Monday, November 23, 2009

Dancing on Notre Dame's Grave

Notre Dame's recent loss to Connecticut (yes that football  powerhouse) caps off another failed season and puts a stake through Charlie Weis' new thousand year reign as Notre Dame's latest designated savior. Weis is 35 and 26 in five years. The program has not won more than 60 percent of its games over the last 12 years and has lost 9 of its last 10 bowl games. I'm not a vindictive guy, but watching the collapse of the Notre Dame program gives me abiding satisfaction as only a midwestern Catholic can feel.  Even famed "touchdown Jesus" can't help. Why?

Hubris and hypocrisy--this is a program that has played by its own rules due to the unique convergence of the Catholic immigrant experience and ND's rise as a representative for many American  Catholics. It carried the torch of identity for an economically disenfranchised and discriminated against religious minority. Now the program represents a much more comfortable and powerful integrated constituency. Neither its players nor its TV arbiters reflect that constituency.

The national legacy enabled Notre Dame to function as the last of the independents on the college scene as Penn State, Florida State or USC have integrated into conferences (its a whole other story about how the Big 10 remains the Big 10 with eleven members including Penn State). Notre Dame's mystique and its national fan base guaranteed a TV audience for games and helped ND stand aloof from the rest of college football. The BSC treats Notre Dame is like a separate conference and compensates them as such in the television realm with its NBC 10 million a year contract.

This unique status and legacy is now distorted into a hubris that infects the program and boosters.  The program's penchant for trigger fingered firing of successful coaches reflects this. Most egregiously the Board of the Regents staged its own coup and fired Tyrone Willingham after three years over the objections of the President and the Athletic Director. This is a University that prides itself on its Catholic heritage and has integrated values into its professional schools in a unique and powerful way, but that does not extend to football. Having disposed of an honorable man, the Board raced off and entered the Urban Meyer sweepstakes. As NCCA lore has it, they lost him as he flew off in Florida's private jet as Notre  Dame's private jet was landing.  Charlie Weiss's failure resulted directly from the Board usurping control, granting him an absurd 10 year contract and assuming that he would be save the program. Now five years in, his winning record is less than either Tyrone Willingham or Butch Davie his fired predecessors. This is moral comeuppance for the arrogance and hypocrisy of the Willingham firing.

Second, this reinforces the point that programs are not great, only coaches. If their jet had landed in time, they might have Urban Meyer and not another failed NFL genius who can't make it in the college ranks. The present fates of Michigan and Washington and even Florida and Texas before these present rebirth reinforces the points. Great programs are great because they have the tradition, media exposure, booster base and money to steal or buy (sorry I meant hire) great coaches who then arrive and make the program a winner. The rise of Oregon and Oregon State or Cincinnati are entwined with coaches and smart leaders who invest wisely and protect their coaches once they hire them.  As the Yankees prove and Notre Dame reinforces, resources are not enough. You need smart leadership investing and directing those resources to align great programs with great coaches. When a great coach retires, is stolen or starts to lose, great programs hire well and sustain their greatness. But there are no guarantees, think of North Carolina basketball between Dean Smith and Roy Williams.

Third, the Notre Dame model is not sustainable. The mediocrity of the program since the Lou Holz years eroded their stellar fan base. The rabid Catholic core is now less Catholic and more integrated with many more dual loyalties to their own institutions and localities. The  model is collapsing under the weight of a decade of mediocre football. Their ratings have plummeted this year and NBC Universal now charges 40 percent less for commercials. The TV contract provides Notre Dame with 10 million per year and treats Notre Dame as if it were an independent conference. No one is sure whether Notre Dame, except for how well its boosters travel, is a gift or problem for a bowl game. Parity and conference loyalties and glamor will continue to erode their arrogant independence.

The rest of ND's teams nestle comfortably in the Big East and win some and lose some, just like everybody else. The football program is a dead man walking but no one can afford to admit it because TV and NCAA and even other schools on their schedule have too much invested in the mystique. When ND, like the Yankees, comes to town, ticket sales go up. Who knows the overweening  Board of Trustees might even strike it right with a good hire. But ND has exposed the raw truth that integrity and winning are not the same.

Even with the stake through Weis, the program might rise again like the undead, but it will remain a hollow man even touchdown Jesus cannot redeem.

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