Monday, November 05, 2007

The Tipping Point

We have now arrived at the tipping point for Charlie Weis. It probably should've arrived next season sometime, when his young team had been given chances to mature, bulk up, digest his playbook, and the true nature of his coaching tenure would've been there for all to see. Make no mistake - I believe Weis should not be fired, not only because of the terrible climate it would create around the job, but for the fact that just as two full seasons did not qualify him to be "The Messiah", 9 games is not enough to judge him a colossal failure.

Skeptics, of course, would argue Notre Dame had no probelm foisting those respective labels on Tyrone Willingham after his solid 2002 year and the two mediocre ones that followed. There is one big difference though - when Willingham was judged, albeit hastily, following 2004, he had a full decade as a head coach. To wit: he had a losing record in 4 seasons and barely cleared the .500 mark in three others. In 10 seasons he won more than 8 games just twice, and never failed to lose less than three. It's not that one bad season, or even a couple, makes you a bad coach. Take a glance at the men leading teams the populate the BCS standings. Every single one of them suffered losing or just above it campaigns relatively early in their coaching careers. The names are striking:
  • Jim Tressel: 7-5 in year one at Ohio State, won a national title, regressed to 8-4 in 2004, his 4th year.
  • Les Miles: 4-7 in year one at Oklahoma State, only 28-21 in 4 years there; still, LSU must've seen something they liked because he took over a top-echelon program and was not an epic underachiever, going 30-5 so far.
  • Mike Bellotti: went 9-3 in year one at Oregon, with many leftovers from Rich Brooks' '94 Pac-10 Champions, but lost 5 games each of the next two seasons. Didn't repeat his early success until year 5.
  • Bob Stoops: 7-5 in year one at Oklahoma, but has been off to the races ever since. Even with the bizarro 2005 campaign the Sooners ended up forfeiting, has won at least 10 games in 7 of 8 seasons.
  • Mark Mangino: Obviously we don't need to be total geniuses to know in part how he pulled off going 2-10 in year one at Kansas, never been better than 7-5 in his first five seasons, and is now 9-0 (hint: check the Jayhawks non-conference schedule, then sneak a peek at how Nebraska and Colorado are doing. Then get back to me). Even so, he was Stoops' offensive coordinator during a two-year run when the Sooners were 24-2 and won the national championship. The guy comes from a championship background and is probably the finest example of a s&*t program giving a good coach all the time he needs.
  • Rich Rodriguez: Went 3-8 in year one at West Virginia, then posted 3 straight winning seasons. Took it to the next level in year 5 and hasn't looked back, with consecutive 11-win campaigns; on-track for a third this year.
  • Mack Brown: Went 2-20 in his first two head coaching seasons at North Carolina. Steadily built the program from that point on, posting 4 seasons with at least nine wins in his last six there. Made the leap to Texas, 'struggled' early with three straight 9-win campaigns, now on a streak of six consecutive double-digit win seasons.
  • Pete Carroll: Went 6-6 in year one at USC. Has lost just eight games since.
Obviously this is a non-exhaustive list and doesn't have an ironclad one-to-one parallel with Notre Dame's situation. You could scrounge up plenty of other examples of coaches who struggled early, had modest degress of success the longer they coached but never came close to the top of the pile (Barnett, Gary, comes to mind - 14 total seasons as a head coach, grand total of 2 10-win campaigns). You could also fill another list with coaches who got out to impressive starts but have remained stuck in neutral or flat-out underacheived ever since (Fulmer, Phil.)

In examining these track records, it just strikes me that every coach arrives at "the tipping point" - that moment at which the early success and failure must be set aside. This season, the way it has unfolded, was the bottom-out moment that almost everybody associated with Irish football feared was coming three years ago. Most of us believed Weis could navigate his way through it on the power of coaching acumen alone. Weis believed it too, which wound up greatly hurting the team early on when they spent a lot more time dreaming up complex schemes instead of prepping an insanely young group for the rigors of college football. That's just one in a group of fundamental flaws Weis made this season that puts the Irish at 1-8 and losing to Navy. He not only deserves the criticism, he doesn't shy away from it:
"When you know what they are doing and you don't handle it, that's even a bigger problem than when you don't know what they were doing, because at least you can say, 'Hey, we weren't expecting that'. That's where I feel we had our biggest failure. So rather than sit there and blame the players for not getting it done, I blame me for not practicing enough to get it done."
In other words: It doesn't matter how many times I told them to do it right; until they do it right, first guy up on the chopping block should be me. Fault the man for his errors, but don't say he's not aware of them and determined to avoid them again.

Place that in sharp contrast with his predecessor:
"I would imagine, and I hate to be so general to talk about human nature, but I also believe in it, but I also believe that most of us that have been parents, good parents, that we teach our kids certain things. But why do kids do something other than what we teach them? So we all pause for that answer, is that right?"
In other words: Hey, don't look at me. I told the kids what to do. Ain't my fault they screwed it up.

My point here is not prop up reasons why firing Weis would be a good or bad idea. Obviously it would have precedent giving the same results Willingham offered up. But by the time Weis' predecessor was fired, he had been a head coach for a decade and the proof was pretty convincing that he was not a good one. He had gone through too many seasons in the range of mediocre-to-awful and responded every time with the same thought process, the same plan, the same results. He passed the tipping point and was to busy working on his seven-iron approaches to understand what it meant.

It starts with the recognition that, from here out, we're either going to get better or get worse. It manifests itself a number of ways: sometimes 5-6 with many close losses, sometimes 4-8 (God willing) with many humiliating ones. Weis' pedigree has proven that he deserves the chance to prove he can adapt and rise above one bad season. And make no mistake about it, that's precisely what this is. How quickly we forget everything that went right in the middle of all that goes wrong. Weis hasn't been involved with a team anywhere near this bad since Drew Bledsoe's rookie season in New England. Good coaches have a year when they get pushed near the edge - and they work their way off it. Bad coaches keep getting pushed near or over the edge and keep shrugging, "No worries, it's all good. We'll just keep pumping and eventually the water will flow." (That's a not-quite-direct-quote but pretty spot on paraphrasing of The Great Molder of Men.)

While Weis' seemingly interminable ability to talk only in the present tense about what must be done now to beat Air Force could be seen as a sign that he is hopelessly out of touch, frame the question the other way. Say Weis had gone on a bitter tirade about how appalling it was to be known as the coach who lost to Navy, or the coach who lost to USC by 38 (footnote: John McKay, probably the greatest coach in USC history, lost to Notre Dame by 51). Say he'd done that. The faction of Irish fans who go on profanity-laced internet tirades and write pompous Observer editorials might've been placated by knowing the coach was as pissed off as they were. And that would've lasted a grand total of twenty seconds. Then they would've gone back to screaming about the field goal non-attempts. What good does it to do anybody, at any level, to dwell on it? Does pontificating on how embarrassing it is to lose by 38 to Michigan make any strides towards beating Air Force? Does ranting about a botched game-plan versus Georgia Tech deliver any benefit for when Notre Dame plays Duke?

Ultimately, here's my opinion on Weis: he took over a program that had seen just one serviceable recruiting class in 4 years, and even then it was a group of players who played together for two years and proved themselves to be no better than a .500 team. Weis took them to 19-6, mainly on the strength of one player. This season has been the nightmare people were envisioning three years ago after the loss to Pittsburgh, when the coaching was erratic and the talent coming in was laughably below Notre Dame par. The father of a friend of mine remarked to me after last year's loss to Michigan, "Even with some good seasons, we can't expect anything but to make the best of an awful situation between now and 2008. I'm just glad they made the change when they did - two more years of recruiting going the way it was, and we would've been out of football." Perhaps he'll wind up being more right than he knows - even staunch Notre Dame fans seem to think Saturday represented the day the program died. Who bears the responsibility? Weis does. But what needs to happen next requires something no Notre Dame fan has ever possessed: patience.

Make no mistake - Charlie Weis, as a coach, has arrived at the tipping point. Sometimes it occurs in a first year when the program's at its absolute nadir, sometimes in years 3, 4, or 5 when you finally exhuast the resources the last guy left, but every single coach arrives at it. The great ones know it, adapt, adjust, and make the program see what it can become rather than simply what it is. The lackluster ones grumble about how tough things are, how unfair the admissions office is, how dumb the schedulers are, and when all else fails, shrug and say, "I'm a good parent but my kids do stupid things. Not my problem." We certainly know Weis isn't big on doing any of the latter choices. But despite the apparently irrefutable evidence 9 games with a young depth chart provides, we don't yet know if Weis is capable of achieving the former. To find that out, you need to wait and see what happens now that he's passed the tipping point.


At 7:01 AM, Blogger Broadway said...

Good Post. A Lloyd Carr statistic could have been used....anyone....anyone?


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