rankings, Weis dispelled any myths that Notre Dame could no longer haul in talent with the big boys. Players like Clausen, Michael Floyd and Manti Te’o would be stars wherever they went to school.

More important than anything, though, is that Notre Dame gets this hire right. With no other major college coaching jobs available, there’s no excuse for director of athletics Jack Swarbrick to hire anyone other than his No. 1 target, whether that be Bob Stoops, Brian Kelly or someone else.

As reporters were quick to remind Swarbrick at his press conference Monday, it’s been 16 years since the Irish contended for a National Championship. Most of the players Notre Dame is currently recruiting were barely a year old then.

If we’re going through this same process five years from now, that means Notre Dame is five years closer to being no more than a college football history lesson. If Swarbrick truly wishes to annually contend for BCS berths, now is the time to start.

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

Contact Sam Werner at swerner@nd.edu