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College Football - Tarnished Dome in South Bend?

By Sean McDonald
Saturday, August 24th, 2002
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As the new college football season arrives, one school is getting attention for reasons it has not been accustomed to. Notre Dame is not in the Top 25 and has seen four players expelled -- namely, it's leading returning rusher, Julius Jones, who's suspended for the entire season. The Irish also named two new head coaches during the offseason before finally settling with Tyrone Willingham (remember to update those resumes correctly, everyone).

These are not you father's Fighting Irish. Is there light at the end of the tunnel or is this a case of a once mighty program, such as USC or Penn State, falling into the depths of mediocrity? I'll take a look at reason for the fall of the Golden Empire and see if Notre Dame can again reach the heights of yesteryear.

What Caused Notre Dame's Decline?

1. Bob Davey

Sorry, Davey apologists, but Bob did not get the job done. There are other reasons that contributed to the decline, but first and foremost the blame must fall on the head coach. Davey wasn't warmly embraced by the Irish faithful from the beginning, and he did nothing during his tenure to get the fans behind him. Whether it was an inability to choose an offensive system and stick to it or the inability to adjust to the opposing team's offensive scheme, Davey just wasn't a very creative coach, nor was he a consistent coach.

Year in and year out, Notre Dame fans would hear how they were going to return to the option days of Lou Holtz, only to see that offense scrapped for a combination of a hesitant power running game and an unimaginative passing offense. Quarterbacks were shuffled in and out and Davey only seemed to get the most out of one, Matt Lavecchio, for the end of the 2000 season (a soft schedule helped, as well.)

2. Who are these guys?

Quick, name the last big time player to come from Notre Dame ... get some shock therapy if you responded with Ron Powlus. Rick Mirer? Quick, call missing persons. Rocket Ismael? Yeah, probably. Recruiting has slipped at Notre Dame over the past ten years for a number of reasons. The rise of the Florida triumvirate is one cause (come on, South Beach vs. South Bend, if you were 18 and a stud athlete, which would you pick?).

The growth of college football in general, specifically the explosion of television coverage, is another reason. Notre Dame is no longer the big game every week. Every team is covered and winning big games on national television happens for a lot more teams than it used to. The days of the Notre Dame head coach walking into a young man's house and walking out with a signed letter of intent are over. Notre Dame has to line up with the rest of the big-time programs and fight for recruits, which is a big change over previous years.

3. Shakespeare, Pythagoras, Plato, Salk ... the four horsemen, they aren't.

Sports Illustrated ran a story a few years back about the decline of the Notre Dame program and illustrated the changes in Notre Dame's academic policies and their effects on the football program. Perhaps the best example of this occurred in the recruiting of T.J. Duckett (who went to to Michigan State and was drafted in the first round by the Atlanta Falcons this spring.)

According to T.J.'s father, Notre Dame did a great recruiting job, including bringing him into the stadium and showing all of the Heisman trophies that previous Irish had won. However, a dispute with the provost (supposedly, he told T.J. and his father that he didn't think that T.J. would be able to pass a mandatory Calculus class) led to T.J. going elsewhere.

I am not advocating recruiting students, athletes or otherwise, who have no chance of succeeding at any university, but to tell a prospective student who had a solid background that he had no chance is not a good policy in general, and not a bright spot for recruiting athletes, specifically.

How Can Notre Dame Turn Things Around?

1. Tyrone Willingham

After a hiccup, Notre Dame made what should have been it's first decision by hiring Tyrone Willingham. Tyrone has proven that he can coach, he can recruit, and he can succeed at a program with high academic standards. Tyrone took a Stanford program that had had moderate success previously and turned it into a perennial Pac-10 contender.

If Notre Dame is going to continue to adhere to it's academic policies and turn away less fortunate athletes, Tyrone is going to have to have to use the recruiting prowess he showed at Stanford. He realizes that Notre Dame is a no-nonsense institution, and he has to put that to use in his recruiting as well as putting it into his coaching. A team that at times looked lost under Bob Davey will need to be crisper under Willingham, and Tyrone has shown in the past that he can instill that attention to detail in his players.

2. Patience

This shouldn't be a problem for Notre Dame. They gave Bob Davey three too many years, and here's hoping they show Willingham the same patience. Coaches, no matter how good they are, can only work with what has been given to them, and Willingham may actually inherit a program that has less talent than the Stanford program he left. Add a killer schedule to the mix for this year and Tyrone may not have the faithful putting his name in the same sentence as Knute Rockne, Ara Parseghian, and Holtz. Notre Dame fans, be patient, and your rewards will begin to return sooner than you think.

Will Notre Dame ever return to the year in, year out dominance that is now occurring in the state of Florida? That's a tough question to answer. With a stricter admission policy, the Irish will have to have a better success rate at targeting and getting the best of the best.

They will miss out on some of the impact players because of the universities policies. Does that automatically eliminate them from National Championship contender? The answer is no. I see a Notre Dame program that will rebuild quickly, because the Notre Dame name still is the biggest drawing card in college football, but will not be able to dominate year in and year out.

I see a program that will be a perennial Top 15 program with great chances two out of every four years to win it all. I expect that Touchdown Jesus will be looking down on a national title contender in 2004 if the alumni and the university allow Tyrone Willingham to do what he's already proven he can do: coach.

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