Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Comparative Histories

With the Irish at an unprecedented 1-9, much has been made over the fact that Charlie Weis is a good bet to finish his first three seasons with a record identical to that of his predecessor, Tyrone Willingham, affectionately dubbed "The Scourge of Humanity" by ESPN's Pat Forde, which he apparently considers a well-conceived slap at those who would spin ND's historic plunge as all Willingham's fault. As I've mentioned in previous posts, I think a lot gets made of the perceived symmetry of 21-16 instead of some of the realities surrounding each man's position.

Willingham had been a head coach  for a decade when Notre Dame sent him packing in December 2004. Weis has been a head coach for three and has hit the wall for the first time with his first losing season. After Willngham's first losing season, a 5-6 mark (which coincidentally came in his third year at Stanford) he followed up by going 3-8. Weis' overall record at Notre Dame is skewed by one bad season matched against two good ones; Willingham's, conversely, by one good season versus two bad ones. Furthermore, Willingham hasn't done much at Washington to convince anybody that Notre Dame was wrong to think its program was heading in the wrong direction under him. He is 11-23 in just under three years there, and with games remaining against Cal, Washington State, and Hawaii, it's a good bet his three-year mark won't be better than 12-25. Then there's the laughable edge Weis has in the recruiting department, which while it winds up meaning nothing if it doesn't translate onto the field, does count when evaluating a guy who has been a head coach a grand total of three seasons. There is no coach, at any level, who simply waltzes in and does not go through at least one season of getting squarely punched in the mouth. The great ones learn and respond, the mediocre ones pull in lavish severance packages and hit the links come springtime.

But the motivation behind this post stems from the toxic phrase "1-9". A little digging over at the College Football Data Warehouse revealed that while 9+ losses in a season were quite rare among the traditional powers, rough stretches were not. Going into 2007, here was how each of the top 10 all-time programs (by win percentage) could compare with their "worst" seasons:
  1. Michigan: No nine-loss or 8-loss campaigns in program history. 1934: 1-7, 1962: 2-7. Interesting to note that, since the 1992 season when they were undefeated but thrice-tied, the Wolverines have had only two seasons with fewer than two losses.
  2. Notre Dame: Went 2-8 in both 1956 (Terry Brennan) and 1960 (Joe Kuharich), and probably would've matched that mark in 1963 under Hugh Devore but for the final game being cancelled due to the JFK assassination.
  3. Nebraska: Went 2-7 in 1899, 3-7 in 1942, 2-7 in 1948, 2-8 the next year, 2-8 again in '51, then 1-9 under Bill Jennings in 1957. After Jennings dismissal following a 3-6-1 season in 1962, the Huskers go on a run under Bob Devaney, Tom Osborne, and Frank Solich where they don't have a losing season until 2004, Year 1 of the soon-to-be-finished Bill Callahan Era.
  4. Texas: The football-crazy state has suffered through 1-8 (1938), 1-9 (1956), and a pair of 4-7 seasons in 1988 and 1997.
  5. Ohio State: The Buckeyes know better than most how to avoid a good purge, having never lost more than six games a season (though they accomplished that number twice in a span of three years, 1999 under John Cooper and again in 2001 under Jim Tressel).
  6. Penn State: Not surprisingly given the length of his tenure, the man who presided over the three worst seasons in Penn State history is Joe Paterno - the 5-7 record of 2000, the 3-9 campaign of 2003 and the following year's 4-7 mark represent the only times PSU has dropped at least seven games. 
  7. Alabama: A good trivia question - of the 10 winningest programs in NCAA football, which is the only one to suffer a winless season? The Crimson Tide did in 1955, going 0-10 under Jennings B. "Ears" Whitworth. Two consecutive 2-7-1 seasons that followed convinced 'Bama to dump Ears and hire Paul Bryant, who in 25 seasons lost more than 3 games just twice - his first year (1958) and his last (1982). 'Bama's biggest foe over the years has been the NCAA, which vacated 8 wins due to massive rules violations during the 1993 season, putting that team on the books as a 1-12 squad. The Tide also went 3-8 in 2000 and 4-9 in 2004.
  8. Oklahoma: The Sooners first tough times hit in the 1960s, when legendary coach Bud Wilkinson slumped to 3-6 in 1960, and Gomer Jones (not making that up, it's listed as his official name in the record books) directed a 3-7 team in 1965. The second wayward era came from 1994 to 1998, when OU went through three coaches (Gary Gibbs, Howard Schnellenberger, and John Blake) and were 6-6 at best, 3-8 at worst.
  9. Tennessee: The Vols have just one seven-loss season, in 1977 in Johnny Major's first year. They do pile up the losses quite often though, having at least 5 losses 23 times.
  10. USC: The Trojan's recent dominance keeps the memories of 20 years as a program stuck in neutral in the back of people's minds. But even mighty Southern Cal isn't immune from the occasional losing disease: John McKay started his career just 8-11-1. The Trojans went 1-9 in 1957, 3-8 in 1991, and 5-7 in 2001.
Even with 2007 a firm contender to be the worst season in Notre Dame's history, it would be a mistake (for now) to assume anything other than it was a young coach making a colossal miscalculation that he won't be foolish enough to repeat again. 

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