Monday, August 31, 2009

Charlie Weis’ Fork in the Road: How Will History Repeat Itself?

Clashmore Mike, Domer Sports Report

Notre Dame Football

The summer-long conversation regarding the fate of Notre Dame head coach will soon be over. Unfortunately, most of the discussion on this subject, from the television sports channels to internet bloggers, has offered more heat than light. In less than a week, the Irish will tee it up against the University of Nevada in Notre Dame Stadium. Charlie Weis’ legacy may well be decided in this very first game. Notre Dame and Coach Weis are at a fork in the road, and which direction they go will soon be known. Will it be mediocrity? Or the proverbial “Return to Glory?”

The Spanish philosopher George Santayana said "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." This goes for institutions as well as individuals, and throughout the history of Notre Dame’s football program, many of the same mistakes have been made, then corrected, then made again. It’s a lesson for those with short memories, those who believe that the program’s recent decade of mediocrity is a new phenomenon, and that Notre Dame’s best days are behind her.

We all know about Knute Rockne, the legendary coach who not only set the bar so high for the Irish, but also with his celebrity, his marketing savvy, and his winning percentage (still the highest in the history of the game), created Big Time College Football. But with his death in 1931 there began a cycle of feast or famine for Notre Dame Football that continues to this day.

Rockne was followed by Elmer Layden, who coached from 1934 to 1940. Layden was one of the legendary “Four Horsemen,” but as a coach, especially following Rockne, his teams were a disappointment. His best year was 1938, when the Irish went 8-1. Otherwise, six or seven wins out of a nine game season was about average. Not bad, but for Notre Dame, not good enough.

But soon Irish eyes were smiling. Under Frank Leahy (1941-43, 1946-49) Notre Dame won four National Championships. Some Irish Faithful may think it blasphemous, but Frank Leahy was Notre Dame's greatest coach. His winning percentage of .864, was just under that of Knute Rockne’s.

But as Leahy’s success grew, the University began feeling self-conscious about what might seem to be an over-emphasis on football, and the football coach. This wasn’t new…during the heyday of Rockne, the feeling that the colorful coach was beginning to eclipse the educational and spiritual mission of the school was growing. However, Rockne died before it came to a head. Not so with Leahy. The administration began to restrict the coach’s scholarships and power, and eventually forced him out.

What followed was a decade of mediocrity. From1954 to 1963, the Irish underperformed. First was coach Terry Brennan, followed by Joe Kuharich. Neither was a success. Fans grieved and detractors gloated that Notre Dame’s success was history. Done. They were “irrelevant.” (Sound familiar?) Then came Ara Parseghian.

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