Monday, July 20, 2009

Coming Soon to a Subway Near You

When I said in the previous post that I was still treating the leaked 2010 schedule as a hypothetical document, citing its lack of a source (or any other attribution whatsoever) I wasn't trying to pull a Buzz Bissinger and question the manhood of bloggers. That would be the ultimate pot-meeting-kettle. It's not like I think "We Is ND" posted the info after stumbling home from an all-night bender. It's just that later this very same day a press conference was held that put a bullet through one of the supposed "final" dates on the schedule.

In that version of 2010, Notre Dame was set to renew acquaintances with Army on Nov. 6th at Yankee Stadium while the Irish would host Tulsa on November 20th. But at today's press conference in the Bronx, it was formally announced (after being confirmed days ago by numerous sources) that the Irish would play the Black Knights of the Hudson on the 20th before they wrap up the season on November 27th against USC. It could be simply that he had the dates wrong. It also could mean the schedule is not final. I highly suspect it's the former but again, that's just me with my open mind.

The return of college football to the new Yankee Stadium, the $1.5 billion palace that can buy everything except more than 50% capacity for the seats right behind home plate (maybe they should've done what the Louisiana Superdome did, and purposely paint the seats a neutral, alternating color so it would appear on television as if people were sitting in them; they could do what game shows do and bring in human blow-up dolls to occupy the seats, either one) was first hinted at during a May New York Times interview with Irish AD Jack Swarbrick. From the first public mention of the idea it seemed that Swarbrick was intent on having the Irish involved, preferably with the cadets from West Point as an homage to some of the great foundational games in college football. The Notre Dame-Army series gave us the "Rockne invents the forward pass game" in 1913, the 1924 Notre Dame win which inspired the creation of The Four Horseman, and the 1946 edition of The Game of the Century, an epic 0-0 tie between the Irish under Johnny Lujack and the Army powerhouse led by Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis. During a number of springtime speaking appearances, Swarbrick made repeated references to The Game That Changed Football, a recent book chronicling the 1913 meeting, and also pointed out that in commemorative books celebrating old Yankee Stadium, dozens of pages were dedicated to the presence of college football, specifically Notre Dame, at the House That Ruth Built.

Alas, since those heady days of Rock asking the team to "Win One for the Gipper" against Army in the same locker room where Ruth and Gehrig once stood, it hasn't exactly been instant classic material - a one-sided affair between the two schools where Army's last win came in 1958 by the odd score of 14-2, and the only moment of drama in the 13 Irish victories since occurred as Ivory Covington made "The $8 Million Tackle" on a two-point conversion in 1995. Notre Dame leads the series overall 37-8-4.

What those great meetings of the past share, however, is that they were played in the thriving metropolis of New York City, not far from the grounds of the USMA and smack in the middle of Irish-Catholic immigrant territory. To first the Polo Grounds, and Ebbets Field, and then Yankee Stadium and even Shea Stadium they would flock to see the little Catholic school from the Midwest that they only heard about on the radio or read about in Grantland Rice columns. The preferred method of transit (the clackety-clack trains of the Metropolitan Transit Authority) gave rise to the moniker of "subway alumni", a tradition that continues to this day.

So from a lot of vantage points this makes sense. There's a lot of Irish fans who probably wouldn't be willing - or able - to shell out the small fortune necessary to make the round-trip to South Bend. But in the middle of the largest city in America, in a stadium accessible to millions with a simple $4.50 Metro Card, to say nothing of an even bigger sample of fans who are a modest train ride away on Amtrak or the North Shore? It won't be difficult to fill the estimated 47,000 seats, unless we see another "It's Yankee Stadium!!" price scale where face value on the nosebleeds is $50...which, come to think of it, we probably will. Put "affordability" in the maybe column. Anyway, the TV partners go home happy as NBC gets a prime-time college football game for its schedule featuring a brand name and a built-in curiosity factor on the same lines of what's driven viewership for the NHL Winter Classic. Then you factor in the historical significance of the series, the devoted following of veterans and the close proximity to West Point, and this is the kind of sensible solution that includes something for everybody when mapping out a "neutral site game". It makes the 7-4-1 scheduling model almost tolerable...almost. There are plenty of issues with that and we don't need to hash over all of them just now, but for something so rife with problems I have to tentatively say this is the most logical yet of the "in-season bowl games" envisioned by the athletic department.

For those who want to size up any possible "home field advantage", the Irish have an overall record of 15-6-3 at The Stadium, with all but two of those meetings against the Black Knights (the exceptions: 1949 against North Carolina, and 1963 against Syracuse).

Of Hurricanes & Horned Frogs

The tension has been simmering all summer over future Notre Dame schedules. What schools will be on it? What schools will try but won't be included? How many obnoxiously misplaced "neutral home games" can be squeezed into one calendar year?

Then came today, July 20, 2009. The morning began with this link making the rounds at all of the Notre Dame web-sphere greatest hits - NDNation, Irish Eyes, Mike Frank, Rivals - claiming to have the 2010 final Notre Dame schedule along with the obligatory analysis. The 12-game lineup for the Irish, according to this blog which cited no sources and provided no links (home gaps in caps):
Sept. 4 - PURDUE
Sept. 11 - MICHIGAN
Sept. 18 - @ Michigan St.
Sept. 25 - STANFORD
Oct. 2 - @ Boston College
Oct. 23 - @ Navy (Meadowlands)
Oct. 30 - TCU
Nov. 6 - ARMY (@ Yankee Stadium)
Nov. 13 - UTAH
Nov. 20 - TULSA
Nov. 27 - @ Southern Cal
Ten of these opponents were known entities - what ND Nation was waiting (in anticipation? in anxiety?) to hear was who Jack Swarbrick had in mind to fill two open dates on the schedule. For those hoping to rekindle the Miami series, great news - the Hurricane is on the schedule! Bad news, it's the Golden Hurricane of Tulsa, where double Domer Lawrence "Bubba" Cunningham is athletic director. Also on the docket are (again, assuming this is to be believed) the proverbial top dog of Mountain West Conference, the TCU Horned Frogs, who last season posted an 11-2 record, the only losses coming on the road to undefeated Utah (by a field goal) and BCS Title game participant Oklahoma (The Frogs lost 35-10 but only gave the Sooners 25 yards on the ground).

So if I told you that Notre Dame's two open slots on the 2010 schedule were filled by a team coming off an 11-win season where the only losses were to teams that finished #2 and #5 in the AP Poll, and a second team that's gone a combined 21-6 in the past two years, most would say Notre Dame went out and got two competetive opponents. They would say it was something they might be interested in. After we've seen what programs are actually behind Door #2 though, it becomes less Let's Make a Deal and more Who Wants to Tar and Feather an Athletic Director? Judge for yourself. Allow me first to (fruitlessly) state that I'm not trying to be an apologist, I'm just trying to point out that, however probable it all seems in the wake of the Kevin White Error, this schedule being bandied about is still a hypothetical (I'll expand on that point in the next post).

It's not for me to say who is wrong and who is right in the debate over how "good" a team has to be to earn a place on Notre Dame's schedule. It's also, I think, worth pointing out there's no independent verification that this is indeed going to happen. I say that almost as a courtesy because I would place the odds of an upcoming announcement involving Notre Dame, Tulsa, and TCU and way above 50-50. I just would like to see some kind of a source document, that's all.

The point of this post is not for me to rant against the money-grabbing administration or to prop up strawman arguments (after all, I would like to think my point here is that we can be able to avoid going to either of those extremes). What I ask is this:
Should a program with championship aspirations (and even if they may be borderline delusional, Notre Dame does indeed have championship aspirations) be scheduling with the intention of getting "big name" opponents, or scheduling opponents who have quality records and results even if their conference pedigree doesn't stack up with the SEC?
Frame it this way: a popular argument about the BCS is that it is designed to shut out the little guy, it's a tool of "The Man" meant to maintain a rigid system of haves and have-nots in college football. Fans across the country, of programs big and small, rail against it every year and proudly point out moments like Boise State-Oklahoma in '07, or Utah-Alabama last year, as proof that the little guys should get a shot. In the very next breath, when somebody suggests, "Why don't you put those teams on your schedule then?" we hear a wave of righteous indignation about how the very idea of such a creampuff opponent is beneath us. With two concepts in such direct conflict with each other, something clearly has to give.

Notre Dame fans often get chided for living in the past, romanticizing about the days of the single-wing and trying to recapture the glory of a by-gone era. Notre Dame just doesn't get it, they can't accept how much college football has changed, is the popular refrain, usually peppered with far more colorful message board slang. Wouldn't it then be fair to say that part of the sea-change we've seen in college football, with its exploding internet coverage, television packages, blogs, and recruiting-via-Twitter, is the simple reality that you don't have to have an 80-year tradition of excellence to be a good team? To underscore the point, Tulsa & TCU have popped up semi-frequently on Oklahoma's schedule in recent years (the draw of playing the Sooners no doubt offering those programs a boost in money value and recruiting), and I haven't heard a loud chorus in their fanbase going on long tirades about how atrocious their schedule is and how much it hurts in the eyes of the people who matter (i.e., the voters). Then again, I haven't been listening to OU's fanbase all that closely.

I don't have all the answers. I'm just asking questions, and I'll be asking more as conditions warrant.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Where's Golic?

Mike Greenberg filmed an "essay" for the ESPN Fan Feast series, where notable ESPN personalities ruminate on the one sports experience they believe everybody ought to share. I found it amusing that amidst all of his poetic musings on the power of "The Sign" (or PLACT as it is known in shorthand to some), he couldn't make any room in the piece for his radio cohort Mike Golic to perhaps expound on what it was like in the "dark ages" before The Sign. Of course, Greeny did make time for a chuckle-worthy cameo by another Irish icon:

For further reading, the official UND archives has a historical page on The Sign here. Of interesting note - most of the background extras for this piece are ESPN employees. And they say there's a vicious anti-ND bias at the Worldwide Leader.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

They Bring You The News you don't have to get it yourself. ESPN's evaluation of Tommy Rees must've been in the outgoing mail bin when I last checked. This morning's full-scale evalutaion:
The first thing that jumps out about Rees is his release. In fact, we are surprised he has not received more attention due to his delivery alone at this stage. He is a prospect that coaches may look at and see an intriguing prospect three years down the road with upside and late bloomer potential...He can beat the rush with his delivery and while he does not have an elite arm, his release can compensate somewhat. Arm strength is efficient and allows for him to make most, if not all the necessary throws when his feet are set. Rees' overall accuracy is also an impressive trait. Throws a soft, catchable pass that rarely strays to far from the strike zone...while he may not be in the elite category in terms of overall physical tools, he has a high ceiling for development and productivity and is the type of player we could see being a different player down the road than he is now. Good, under the radar prospect.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Utupo & Rees Under The Radar; Reaction Over the Top

The reaction in some corners to the most recent ND recruiting developments has me in a more reflective mood (more reflective than usual, I guess). It's not to slight these two men who've just signed on to the program when I say I had know idea who they were or if they were being recruited by Notre Dame until after they announced they'd committed. That such a thing would be consider "odd" says a lot more about me, and the somewhat uncomfortable direction the business of college football has been heading in for some time, than it does about these players.

"Recruiting" used to be a lot different. Coaches, particularly old-timers, acknowledge as much when they have to try and pretend that it's really them using Facebook and Twitter to keep up with the latest high school studs. The explosive powers of the internet have long since put an end to the days when only a select few, if any, high school athletes could garner national attention, to say nothing of the fact that the permanent revolution in the televising and marketing of college sports is expanding the selection of schools every year that a player might find desirable. Put it this way - in 1986, Rocket Ismail knew that only a handful of schools would truly showcase his talent to the whole country, Notre Dame of course being one of them. In today's age, with the power of YouTube and Facebook behind him, Rocket could've been an even bigger star while attending Central Connecticut, because we all would've known about him long before he ever put on a college uniform.

That's why most college football fans are consuming highlight reels and obsessing over star rankings more and more with each passing year. The information is so available - and the players so heavily scrutinized for so long when, only 15 years ago, such proclamations would've been laughed at - that the built-in assumption is that only schools who stockpile 15 "five-star" kids per year are collecting anything resembling a talent base.

To that end, the two commitments Notre Dame picked up on the heels of the July Fourth weekend inspired another idiotic round-robin among the message board and blog community over if the coaching staff had been reduced to scraping the bottom of the barrel. The players in question: DE Justin Utupo (left) of Lakewood, CA & QB Tommy Rees of Lake Forest, IL (above, right). Neither rated in the national top 100 nor the national top 10 at his position. Both were the "last spot", theoretically, for their position in this recruiting class (the Irish now have three defensive ends committed and two quarterbacks, about the norm for a recruiting year which follows one that was light on those roster areas). And both had unwanted distinction of being "the next guy on the list" after other, more highly-touted prospects had chosen schools other than Notre Dame. So the legion of armchair recruiters took to the keyboards and, while not critiquing these two players, certainly held the coaching staff in contempt for "failing" to meet the Notre Dame standard when it comes to the acceptable talent level for recruits. Some of you must surely be thinking "Where have I seen this movie before?"

Of course, I too am an "armchair recruiter" too easily swayed by "eye-popping" scouting reports or ludicrous highlight reel cuts, so it would be unfair of me to launch into a rant about how all the other guys doing the same thing are being unfair. I also would not dispute the notion that if a "bigger name" in the quarterback department such as Blake Bell or Devin Gardner had committed, Tommy Rees probably wouldn't be in the position to get an offer from Notre Dame.

That doesn't mean Rees isn't a good player.

It also doesn't mean he'll blossom into a great player, as if flying below the radar automatically marks one for greatness. Many guys aren't hyped on Scout & Rivals because they just aren't that good (and thank God I never played football to let these guys get a crack at me, because I'd have rated straight zeros). Yet we'd all be well served by remembering that (and the pun is unavoidable here) the stars do not always align. Even if both of these players were the best in their class, the expectation should not be that Rees or Utopo would automatically arrive on campus a starter and rack up untold personal glories along the way (that's what it would be, but that wouldn't make it less absured). We also develop amnesia about the fact that such expectations get thrust on a select 40 to 50 players heading off to many different programs every year, and every year without fail we look back on the class from a few years prior only to wonder how a lot of those other "can't-miss kids" become footnotes in a Where Are They Now? piece. That should tell us how flawed the process is. Yet we (reliably) keep coming back for more.

Over at Blue-Gray Sky, they have made a project of yearly evaluations on how right (and just as often, how comically wrong) those predictions and expectations turned out to be. Checking out the analysis of how the class of 2009 panned out nationally (in other words, which of last year's seniors were supposed to be the best in the country when they came out of high school) gave me pause. For every Rey Maualuga and Jonathon Stewart, bona fide All-Americans and future NFLers, we find a Fred Rouse, Tray Blackmon, or Luther Brown, who never rose above bit player status if they were lucky, and wound up in prison if they weren't (#20 Melvin Alaeze, DE - conveniently enough one of Ron Zook's first "big catches" at Illinois). Heck, the player who earned pretty much unanimous acclaim as the best in his class once he actually, you know, got on the field - Arkansas's Darren McFadden - ranked #51 with's national list. Can you imagine anybody during the fall of 2007 arguing that Darren McFadden wasn't one of the 50 best players in the country? But in the spring of 2005, when the recruiting evaluations came, before any one of these players had played a single down, such an opinion might as well have been the law of the land.

So in the end, all I really know about Justin Utupo and Tommy Rees is this: they play football, reasonably well we can assume, as multiple Division I bowl championship subdivision coaching staffs have extended them full scholarship offers (top contenders for Utupo included Oklahoma State, Oregon State, Utah, BYU, Missouri, & Nebraska, while Rees had offers from Tennessee, Stanford, and also Miami-OH where former Irish offensive coordinator Mike Haywood is now head coach). Presumably such offers were extended because every staff believes this two young men can develop both into football players who can help them win and good young men who can represent their school with pride. How long it will take or how "great" they will be is a question beyond anybody's ability to answer. Long ago, in an age before Tom Lemming, this was how it was done all the time. Coaches had a vast informal network of scouts who passed along the word about a certain kid, they followed up, and they either offered the kid a scholarship or not. It was also easier then to offer lots of kids whether they were all great or not, considering the 85-man limit wasn't in effect. But now, in the age of viral videos and high school football on ESPN every week, clearly any kid who doesn't rate a 6.0 on the scale is a bum. Further, and I think this was the point a lot of people were hung up on, the coaches who would even think of recruiting such kids are bums grasping desperately for somebody, anybody, to be a warm body in the class and would be better off at a MAC school.

Of course the irony in all of this is that a lot of the shortcomings of a program (especially Notre Dame) will be be ascribed to a failure of recruiting, and then fans/pundits will try to build up some goodwill and patience during struggles by pointing out "look how good the recruiting is going!", when in truth it may not be all that different than it was before. It's still the crapshoot it was in 1975, it's just that now the average fan who wouldn't know about half of Notre Dame's roster until they actually played against Michigan during their sophomore year now knows about every player on the roster and how they performed during week 2 of their junior year...of high school.

I've said it before, I just think the whole process of recruiting and trying find the "secret" of it is the ultimate chicken-and-egg proposition. To back up my point: last year's Heisman Winner, Sam Bradford? A three-star recruit. Now, was he just 'horribly' misevaluated? Was he superbly developed by a coaching staff that knew his exact talent and molded every part of the offense around him? Was it a combination? Or was it intangibles? From now on, I think I'm gonna adopt a 'Justice Potter Stewart describes pornography' approach to identifying "legit football talent":

I can't define it, but I know it when I see it. And I haven't seen Justin Utupo or Tommy Rees play yet.

However, ESPN has, so here's their take. Get excited or depressed at your own discretion. Utopo:
Utupo is an active defender. He plays a little out of position in high school as a defensive tackle, but we feel he will make the move to defensive end in college. He has solid size though he looks as if he may not be as big as listed. He will use his hands to shed and make a play on the ball. Does a good job of being able to get to the shoulder of the blocker and get in the gap. Does a good job of being able to stay square and keep himself in a position to make a play. He displays good speed and short-area change-of direction skills. He will leave his feet at times, but for the most part is a physical wrap-up tackler. As a pass rusher he can create some push and work off the block. Utupo combines some ability with effort and can be productive.
...and Rees:
No evaluation available at this time.
Doesn't ESPN realize half the ND fanbase is trying to anoint this kid the next Joe Theismann, and the other half is ripping into the staff for "whiffing" on all the good QBs, thereby getting stuck with this bum? Get it together! (Rees' profile does come with video, though.)