Commentary

Good hire can reverse Irish's course

Updated: November 30, 2009, 10:02 PM ET
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

There is nothing wrong with Notre Dame football that the right coach cannot fix.

This is not a problem caused by academic standards or Midwestern climate or a lack of conference affiliation. This is a coaching problem.

The question now is whether a school that has bumbled its way through its past four hires can get it right at a critical juncture in the storied program's history.

[+] EnlargeCharlie Weis
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesThe Charlie Weis era at Notre Dame ended with four consecutive losses.

Charlie Weis is the latest and most costly in a series of mistakes at a program that has abdicated its position among the vanguard of college football. Since Lou Holtz departed the golden dome in 1996, Notre Dame has been mired in an inertia created by mediocre leadership.

Of the top 15 programs of all time as tabulated in 2008 by ESPN Stats & Information, the Fighting Irish lag behind the other 14 from 1997 through the present.

While Texas, Ohio State, Florida, USC and the others have won big in the modern era, Notre Dame has a measly winning percentage of .576 over the past 13 seasons. It has not won a BCS bowl game or even come close.

The only other top-15 program with a similar lack of distinction over that time span is Alabama, which has a .609 winning percentage and also has failed to win a BCS bowl. Not coincidentally, Alabama has had remarkably similar coaching tumult. While Notre Dame has gone through four coaches since '96, Bama outdid the Fighting Irish by one. They hired five coaches while casting about for the right formula.

There were misses with career assistants hired from within (Bob Davie, Mike DuBose). There were misses with NFL assistants who owned fancy pedigrees and were hired to modernize the offense (Weis, Mike Shula). There were misses with successful college head coaches undercut by scandal before coaching a game (George O'Leary, Mike Price). And for the Crimson Tide, there was the outright desertion by Dennis Franchione.

(The Alabama version of Tyrone Willingham predates the current era. He would be Bill Curry, another moderately accomplished college head coach elsewhere who was swallowed by the new culture and spit out after three uncomfortable seasons.)

But just when everyone was wondering whether Alabama football was dead, the Crimson Tide finally hit a home run with Nick Saban. Now the school has its next coaching giant. (Though it must be noted that there is some luck involved in the process. Saban was only signed after Rich Rodriguez said no, and Pete Carroll wasn't the first choice at USC, either.)

Can Notre Dame pull an Alabama and reverse its recent rotten hiring history?

No school is immune to making a bad hire and suffering the consequences. Of the top 15 programs, 13 of them have had to force at least one coaching change since 1997. The only exceptions are Florida State and Penn State, and there are many at those institutions who believe it is time for change there as well.

The key is limiting the mistakes to a single poor fit. Notre Dame has compounded its errors, one after another.

When Notre Dame went the no-experience-as-a-head-coach route, it did not identify Bob Stoops or Mark Richt the way Oklahoma and Georgia did. When Notre Dame went with a head coach from a school in a different area but with a similar academic profile, it did not nab Mack Brown or Saban the way Texas and LSU did. When Notre Dame went NFL shopping, it did not emulate USC's success and get the next Pete Carroll.

[+] EnlargeCharlie Weis
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesCharlie Weis exits Notre Dame with a 35-27 record.
But as undistinguished as Davie and Willingham were, the Weis era has become a new low. When Willingham's best recruits checked out after 2006, the program crashed.

Weis' record over the past three seasons: 16-21. Of those 16 victories, three came against opponents that finished the season with a winning record (Navy last year, Nevada and Boston College this year). There were home losses to Navy (twice), Syracuse and Connecticut. There were zero signature victories.

In fact, the only signature characteristic of the past three Weis teams has been folding in the face of adversity. One loss has precipitated numerous losses.

The Fighting Irish began 2007 by losing five straight. In 2008, they lost four of their last five regular-season games. This year, they finished Weis' tenure by losing their last four.

And after the final defeat, at Stanford on Saturday night, Weis disappeared without facing the media.

Several other coaches facing similar fates all stood up for themselves and their teams after losses this weekend -- Steve Kragthorpe of Louisville, Al Groh of Virginia, Mark Mangino of Kansas. Weis? He weakly went out the side door.

It was quite a departure from the guy who arrived five years ago cocksure and convinced he had all the answers, flashing his Super Bowl rings and pouring honey into the ears of alums thrilled to have one of their own in charge. That now seems a long time ago. He and everyone involved in his hiring should have been properly humbled by this failure.

But in the end, Weis' no-comment exit was a fitting abdication of command for a guy who never proved he was anything more than a clever playcaller and productive recruiter.

Weis is, in football parlance, a dark-room guy -- gifted at working in the film room, poring over videotape and producing an offensive game plan. But he's not the kind of guy who can step into the spotlight, occupy the big chair and succeed. He's not head-coaching material.

Not enough leadership ability. Not enough smart staff decisions. Not a thorough understanding of all the people you must meet, greet and treat with a modicum of respect and charm when you're in charge at Notre Dame.

So it's start-over time once again in South Bend. But a return to glory is not an impossible proposition.

The football program still has cachet with recruits -- Weis proved as much -- and there are plenty of quality prospects who can gain admission to the school. Its television contract remains a major plus. Its facilities are commensurate with the nation's best. Its modern scheduling philosophy provides plenty of opportunity for success.

Notre Dame football can rise again, no question about it. But to do so, the school has to make its first good hire in nearly a quarter of a century.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.