Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Evolution Will Be Televised

Most coaches, especially those in high-profile 'benchmark' positions within their sport, would tell you that their most important game is "the next one". You are only as good as your most recent results. So what do you do when your most recent display was 3-9 campaign punctuated by two 38-0 blowouts, three in-season transfers, and record depths of ignominy?

Charlie Weis' first attempt at answering that question raised a few eyebrows - he was going to consult with Bill Belichick and the staff of the New England Patriots. How dare he, several media pundits tut-tutted, fail to see even in the middle of a 3-9 campaign that college is not the NFL, there is no correlation, and further insulating himself into the Orwellian world of Belichick will do little except hasten his demise. The arrogance! The audacity! Chicago Sun-Times columnist Greg Couch chimed in, "that just screams INTERN to me". In case you're wondering, yes, he did use the caps-lock feature in his column, which I guess is the level of writing one would expect from somebody who writes that Charlie Weis hasn't proven he can win with talent - pay no attention to that 19-6 record with the same talent Ty Willingham went 10-11 with - and that Weis isn't on the same level as Ron Zook...despite Weis' involvement in five Super Bowl berths, four SB rings, and two BCS bowls matched against Zook's one SB appearance and one BCS bowl. Over at CNN/SI Stewart Mandel scoffed, "Weis' continued adherence to an NFL approach is hurting the Irish immensely".

No word on how these two view the coaching friendship which has developed between Urban Meyer and Bill Belichick.

Anyway, when Weis came back to discuss non-recruiting matters with the media last Friday morning, he offered a peek at what the offseason tutorials - from Belichick, from some of his current players, from recent Notre Dame players, from former ND Athletics Director Gene Corrigan amid a host of others - had convinced him was necessary.

First the bombshell: effective immediately, the offensive game-planning and play-calling duties have been handed over to Mike Haywood, who's always been the offensive coordinator, albeit one with no real autonomy since every facet of the attack has been subject to Weis' approval. On the whole, the offensive staff now seems poised to have a greater degree of freedom to, as Weis phrased it, "[do] what they do, it's just that we're going to try to do it with the head coach less involved." Weis' public statements on when/if he would ever hand off the playcalling duties (falling as they did somewhere between 'when hell freezes over' and 'over my dead body') had long been a topic for debate even before last season's 3-9 debacle. But the cumulative effect of an offense running near dead last in every major statistical category brought the issue to a head, and Weis' response seems to punch a bit of a hole in the theory that he's an uncontrollable egomaniac who'll need to have his playbook ripped from his cold dead hands. Explaining how he ultimately visions the offensive staff in 2008, Weis replied:
I'm going to give them an opportunity to see if we can't be more expansive on our ideas, and I think that sometimes when you have a number of good coaches, sometimes they get stymied or stifled a little bit when you have a very domineering presence when the head coach is also involved in the offense. They know that I reserve the right to change some things, they know that I can interject things, but at the same time I want to give them an opportunity to do it, so that's what I'm going to do.
It didn't take long for the cynics to put a little deadspin on this decision too, with Chicago Tribune columnist Teddy Greenstein seeming to both praise and tweak Weis in the same breath: "
Dr. Phil would applaud Weis' willingness to change. Here's another prognosis: Notre Dame gave a 10-year contract extension, through 2015, to a coach who doesn't know who he is." So if nothing else, Weis' sweeping change just reaffirms what's been common fact from time immemorial: in the eyes of many knights of the keyboard, Notre Dame is damned if they do, damned harder if they don't.

There was, indeed, something about Weis' presentation that made it seem like it was as much about placating his critics as about issuing some substantial and badly-needed changes to his coaching philosophy. I should emphasize that is just seems that way. Weis is still very much the same person he was back when he stubbornly refused to hand over the playcaller's headset, still very adamant about Notre Dame football and his place in it, and when he faced the press after losing 38-0 to USC and said that the Irish were striving to one day be back at the level of the Trojans, vowing "I will work till the ends of the earth until that ends up happening", he wasn't just mouthing off. He truly is willing to do whatever it takes, including things he never saw himself having to do.

Now, of course, the plain (and fully logical) counterpoint to praising Weis' for his revelations is to acknowledge that a more seasoned head coach could have avoided these pratfalls, would've seen his own flaws and launched preemptive strikes against them (like getting a squad full of young players into the pads and knocking the snot out of each other back in spring drills, not waiting until week 4 of the season). That's all true, but why moan about what can't be undone? Yes, there was no reason for Notre Dame to be as bad as they were in 2007 - just like there was no reason for it in 1999 & 2001, as we've seen nearly every single starter from those teams move on to an NFL roster, and no reason for it in 2003 or 2004. Unlike recent flops though, the head coach coming out of the 2007 campaign would rather see Notre Dame prosper by whatever change is warranted than elect to "stay the course" with strategies that don't work and recruiting philosophies that border on out-and-out laziness.

Not to deemphasize Weis' openness to a "by-committee" approach on offense, but the thing which got a bit lost in the mix (and, in the opinion of this blogger, will go a lot further in determining if Weis can ultimately achieve greatness at the college level) was a very frank critique of himself and the truculent, Parcells-ian leadership style which has bristled plenty of people, even his own players, the wrong way. In the pros it's a lot easier to get away with; at the end of the day everybody's getting paid. It works to a degree with older collegiate players too, who've been through 2 or 3 years of living on their own and are mentally adjusted to the big, bad world which will hold them accountable for everything. But when it's a roster for of 17, 18, & 19-year old kids who are still in the throes of that awkward transition, Weis' gruff demeanor has sent some players into retreat (literally, it would seem, for players like Matt Carufel). This was something Weis acknowledged on Friday:
I think the biggest issue as I looked at this is if you're playing freshmen and sophomores, it's not the same as when you're playing juniors and seniors. The maturity level of the players is not the same.

So you can't take for granted that 18 and 19 year olds are the same as 21 and 22 year olds as far as how you can coach them and the maturity level. You know, I never looked at it from that perspective before. But if you think about it, a kid right out of high school is not the same as somebody who's been weathered for four years in the program.

So therefore as I look at it, we're going to be playing those kids, and a lot of those freshmen and sophomores that you played last year are really only in the program for the second or third year, might have only played for one year. And I just felt that too many times when a guy makes a mistake, the only thing they're concerned about is getting yelled at, versus when you make a mistake, being concerned about letting your team down.

So I'd like to move in the direction that if a guy made a mistake he was more concerned that he was letting his teammates down than worrying about the fear of is Weis going to yell at me. The fear of a kid, the younger guys, too many times they play with that mentality. So what do you do? You get it so that they know you better so if you yell at them they know that it's not personal.

On defense the change was less drastic in terms of shuffling responsibilities and more about shifting personnel. After Bill Lewis determined that he couldn't bring his full attention to a 45th season of coaching in the midst of two hip replacement surgeries, Weis quickly moved to bring in Jon Tenuta, stressing that Corwin Brown would retain total control over the defense but that Lewis' replacement had to be "an idea guy...a veteran coach is something that we need to replace with a veteran coach."

For reasons which have been covered on an exhaustive number of fellow blogs and subscription service sites, Tenuta's a fantastic choice, a perfect complement to the youthful energy of Brown with the same proven record and cerebral approach to defense that Lewis had. He's a great foil for Weis (and now Haywood) to go against in spring practice and fall camp; further, in what could be one of the biggest windfalls to his hiring: if John Latina and the offensive line can't learn to pick up a blitz while going against Tenuta's schemes every day of practice between now and the fall opener, then there truly is no hope for that group.

Other things Weis touched on during Friday's briefing:
  • Both Bartley Webb & Derrell Hand will no longer play football due to injuries, confirming what had been first speculated over a month ago. Both will remain at the University and on scholarship, though they will not count against the 85-man limit.
  • Weis confirmed Pat Kuntz's non-enrollment and Will Yeatman's dual suspension from football and lacrosse, but did not elaborate on either case, citing privacy laws (and basic 'you don't need to know everything' decency). He went on to say he was hopeful both would be back for the 2008 season.
  • Golden Tate, Evan Sharpley, and Eric Maust will all be full-time baseball players through spring break, at which point Weis will consult will Irish baseball coach Dave Schrage:
    At that point, if they're major factors, then I'll let them play a lot of baseball and a little football. If they're not major factors, it'll be just the opposite.
    Early prediction: Tate's athleticism makes him a good bet to be an everyday fixture in centerfield, while Maust is vying for a spot in the rotation, but Schrage would prefer him to be a bullpen asset. Sharpley is in the mix at third base, but unless he produces more with his bat (he was only 1-for-28 last season in limited duty), he'll spent most of the spring in pads.
  • When asked specifically about Dana Jacobsen:
    I'll just say three things, okay. I was both personally and professionally offended by her comments. And if the situation were reversed, and that were me saying them, two things would have happened. I would have been the lead story on SportsCenter, and I would have been fired. But other than that, the University has issued an official response, and I think it's best to leave it at that.
  • Given a recent AFCA vote to end spring recruiting by head coaches, Weis will use the extra time for another junior day (after the rapidly approaching one on February 24th) and to visit a number of Alumni club dinners in cities which received awards from the ND Alumni Association. This road trip was planned with perpetual roof-raiser Chuck Lennon, who had a typically understated reaction, according to Weis:
    He's all jacked up now. He's pumped, as you can imagine Chuck; he isn't a guy who lacks for adrenaline to start off with.
  • Weis didn't mince words when addressing special teams: "I screwed that up". Trying to make amends, Brian Polian has been reassigned to be the teams sole special teams coach, a recognition of the fact that last season's "every coach is helping out" scheme wasn't getting the job done. Polian will no longer be a linebackers coach, and his primary helper will be Weis himself, who first made his coaching bones in the NFL as a special teams assistant. Every coach needs a big-name consult, so here's Charlie's:
    I'm going to meet with Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech, who I think has done the best job of anyone in the country on special teams. I've already set up an appointment with him. I don't know whether or not I'm bringing Brian or not at that time, but I know one thing: I've got to figure out a better way of getting special teams righted, and I think (Beamer's) done the best job of anyone I know in college football with special teams.
Now, despite all these significant changes, I don't think we're witnessing an episode of Extreme Makeover: Coach Edition. These are big departures for Weis to make, but necessary in his eyes in order to be a better head coach under circumstances that are, in fact, very different from what he dealt with in the NFL. Having said that, Weis isn't moving too far from his "what you see is what you get" persona. He's still going to chew players out, still going to push the envelope on offense, still going to be the guy everybody has to talk to for information. He's not morphing into Pete Carroll. I think he's tempered down the earlier indications that he'd rather be feared than loved in absence of being both, but there are a lot of people in and out of the program who held him in high regard before he went 3-9, and plenty of people who couldn't stand him during his very successful first two seasons and felt like 2007 was one giant Christmas present. Weis' changes aren't made to please them or anybody else; they've been made because he thinks it's in the best interest of the Notre Dame football program. It wasn't too long ago that coaching regimes in South Bend didn't care about changing for the sake of either.

Rome is not, and never was, burning as Weis fiddled. But nobody could deny they saw some disturbing smoke, so Weis is making some of the essential moves to put out any possibility of fire. Will they all click and turn Notre Dame around in the course of a single season? That's impossible to say - but Irish fans should at least feel very encouraged by the most recent news.

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