Down and Out in South Bend — Beyond Coaching

As the Fighting Irish slip from mediocre to bad, here is little data comparison of Charlie Weis and Ty Willingham (courtesy of my sports econ colleague here at WKU, Dennis Wilson):

Wins Against Winning Team By Season
Willingham/Weis — 6/2, 3/5, 3/0 (so far and best guess)

Margin of Losses (Willingham — Weis)
Season 1 7, 22, 31 — 3,3,14
Season 2 2, 6, 13, 26, 27, 31, 38 — 20, 27, 27
Season 3 1, 3, 3, 17, 25, 31 — 30, 21, 38, 17 (so far)

Score Differential v. USC (Willingham, Weis)
Season 1 -31, -3
Season 2 -31, -20
Season 3 -31, Whatever USC wants it to be

For those who think that coaching has been the main problem at ND, the question is not why was Willingham fired, but why would Weis be given a 10-year extension based on one good game versus USC?

However, I’m more convinced that coaching is not the fundamental problem than when I contemplated Struggles of the Irish after the Sugar Bowl whipping by LSU. This year’s situation has startled me — not the losses but how uncompetitive and overmatched the ND players are. Whether someone might have done better than Bob Davie, Willingham, or Weis, might be debated. However, a 20 year slide from a national championship to pathetic with decent to good coaching begins to point more and more toward some influence other than coaching, at least the non-recruiting end of coaching.

In an “Open Letter” to ND, Sewart Mandel of gets at what I think is the central issue:

Your school’s last national title came in 1988 (and at this point, I think it’s safe to assume the next one won’t be coming in 2008). Do a Google search for “College football standings, 1988,” and click on “Independents.” You’ll find there were 25 of them that year, including Penn State, Miami, Florida State, West Virginia and Louisville. In other words, you guys weren’t exactly alone.

Fast forward to 2007 and there are … three: Notre Dame, Army and Navy. What’s wrong with this picture?

Mandel focuses a lot on how the independent status hinders ND’s scheduling. Maybe scheduling factors in the equation, but their performances go way beyond scheduling.

In the earlier post I mentioned how conferences help develop rivalries. In thinking more about the matter, such rivalry may be part of the conference story, but other market forces related to conferences matter more. Not only did major independents join up in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but these and other shifts produced the “mega-conferences.” No longer would Texas play the Texas-only Conference. The Big Ten added a major player in Penn State. The ACC went from the Tobacco Road Conference to an entire East Coast Conference. Even the Big East, which seemed sunk in losing Miami, has emerged as a viable football entity where West Virginia is a whole lot better than ND. With all of these moves and the attending TV, other media, and fan exposure along with better coaches, the likelihood of a Tim Brown (from Dallas) eschewing Texas, Oklahoma, or some other big conference school to go to ND diminished in spite of their national alumni base and NBC contract. ND made its bed then and now is wallowing in it.

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Author: Brian Goff

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