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Monday, January 25, 2010

Situational Analysis

posted by Mike Coffey
Esteemed Pit poster Kevin O'Neill (aka Kayo), sometimes reporter for Irish Sports Daily, put together his thoughts on the current situation with ND's men's basketball program and how best to improve it.

Current Situation

Notre Dame finds its basketball team sitting on a 15-5 overall record, 4-3 in the Big East. Its poor non-conference schedule won’t impress the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee. Of the 11 remaining games, all in the conference, six are on the road; and the Irish will be the clear underdog in six games. As a result, a second consecutive NIT season is likely.

Head coach Mike Brey is in his 10th season at Notre Dame. Brey started the season with a 188-101 (.650) record at Notre Dame, 88-60 (.595) in Big East games.

Even the worst conference teams have a few good players, and conference road games are a challenge for the best programs, so Big East record is one good way to measure a coach’s and his program’s success. Brey’s best teams have finished first (2000-01), second (2001-02), and third (2002-03) in the West when the Big East played a division format, and fourth (2006-07) and second (2007-08) in the 16-team non-division format. His worst teams finished 6-10 (2005-06) and 8-10 (2008-09). Seven of his nine teams have completed conference play with winning records.

The other good barometer for the program is success in the NCAA Tournament. Five of Brey’s nine teams have participated. One lost in the first round. Three lost in the second round. One lost in the third round. One team lost to a lower seed, one team beat a higher seed, and all other games held form according to seeding.

Most Notre Dame fans are not happy with the state of the basketball program. The most common complaints are that the team should be better defensively and on the boards, and that Brey hasn’t recruited the talent to finish near the top of the Big East every year, to be a perennial NCAA Tournament team, and to advance in the tournament. The number of players in Brey’s playing rotation and his management of players’ eligibility also draw criticism at times.


Notre Dame’s administration has imposed three main constraints on its basketball program over the years:

1) Notre Dame has the most stringent admissions standards for basketball players in the Big East.

Admissions standards limit the pool of highly rated recruits available to Notre Dame. Urban public school players dominate the top 50 in recruiting rankings, and Notre Dame will not admit all but one or two of them in any given year. In addition, a large percentage of Catholic and/or suburban high school basketball stars will not qualify academically for Notre Dame.

Perennial top programs like Connecticut, Louisville, and Syracuse have no such admissions restrictions. They can recruit any athletes who meet the NCAA’s minimum standards. Big East Catholic schools like Marquette, Villanova, Providence, and St. John’s have somewhat stricter standards, but they’re still able to recruit dozens more from the top 100 than Notre Dame can. The only Big East school with admissions standards for athletes that compare to Notre Dame’s is Georgetown, and even Georgetown has a star player on its current roster that ND’s Admissions Department advised the coaches to stop recruiting.

As a result, Notre Dame's men's basketball coach recruits from a pool of mostly three star players from suburban high schools with strong academics. Few of these players are prepared to be Big East level contributors, with an average of about one per year able to earn significant playing time right away. Many become fine players in time, but it takes time to polish skills to compensate for other athletic deficiencies.

Virtually every school in the conference has more height, speed, and quickness than Notre Dame, although not all of them have players as skilled. Brey has said that he has chosen an approach to basketball, primarily on offense, that is based on being able to accumulate players who can handle the ball and shoot well because they are abundant in his pool of recruits who can pass admissions muster. He has also said that his teams go to the NCAA Tournament when they defend well in the lane and rebound, and they go to the NIT when they don’t do those things, so it shows he understands those things are important.

2) Notre Dame has maintained substandard basketball facilities for the last two decades.

Notre Dame’s basketball facilities have been woefully substandard for years. The JACC opened in the late 1960s. It was an outstanding college basketball arena in its day, but it was allowed to go to seed over the years. We joke about the duct tape all the time, but it literally was the maintenance solution for an inordinate amount of the wear and tear in the arena. The lack of effort and attention was both obvious and embarrassing.

The newly remodeled arena is a major step in the right direction, but there is no plan in place to upgrade practice space. The men's basketball team practices on the arena floor as often as possible, but it shares the arena with the women's basketball and volleyball teams. Therefore, they have to practice regularly in The Pit, an auxiliary gym in the Joyce Center basement. The Pit has a good wooden floor, but that’s the only nice thing I have to say about it. It looks like a junior high gym without the stage, and like many junior high gyms, the end of the court is close to the wall on one end, and it has padded building support posts just out of bounds on one sideline.

The players’ locker room and lounge was updated when Matt Doherty was hired 11 years ago. The space is functional, comfortable, and nice looking. It is not lavish, but it is not what I’d call substandard. It’s fine.

Facilities affect recruiting. The common theme used by opposing coaches on players Notre Dame recruits is the university is not serious about basketball ... that basketball is an afterthought to football. When the recruits visited South Bend, saw the arena in disrepair and the practice space as it was, they often decided the opposing coaches were right, especially when they compared what they saw to what was provided to the football team. Many recruits came for unofficial visits early in the process, got a load of the facilities, compared them to what they saw at other schools, and never gave Notre Dame serious consideration.

When the pool of great basketball players available to Notre Dame is limited in the first place, it makes no sense to disadvantage the basketball experience itself, but that's what Notre Dame does. The few great players who qualify academically for Notre Dame can get a great education and have top notch facilities at any number of schools. Off-putting facilities hurt the cause.

The Joyce Center renovation is a major step forward for presenting the program to recruits, not to mention how much better it is for fans. It shows a commitment to basketball success with the vote that counts most – investment dollars. When -- if? -- Notre Dame adds a center court scoreboard before next season, it will have completed a remake of the arena into one of, if not the, best on-campus game facility in the Big East.

However, that renovation happened nine years after it was promised, and comes at a time when most major programs have opened state-of-the-art practice facilities or have them under construction. Notre Dame ran out of money for a scoreboard in the arena, so I don’t guess that it’s flush enough to announce plans for a practice facility any time soon. I’m certainly not counting on it.

3) Notre Dame has one of the lowest annual operating budgets in the Big East.

According to published reports, Notre Dame’s men's basketball operating budget has been ranked 13th and 12th in the Big East the last two years. I have not been able to find line item comparisons, so it’s difficult to assess the effect of differences such as the rent for off campus arenas vs. maintenance of those owned and operated on campus, tuition charges to the program for private schools vs. public schools, etc. However, 12th isn’t close to the top, and I can’t envision what circumstantial adjustments will bring ND’s budget into the upper echelon of the conference. At the same time (thanks to the football brand), ND athletics creates twice the revenue of the next closest athletic department in the Big East.

While specific data is not available, I can think of three significant line items in the operating budget completely under the control of Notre Dame:

Coaches' salaries. I have no way of knowing if salary has driven Brey’s choice of assistants, but it isn’t an exceptionally credentialed staff. Comfort with people he has known for a long time is an equally plausible explanation.

Travel expenses. Notre Dame moved from commercial flights to charters for its East Coast games several years ago, so the team doesn’t seem to be traveling on the cheap. But I remember reading that the team flew to its recent game in Cincinnati but returned on a bus -- a bad idea when the next game is on a short turnaround to Monday. It’s entirely possible that a unique circumstance caused the change, not an opportunity to save a few bucks.

Non-conference scheduling. This, on the other hand, very much looks like it is being done on the cheap. In comparison to teams from the major conferences and second-tier leagues like the A-10 and C-USA, teams from the lowest level D-1 conferences get paid a lot less to come to South Bend and lack the bargaining power to require a return date. As a result, Notre Dame gets to create an 11-game home non-conference schedule and collect full price for each of them from its season ticket holders. Except for the recent home-and-home series with UCLA and LMU -- the latter scheduled because the away game was a convenient stop on the way to the Maui Classic a year ago -- Notre Dame plays non-conference games against major teams only when it can make a profitable appearance in an early season tournament or a specially arranged game like the opening of Lucas Oil Stadium vs. Ohio State last year.

Does the Notre Dame basketball program have any built-in advantages? I can only think of the willingness to accommodate transfers, and they still have to be compelling academic cases. Notre Dame manages its basketball program as if it isn’t trying to excel.

Mike Brey’s Performance

First, let's look at some comparative statistics:

As noted above, Brey's Big East record is 88-60 through nine years, a .595 winning percentage. It's important to not that, due to ESPN's influence over conference scheduling, ND more often than not gets a disproportionate number of games against that season's high-level in-conference competition. He has been to five NCAA Tournaments and four NIT's.

Over that same time frame and through the end of the 2008-09 season, Wikipedia says:

  • Hall of Fame coach Jim Calhoun is 104-44 (.703). He went to one NIT, missed the postseason once, and won one national championship.
  • Hall of Fame coach Jim Boeheim is 91-57 (.615) with 3 NIT appearances and one national championship.
  • Jay Wright is 77-55 (.583) in eight seasons. He went to the NIT his first three years and has been in the NCAA Tournament ever since.

No other accomplished coach has been in the conference for all of Brey’s tenure (or in Wright's case, all but one year). However, several other excellent coaches have logged several years in that time frame:

  • Ben Howland was 38-26 (.594) in four Big East seasons. He missed the postseason once and went to the NIT once.
  • Tom Crean was 31-19 (.620) in three Big East seasons. He was in the NCAA Tournament each season.
  • John Beilein was 40-40 (.500) in five Big East seasons. He went to the NIT twice and missed the postseason once.
  • Rick Pitino is 48-20 (.706) in four Big East seasons. He has one NIT appearance.
  • Jamie Dixon is 75-31 (.708) in seven Big East seasons. He has not missed the NCAA Tournament.
  • John Thompson III is 53-33 (.616) in five Big East seasons. He has two NIT appearances and one Final Four appearance.

Finally, there is a long list of failed coaches who were either in the Big East when Brey arrived or have come and gone since he started at Notre Dame. All had losing records in the Big East. Unless I'm missing someone, Brey and those listed above are the only coaches with .500 records or better over the last decade.

Quantitatively, Brey lags Calhoun, Boeheim, and Dixon over his nine years at Notre Dame. I’d add Wright as a fourth because his program seems to be well established and on an upward trajectory after the first three NIT seasons. Of the newer coaches, Thompson is a close call, but the Final Four is a pretty good trump card, and Pitino has won a lot of games since joining the conference to go with his distinguished career.

Maybe I’m forgetting someone important, but of the 35 coaches, give or take a few, who have been in the Big East since Brey came to Notre Dame, I can list eight or nine who I think are better than Brey, and only Thompson has anywhere near the constraints that Brey’s administration has imposed. For example, as much as I loathe Jim Boeheim, I think he’s an excellent head coach. However, I’ll bet he hasn’t recruited three guys who could have been admitted to Notre Dame since Brey started. The same goes for Calhoun, and Dixon. Wright might have 10-12 guys over eight years who ND would have admitted, but Pitino probably doesn’t have any.

How would those guys do with such a limited recruiting pool? How would they do with rosters of mostly three star recruits? We saw what happened to Boeheim after he lost one-and-done Carmelo Anthony one year and Hakim Warrick the next without recruiting replacement talent –- 1st round NCAA loss, 1st round NCAA loss, NIT, and NIT in the following four years. We saw what happened to Calhoun when he unexpectedly lost several players to early draft entry a few years ago –- 17-14 overall, 6-10 in the conference, and no postseason the next year.

I submit that almost every excellent coach in the Big East would be unable to cope with the constraints Brey has at Notre Dame. When I see UConn run top-ranked Texas out of the gym (54-32 in the second half) with all of those elite athletes on the floor, or when I see West Virginia do the same thing to finally-healthy Ohio State (43-25 in the second half) with the great athletes those two teams have, or when I see long-and-fast Syracuse manhandle the likes of Pac-10 leader California and national powerhouse North Carolina, I wonder how Notre Dame stays on the floor with those teams. Yet ND beat West Virginia and stayed in the games with the other two until the end, despite being smaller, slower, and not as quick at every position. Given the almost overwhelming talent differential in those match-ups, how bad is the coaching?

Notre Dame is consistently competitive in spite of its constraints because is does a handful of things exceptionally well, mostly on offense. Brey’s teams are near or at the top of Division 1 in assists per game every year. They understand spacing, limit turnovers, and keep the ball moving. They have good shooters, and they get them open shots. They execute their offense better than every team in the conference except Georgetown, and the Hoyas execute their offense as well, not better. ND’s offense achieves that efficiency mostly with one-dimensional scorers, and not many of them, runs perhaps the only 75-80 points per game half-court offense in Division 1, and they accomplish that just about every year.

So what about defense? It isn’t good enough; and while it will have some limitations as long as ND isn’t as athletic as its conference opponents, it should be better than it is. Athleticism is tied to blocks, steals, and deflections; but any good athlete can have good footwork, use positioning to his advantage, and challenge shots. Notre Dame lacks in those areas far too often. In ND's NCAA tournament years under Brey, their excellent execution on offense has been coupled with solid to very-good interior defense and rebounding. I have never known ND to have an exceptional perimeter defense -- although, oddly, this is the one year that has opponents making a low percentage of their three point shots – just 32.9% in seven conference games to date. Excellent shooters are in shorter supply in this year’s Big East.

I'm left wondering what Brey could do if he had just two more outstanding athletes in the program every year, if the academic constraint weren't so severe and if it looked like ND was more committed to basketball success over the years. Imagine how good this offense would be with two more guys as talented as Luke Harangody in the lineup. Put a real college center like Greg Monroe and a multi-dimensional scorer like Austin Freeman in the lineup, and this offense would be unstoppable.

Constraints have made accumulating great athletes difficult although the new arena should solve part of that problem. However, constraints aren’t Brey's only recruiting issue.

When the team relies on so many three-star guys who take time to become contributors, being thin in one of the upper classes hurts the team. On the heels of Brey’s early success, including a trip to the NCAA Tournament round of sixteen, he recruited a one man class (Rob Kurz); and the current sophomore class, also recruited on the heels of two very good seasons, has no scholarship players. Transfers and redshirts have redistributed the classes on the current roster a little, but a complete recruiting whiff is inexplicably and inexcusably bad.

In addition to the recruiting class gaps, position gaps have stalled the program. Last year, for example, Luke Harangody was essentially an undersized center playing with four guards in the rough-and-tumble Big East. The only other active guys with big man size and any chance to have big man styles of play were Ty Nash, who apparently wasn’t ready to play in Brey’s eyes, and Luke Zeller, who seemed inclined to play up to his size no more than a couple of games each year.

If a coach knows and says that his teams go to the NCAA Tournament when they defend well in the lane and rebound well, how does he have three big men total, one he has known to shy from the lane for the first three years of his career? How can he not find three three-star big men every two years who are inclined to mix it up on defense and on the boards?

When Brey should have been able to parlay some on-court success into solid recruiting classes at the very least, his recruiting has been at its worst. The gaps have set the program back when it had a chance to establish itself as a perennial NCAA Tournament team, and being there every tear is a big key to tournament success. The constraints are real, but they don’t account for the gaps. This is, in my estimation, Mike Brey’s biggest problem; and whatever is the second biggest problem pales in comparison.

In Summary:

My evaluation of Mike Brey:

  • An outstanding offensive coach
  • Wanting as a defensive coach
  • Inexplicable recruiting gaps stall his program every time it seems to have some momentum
  • One of the better coaches in the Big East over the last decade
  • Has done pretty well despite his constraints
  • Probably would do better with relaxed constraints, but I can't prove it
  • I don’t know that other coaches would do better with the constraints, either

What I Would Do

The way I see it, senior management is the biggest problem, but many fans think the solution is to fire middle management. Middle management has actually done pretty well considering senior management’s incompetence ... or senior management’s intentional decision to be no better than okay.

I would not invest in a business whose leaders think like that. I’d rather invest in a business that gives its middle managers the tools they need to succeed and then holds them accountable for using them well. I see neither when it comes to Notre Dame basketball.

I’m certain that, short of a scandal, Notre Dame will not be changing coaches after this year, and a change is unlikely next year unless the program has a complete collapse. I’m equally certain that Notre Dame is in no position to attract a new coach who has much of a track record because Notre Dame would have to promise changes, and its failures to deliver on past promises are well known. If and when a change is to be made, I’d like to be fishing the best hole.

I know ND will have tougher academic standards than anyone else. I know it isn’t going to start on a practice facility any time soon, certainly not before it puts the last expensive piece into the arena. I know its budget won’t jump to the top of the conference in one year. I’m not expecting a lot, but I don’t think it will take much to get much better performance from Mike Brey at Notre Dame.

I have three recommendations:

Target at least one admissions break every two years with one in each of the first two years to prime the pump. I am not talking about poor students. I’m talking about average to good students with solid high school curricula, ability to do the work Notre Dame requires, and the desire to earn a degree. This will probably triple the pool of top-100 guys Notre Dame can recruit. Expect Mike Brey to meet the quota, and don’t feel bad about firing him if he doesn’t.

Alter the budget for assistant coaches. Commit the budget dollars necessary to hire one of the top assistants in Division 1, instruct Mike Brey to hire one who specializes in defense, and insist that the guy get free reign to improve the team’s performance on that end of the court. If Brey doesn’t get someone and/or the team doesn’t improve on defense, don’t feel bad about firing him.

Modify the budget to accommodate a better non-conference schedule. A woeful schedule doesn’t prepare the team well for the Big East schedule, makes it more difficult for ND to get NCAA tournament bids when it's on the bubble, results in lower seeding when the team does make the tournament which makes runs there less likely, and is boring as hell for us season ticket holders. Book some decent home-and-home series. Play a neutral site game where you have a fan base but near the opponent so our team can have a taste of tournament atmosphere. If you loosen the purse strings and Mike Brey doesn’t do anything with it, fire him for insubordination.

I’m not suggesting anything radical or unduly expensive, and I believe Mike Brey would be ecstatic to have even that little bit of extra support. As I said above, imagine Brey’s offense with two more excellent scorers that we accustomed to seeing; and imagine improving the defense by five points better per game. The only other thing standing between Brey and a .700 Big East winning percentage and a consistent top four finish would be the recruiting gaps, and only Brey himself can fix those.

The best case is that Brey will succeed. The second worst case is that Notre Dame will be much better positioned to hire a really good replacement. All they’ll have to do for the new guy is promise a practice facility; and who knows, maybe that will be on the board by then.

The worst case is that Notre Dame isn’t willing to bend even the little bit I recommended; and if that’s the case, there is neither much reason to change coaches nor much reason for me to renew my season tickets.

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Friday, December 18, 2009

No Means No

posted by Mike Coffey
My mother is one of those social souls for whom exiting a party is three times the effort of entering. She'll say she's leaving, then run into someone on the way to the door. 10 minutes later, the process repeats. Eventually she finds her way out, but it usually involves half a tank of gas used up by my father, who had found his way to the car right after mom's initial pronouncement.

Having observed this phenomenon for over 40 years, I'm quick to recognize it when I see it elsewhere ... like in Notre Dame's repeated dalliances with the Big Ten conference (or, as I prefer to call them, the Integer). Having dodged this bullet in 1998, we now find ourselves looking down the barrel of the same gun, with the conference recently announcing a renewed effort to find a 12th member and participate in a championship game.

Like Michael Corleone, just when we think we're out, they pull us back in.

While we're sometimes accused of tilting at windmills on this topic, Irish athletic director Jack Swarbrick isn't helping matters. While professing loyalty to the independent state of Notre Dame's football program, his statements to the press are peppered with phrases like "we'd sure like to try to maintain [independence]", which is now thought of as a "strong preference" that must be balanced with "implications" in the "industry" of college football while "scenarios play out".

Sounds a lot like those non-denial denials that were so in vogue during our two-week football coaching search. And like Oklahoma fans three weeks ago, we're a little uneasy.

With the Chicago Tribune endlessly beating the drum of Integer assimilation, columnist-by-default David Haugh can't resist chiming in either. A decade of reading his work has taught me that, while he may be erudite on a number of subjects, to call him semi-educated on the topic of Notre Dame and what makes it tick would be overrating him by several orders of magnitude. So for David (since I know he just tingles to read my stuff) and anyone else who may be unclear on the concept, let's review the issues.

Many reasons exist for ND to remain a football independent, regardless of how the "industry" goes. But those reasons get thrown into sharp relief when applied to a conference like the Integer, and can be summed up in three words: Geography, Diversity, and Differentiation.

Geography. Notre Dame sits square in the middle of the Integer's geographic footprint, so at first glance, it might seem to be a good fit. But the value of Notre Dame's brand (because, let's face it, this is a money discussion more than anything) was built based on national appeal. There's a reason update and op-ed columns regarding Notre Dame's pursuit of Brian Kelly were written for or published in Tampa and New York City and Chicago and Boston and Los Angeles and Washington D.C. and Seattle and any number of other cities. You don't waste column inches on stories in which no one is interested.

But how long will that interest be maintained if the Fighting Irish end up playing 9 of their 12 games every year in a Midwest geographic footprint against other teams from that same footprint? Sure, a Notre Dame/Michigan game will pull in national interest for a while. But a steady diet of ND/Minnesota? ND/Iowa? ND/Northwestern? Why should people in Florida and California and New York and Washington care about those games? How soon before their disinterest shows and Notre Dame becomes yet another marginalized regional school, pushed further behind the eight-ball due to its small graduating classes relative to those geographic "peers"?

Diversity. The Integer comprises ten large state universities and one private [edit] secular university. Outside of a desire for scholarship at the 20,000-foot level, Notre Dame has little, if anything, in common with any of them. Notre Dame graduates about two to three thousand people per year, while the Integer factory in total cranks out numbers in six figures. Notre Dame's graduation rate for undergrads typically operates north of 95 percent, and its rates for student athletes leads the nation. The rates for most of the Integer schools, by comparison, are downright embarrassing.

When you join a conference, the needs of the many supplant the needs of the few. Decisions get made by the majority, and with the masses of humanity on land-grant campuses who (based on the numbers) really don't give a rip about the academic side of things when it comes to their athletes, Notre Dame will be subjected to a steady diet of being on the wrong end of 10-2 and 11-1 decisions. Michigan and Ohio State have owned the Integer lock, stock and barrel for long and long. That ain't gonna change any time soon. The idea of voluntarily subjecting ourselves to their whims for 30 pieces of silver makes my brain hurt.

Differentiation. When a recruit comes to Notre Dame's campus, aside from being presented with the scholastic and spiritual ways in which Notre Dame is different from their competitors, they also see the opportunity to play a national schedule. Why limit yourself to games against your neighbors, the coaches can say, when you can play Southern Cal and Navy and Tennessee and Florida State and Pittsburgh and Oklahoma and Boston College and Arizona State, all of whom have appeared recently or will appear on future Notre Dame schedules? Why play just about all your games in flatland stadiums a bus ride away when you can play in Los Angeles, New York City, Washington D.C., Dallas, and Ireland? Granted, the 7-4-1 abomination is hurting Notre Dame in this area in the short term, but that's a self-inflicted wound that could be healed up should the program desire.

Think about how that discussion changes if Notre Dame joins the Integer. How would we differentiate ourselves from the Michigans and Ohio States of the world? We'd all be located in the same area of the country. We'd all play the same schedules. Why should they come to Notre Dame and have to apply themselves when they can just skate by as a Buckeye or Wolverine? Integer membership makes it all the more difficult to set ourselves apart from a rather low caliber of company, and this holds true not only for football but perhaps even more so for Notre Dame's other sports.

Those who favor conference membership have their mantras, of course. Haugh points out that "an independent Notre Dame team with two losses by midseason -- the rule more than the exception lately -- struggles to find motivation. A Big Ten team with two losses by midseason after expansion would have a shot to win its division and play in the lucrative conference title game."

What he fails to note is a two-loss Notre Dame team doesn't deserve to play in a "lucrative conference title game" or any other high-profile contest. They should earn their way into those games like they always have in the past. The solution is to improve the product on the field so standards are met, not dumb down expectations to the point that a "conference title game appearance" is viewed as something to applaud.

National Championships are remembered forever by the people who saw them. Conference titles are recorded on banners that everyone sees but no one looks at. The BCS gives mediocrities access to the championship structure by virtue of their membership in a particular group of teams. And yet those mediocrities scream about how Notre Dame gets "special treatment", even though you'll never see a 9-3 ND team even sniffing a BCS bid like Purdue and Stanford have in the past. Even Alanis Morisette would find that ironic.

Notre Dame is a national brand because of the efforts of those who came before -- Rockne, Leahy, Hesburgh, Joyce, Parseghian, Holtz. Joining the Integer will effectively undo those efforts more effectively than just about any choice I can fathom. Becoming a small regional school with a small regional following may be attractive to those who want the money but don't want to make the effort, but to those alumni and fans who believe those heights can be reached, it smacks of being lazy and cheap, neither of which are words I want associated with my school.

Let's also not forget these people hate us. There's no love lost between Notre Dame and any Integer school at any level, from the alumni and fans on up. The Integer and its members benefit from Notre Dame's involvement much more than the other way around, and all they're interested in is our money and the reflected attention they can get from us. If Joanna Barnes could make herself look like a crappy football stadium, it'd be a natural.

So Jack, the next time a reporter or alumnus or anyone else asks you what Notre Dame's interest in Integer membership is, there's no reason to be complicated or to hedge. Keep it simple.


The car is running, and gas is expensive these days.

For those of you who might feel the need to print this out and mail it to our friend Jack, his address is:

Jack Swarbrick
Director of Athletics
University of Notre Dame
C113 Joyce Center
Notre Dame, IN 46556

Remember, every little bit helps, and snail mail always gets more attention. Forward it to your friends and encourage them to do the same.

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Friday, October 30, 2009

Men Without Chests

posted by Mike Coffey
Guest author: Frank Pimentel

In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis argued that modern education produces "what may be called Men without Chests. It is an outrage that they should be commonly spoken of as Intellectuals. This gives them the chance to say that he who attacks them attacks Intelligence. It is not so. They are not distinguished from other men by any unusual skill in finding truth nor any virginal ardor to pursue her."

Sadly, we see this in full effect at Notre Dame today. First, in their initial bumbling attempt to defend the commencement invitation to President Obama, the University distributed laughable "talking points" to the Board of Trustees, which managed, in one swipe, to insult the intelligence of anyone who questioned the propriety of the invitation and to directly insult the initial Laetare Award honoree.

Then Fr. Jenkins compounded the error by issuing a statement to the effect that he, presumably in contrast to the shanty Catholic rubes who saw through the artifice concocted by Notre Dame in its perpetual desire for respect by those whose opinions matter in academia, was going to deliver an "inclusive and respectful speech." In other words, as Lewis predicted, those who attack him, attack "Intelligence."

Alas, the commencement debacle was not the most recent example at Notre Dame of Lewis’ foretelling. Last week, Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick announced that next October, Notre Dame would be fortifying its football schedule by playing Western Michigan University. Parenthetically, I’ll state that for all I know, WMU is a great school and runs a fine football program. But that’s kind of the point; about all I know of WMU is that it is in Kalamazoo – and I doubt that most anyone not from Michigan or northern Indiana even knows that.

Of course, that announcement understandably caused instant deflation among nearly anybody who harbors hope that the Fighting Irish will once again become the team it was under Rockne, Leahy, Parseghian, or Holtz. By way of brief examples, on our way to the 1988 national championship, ND played Michigan, Miami, and USC in the regular season. The next year we played Michigan, USC, Penn State, and Miami before the bowl game. In ’90 we played Michigan, Miami, Tennessee, Penn State, and USC in the regular season.

But that wasn’t the end of the consternation. Instead, echoing Jenkins’ pronouncements surrounding Commencement, Swarbrick announced with respect to the inevitable backlash, "It reflects a not very sophisticated view of what's going on out there." As with Jenkins, those who attack him attack "Intelligence."

But I am not fooled. In the case of football, the problem isn’t finding opponents on short notice, it’s finding opponents who will be bought, not expecting a return visit by Notre Dame. This scheduling philosophy, deemed "7-4-1" for shorthand, means 7 home games, 4 road games, and 1 "neutral site" game televised on NBC -- amounting in substance then to 8 home games and 4 road games. It requires materially watering the schedule down and making it, frankly, boring.

I believe this was intentional. Notre Dame knew that if it shorthanded itself by establishing a Potemkin 7-4-1 "requirement," it would eviscerate future schedules so badly that, by contrast, a league schedule (Big 10? Big East? ACC?) would be appealing. Of course, this is a false choice. Simply returning to a more balanced home/road schedule (6-6, or even 7-5), with the historical norm of playing home-and-home series with marquee schools, would immediately solve the problem.

But that itself is the problem. The powers that be don’t want the supposed scheduling problem solved. Rather, while alumni have always overwhelmingly opposed joining a conference for football, those in the Dome and JACC – specifically John Heisler – "know better" and want it (and for reasons having nothing to do with athletics and everything to do with those whose opinions matter in academia).

They don’t want to solve the scheduling "problem" that they created themselves. Rather, they have set us up to "solve" the scheduling "problem" by, sooner rather than later, throwing up their hands and arguing that the only feasible solution left will be to, surprise, join a conference.

But my Intelligence will not be insulted. Until Notre Dame places Men with Chests back into leadership positions, my checkbook – which had heretofore been open – will remain closed.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2009

More Heavyweights

posted by Mike Coffey
NBC's Notre Dame contract includes seven Irish home games and one prime-time neutral site game annually through 2015. "You could do [a series with Miami] ... plus do one home and home."

A quote from a post on Rock's House or Cartier Field? Nope. It's a quote from Notre Dame Athletics Director Jack Swarbrick.

Yesterday's Miami Herald had a story about a renewal of the Notre Dame/Miami football series, a brief but intense rivalry from the program's last period of prolonged excellence. According to Barry Jackson, UM AD Kirby Hocutt got on the phone with Swarbrick, who showed much interest, and the two will talk more in April.

This obviously is a great thing for the football program. ND was being boxed into a corner schedule-wise with excessive promises to outside entities. Between the 7-4-1 structure and three Big East games and an alleged "buy games" philosophy, it was looking like one-game-or-bust for fans wanting a quality opponent on the Irish sidelines instead of the multiple choice options a 4-4-4 strategy would bring. Instead, Swarbrick will use the neutral site games to augment a quality home-and-home contract rather than replace one.

The list of eye-opening moves by Swarbrick doesn't stop there. The wildest dreams of Irish hockey fans came true earlier this year when Notre Dame announced plans for a new ice arena. After years of meandering renovation plans for the current (and inadequate) facilities in the North Dome, Swarbrick talked to Jeff Jackson and other benefactors, and made the bold choice. According to folks on campus, he also recognizes the bass-ackwardness of the current renovation project and is putting together plans for the long-overdue practice facility for the basketball programs, to be built between the Joyce Center and the baseball field.

Sea change, indeed.

For the last eight years, ND's athletics leadership seemed to be stuck in neutral ... vast periods of ennui punctuated by poorly-handled coaching searches. Statements by the AD evoked cringes far more often than cheers.

Now we have action on plans, not never-ending plans of action. "Why not?" instead of "Why me?" Instead of focusing on "Sunday through Friday", we're looking to "position our program as one of the best in the nation".

We weren't sure what we were getting back in August when Jack Swarbrick took the reins. ND had passed on more experienced candidates like Steve Orsini to hire a lawyer from Indianapolis, and initially it smelled like another "don't rock the boat" hire. The moves so far, though, are very encouraging. While no one hits 100 percent of the notes, at least Swarbrick seems to be singing from the right hymnal.

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Saturday, March 14, 2009

It's Gotta Be the Chicken

posted by Mike Coffey
Seems like every time someone mentions the words "admissions" or "facilities" on the Pit these days, the indignation flows thick and fast. A lot of people criticize those of us who bring these things up, using words like "apologist" and opining that our standards for ND basketball are somehow lower than they should be.

There's a reason we bring them up, though, and it has nothing to do with Mike Brey. We bring them up because both are problems that hold Notre Dame basketball back and will continue to do so no matter who the coach is. They artificially limit the pool of players and coaches who will consider coming to ND to try and make the program better.

"But we can just promise changes to the new guy" goes the common refrain. As long as we show we understand what they need, we can get a hungry good coach to jump at the job. Simple as pie.

Really? Ask yourself if that would succeed if you were interviewing for a job.

You're well respected in your field, and a company wants to hire you. It used to be an outstanding company, but rested on its laurels for too long and has lost its way. They don't understand what is needed in the marketplace today and routinely undermine their employees. The guy who [just left / just got fired] might have needed to be replaced anyway, but the company's ham-fisted decision-making didn't help the situation at all and, multiple times, left the guy hung out to dry.

Now they want to hire you, and they promise you the moon and that all of a sudden they're going to start doing things "right" to help you and the company succeed. Never mind over a decade of mismanagement, this time they're "serious", and they'll give you whatever you need to succeed.

Would you believe them? Or, knowing they're in a bind and might say anything to get you in the door, would you either (a) pass on the opportunity, or (b) require a higher level of compensation to reflect the risk you believe you're taking? Look beyond the frustration after a very-underachieving season and view it dispassionately as a Rick Pitino or a Brian Gregory or a Mark Few or a Travis Ford or an Oliver Purnell or a Scott Drew would. View it as the person who'd be putting their career on the line would.

The chicken must precede the egg here. Notre Dame must make the decision they want championship basketball and then start to take the necessary steps to bring it to campus. They can't "get religion" as part of a hiring process, because that's how you end up getting publicly turned down (see: 1991) or having to overpay someone who isn't an advancement to get them on campus (see: 1999, football 2001).

Anything it looks like you're being forced to do isn't accepted as genuine by anyone. That's why we push for program support by the school now, when it's their own decision and not driven by embarrassment or necessity. If they don't do it, it doesn't matter if Mike Brey is here in September or not.

Yes, this season was incredibly frustrating. The team underachieved and that is 100 percent Mike Brey's responsibility. But how much more frustrating is it when you picture what kind of a difference Austin Freeman might have made on this team? How much more frustrating is it when you look at an alleged "facilities upgrade" that looks like it's being executed in complete reverse order of how it will improve recruiting? What is a game of musical chairs in the coaching offices really going to accomplish in this atmosphere?

For the record, I'm encouraged that Jack Swarbrick understands this. Unlike his predecessor, he understands what ND needs to do to succeed in basketball and is trying to make it happen. But if ND wants to make their next hire a good one, they need to lay the groundwork now. Right now, all we have is a sandy beach.

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Wednesday, December 03, 2008

It Just Goes to Show

posted by Mike Coffey
Show what, I'm not at all sure.

Nothing, it seems, has been what it seems for the last couple weeks. Charlie Weis was fired, and then he was not. Jack Swarbrick was meeting with him next Monday, then it became last Tuesday when both were jetting around four time zones on the left coast. A presser became a release. Status quo became buyout financing became "responsible stewardship of university resources", and now Weis gets a continuance.

The inveterate straw-grasper in me sees plenty of lawyer-speak in that link. The release doesn't say Charlie Weis will be ND's coach in 2009, only that he will "continue" in the role, with Swarbrick "examining every aspect of the program" and making changes where he "think[s] they are needed". Plenty of ambiguity there, or at least enough to keep my soul from sinking, and we still have an epic tilt against the likes of, as Lou would say, the University of Rice to look forward to over the holidays before all's said and done.

Could this be the most Machiavellian approach to the AD chair we've seen since Gene Corrigan was in the house? Perhaps. Was retaining Charlie Weis truly the best option, based on a lack of a "home-run hire" being available? Maybe. Does Charlie know enough to, once again, go into the off-season ready to correct the errors of the previous fall? I guess.

Trouble with all that is, when you've had to dip the bucket into the well of patience as many times as ND fans have in the last 15 years, eventually all you hear is the thud of it hitting the sides. I'd love to give Jack Swarbrick and Fr. John Jenkins the benefit of the doubt here, but 50 times bitten, 51 times shy, I suppose.

At the moment when Swarbrick seemed truly to be examining all his options while waiting on a December 8th appointment, the entire process short-circuited, resulting in a piece of paper issued from the Joyce Center. It's hard not to think about how we've seen all this before. Look kids, Big Ben ... Parliament ... you noticing all this plight?

We should, I suppose, be grateful for small mercies. Swarbrick's predecessor would have attempted a press conference, and it doesn't take a lot of imagination to visualize the train wreck Mr. "Sunday through Friday" would have wrought. But that's cold comfort as I sit in the December chill wondering how the Decided Schematic Advantage is going to be realized, knowing I most likely am going to spend the next 11 months refereeing online fights about what "real ND fans" do/think/want or don't.

But hey, I'm all about chances, right? As of this typing, Charlie Weis is ND's football coach next year. So it's time to stop talking about what could happen and start talking about what damn well better happen, including some capital-R Realizations:

Number one, a head coach is not a special teams helper or a quarterbacks coach or a play-caller. He's a head coach, and he has other people on his staff to handle those other responsibilities. Notre Dame is not a place for those skills to be learned, but rather honed, and if you can't delegate what needs to be delegated, you won't do anything well.

Number two, what works in the NFL doesn't necessarily work in college. When you're not limited to 20 hours a week with your charges and aren't required to provide tutelage in fundamentals as well as scheme, you can get a hell of a lot more done. If you can't dumb it down and have it still work, you need to bring someone in to help you do it.

Number three, you're not going to get anywhere unless you listen. Not give lip service to listening, really listen. As the saying goes, A-level folks hire (and, by extension, listen to) other A-level folks. B-levels and below are afraid to "look weak" or otherwise allow themselves to grow, so they won't have themselves challenged. I don't know whether he needs security or patience or what, but the days of my-way-or-the-highway have to go, because this highway is leading us right to the gates of Hell. Find staffers willing to challenge you and put new ideas out there, and show you're willing to consider what they say.

Fourth, it's time to put your money where your mouth is. So much talk about the sizable buyout keeping you shackled to South Bend, are you willing to walk the walk and announce you've reached an agreement with ND to waive the buyout as of September 1, 2009. You're asking the fans to work without a net here in trusting you can change. How about inching out onto that limb with us?

That's a level of self-evaluation that must happen here, because without it, none of my requirements for 2009 will be met. What are those requirements? Glad you asked.

Win whatever third-tier bowl game ND ends up in this year. I'd also prefer some evidence it's going to be a good long time before we have to worry about a win or the venue, but I'll settle for Weis not becoming the first coach ever to have back-to-back losing seasons and still stay in his job.

Keep the recruiting class together, and add the likes of Xavier Nixon, Manti T'eo, and Jelani Jenkins. If recruiting truly is saving his behind, it'd better keep up.

Create an OL that could successfully block my grandmother, both on the ground and in pass protection. I don't give a damn what our pass/run play call mix is, but in situations where we absolutely have to do one or the other, we need to be able to do it successfully. A decent running game would have meant at least two more wins this year and two more not-so-close games. Lack of depth and stars isn't the case anymore.

On the raw W/L side, 11 wins, at least 10 of them in the regular season. Devil-like details would include no losses by more than 10 points, and that includes Southern Cal, and at least three wins by more than 21 points. It's time for the championship recruiting classes to become a championship team, and Weis is in the red on mulligans as it is.

If he's going to stay, that's what he needs. Otherwise, Swarbrick should spend the next 11 months getting the Tier-One hire on the line, because like it or not, Jack's now inexorably tied to Weis. Will he take him to new heights or pull him into the abyss with him? Only Weis' hypothetical knee doctor knows for sure.

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Sunday, November 23, 2008

It's Time

posted by Mike Coffey
This one really hurts.

The last two didn't hurt, but this one does.

Okay, the last two hurt, but not in the same way. The last two times we fired guys, they were guys who didn't really care about ND as a place and decided to treat it as a career way-station on their planned route to College Station, TX, or the NFL. The losses and ineptitude that brought us to their dismissals were painful, but the solution was not.

This solution, however necessary, is different. Charlie Weis was a lot of things, but carpetbagger certainly wasn't one of them. When he told a recruit about the special aspects of the Grotto, he spoke from the heart. He spoke from the soul. He connected to Notre Dame and connected with us, and in doing so, brought hope things would turn around.

That connection kept Weis' head above water last year during a horrific 3-9 campaign that was as much his own doing as caused by his predecessor's recruiting shortfalls. But at 6-5, in the wake of one of the worst losses in Notre Dame football history and staring down the barrel of a top-10 team in Los Angeles that needs style points if they wants to play in the BCS championship game, that connection is dragging us down with him.

It's time to cut the connection before we all drown.

There really is no alternative. For the second consecutive season, ND will finish with a worse won-loss record than its talent would indicate. For the fourth consecutive season, ND will look worse in its last game than it did in its first. John Walters ran the numbers, and Charlie Weis sits today after four years with the exact same win percentage his two predecessors had on the day they were fired. It wasn't good enough then, and it's certainly not good enough now.

Weis said it himself: We didn't bring him here to go .500.

Dylan over at BGS described Jack Swarbrick as, "having barely opened his office door, has found the whole place to be on fire". Fair or not, football coaching hires are how AD's are judged, and it's Swarbrick at the bat, or with the fire extinguisher at least.

In a perfect world, he would have been sounding out potential replacements early to make this as seamless as possible. I'm willing to bet a lot of money that hasn't happened. But fear not, such things are still possible, and time remains.

Weis, in retrospect, was a poor hire. But I gain hope from the hiring track record of the current administration since that day. On the academic side, Tom Burish seems to have been a good get at Provost, there are a number of excellent candidates on the short list for the Law School, and even the most curmudgeonly curmudgeon on Rock's House applauded Marianne Corr's hiring as General Counsel. On the athletic side, Jeff Jackson prowls the blue line in the Joyce Center after taking Notre Dame to its first Frozen Four.

Good hires of people more than capable in their field seem to have been made in recent years, all without the word "residentiality" being uttered. This tells me the people involved know how to hire. If they all of a sudden can't get it done in football, that will tell me a whole list of other things, none of them good.

But in the spirit of hope springing eternal, I think it's important to remind all my gentle readers of the things all previous successful ND coaches since Rockne have had in common:

All were very experienced as a college coach. Elmer Layden had coached for nine years prior to arriving in South Bend. Ara Parseghian had 13 years' experience. Dan Devine and Lou Holtz both coached their 17th season in their first year at ND. The only exception to this rule was Frank Leahy, but he got quite a bit done in his two years at BC.

All had coached at the top levels of college before coming to ND. Duquesne was a strong program when Leyden was there. Ara coached in the Big 10, Devine in the Big 8 (now Big XII), Lou in the SWC and Big 10. Again, Leahy stands out with BC being an independent, but also again, what he did there makes up for it.

All had coached at least one major college team to an undefeated season, a top-10 ranking, or a major NYD bowl. Layden's 1929 Duquesne team went 9-0-1 and his 1933 team went 10-1 and won what is now called the Orange Bowl. In two years at BC, Leahy's teams went to the Cotton and Sugar bowls. Ara had Northwestern ranked #1 during his career, an unheard-of achievement in those days. Devine had an undefeated season at ASU, and had four top-ten finishes and went to three Orange Bowls and a Sugar Bowl at Mizzou. Lou was an Orange, Fiesta, and Sugar Bowl veteran by the time he arrived in South Bend, and had four top-10 finishes to his credit to boot, including one at NC State.

So it can be conclusively proven that Notre Dame has had success when led by an experienced, known-commodity coach. The myth once perpetrated by a former administration official that "Notre Dame makes coaches, not the other way around" is just that, a myth.

Unfortunately for us, however, these men also had two other things in common:

They were not in good coaching situations when they were hired. Notre Dame represented a step up or a dream come true for all of these men. Layden and Leahy were alumni. ND was a bigger stage and could give more than the Integer outlets at which Ara and Lou toiled. Devine was coming off a failed attempt to coach the Packers.

It definitely takes more moxie than the norm to woo a top coach away from what might be considered a cushy job. But we are, as the commercials during the game tell us, the Fighting Irish, and I expect a fight no matter who we end up hiring. What was the title of Charlie's book? No excuses.

They weren't saints. This has been a strong refrain of NDOldTown in recent days/weeks, and in this, he is absolutely right. All these men were ethical and good people. But they also were winners, and were willing to do what it took while following the spirit of the rules to get there. They worked hard and so did their players. If they saw an advantage, they took it. And they certainly didn't have people in their job interview talking to them about the importance of Catholicism and other tertiary concerns. There's a reason the Boy Scouts don't have a football team, and as long as we aren't treating players like pieces of meat and we ensure they graduate with meaningful educations while keeping our noses clean, it's all good.

These are the times that try men's souls, times when people who aspire to be Notre Dame legends have an opportunity to prove their worth. Fr. Jenkins and Jack Swarbrick have such an opportunity now, and it may be their last. Make it count, gentlemen.

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