No Sleep Till Football

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From Charlie Weis to Brian Kelly

I’m about 3-months late to this party, but Dr. Saturday had an interesting article discussing Brian Kelly as Notre Dame’s new head coach. It’s an interesting read contemplating the transition from Weis to Kelly and there were a few speculations I thought worth talking about. I’ll use excerpts, but reading the entire article is worth it.

He finished with only one win against a team that finished in the final polls (over Penn State, which snuck in at No. 24 in 2006) and lost 20 of his last 23 against teams that finished with winning records. After solid starts in each of the last two seasons, ND’s combined record in the last two Novembers was 1-8, with a 1-4 slide that included losses to Pittsburgh, Boston College and Syracuse and a humiliating 38-3 debacle at USC in 2008 followed last year by an 0-4 finish punctuated by home losses to vastly outmanned underdogs Navy and UConn.

That’s a devastating recounting of the recent events in South Bend. There is no question Weis couldn’t win big games. However, there is another matter at hand here. Let’s forget the 05-06 seasons because for the most part they were looked upon as major successes for Weis. If we concentrate on 07-09 then we get the following records in “close games” defined by final score within 7 points:

2007: 1-1
2008: 2-3
2009: 4-6
TOTAL: 7-10

In his last 4 years Notre Dame beat one ranked team. In the games against ranked opponents Weis was 1-10. Of those 11 games, only 3 were close. He was 0-3 in close games.

So what does all that mean? It’s tough to say. In 05-06, Weis was 5-2 in close games. That’s overall 12-12. If you believe in luck being a significant contributor towards close wins & losses then Weis broke even. Sure he didn’t beat any ranked teams which was certainly a thorn in his side, but Lady Luck smiled upon Weis in 05-06 and frowned upon him in 07-09.

And did it really matter in ’07?

It may be years before we find out exactly what happened between the 2006 and 2007 seasons that sent the train spiraling so irrevocably off the tracks, if there even is an explanation beyond replacing Brady Quinn and eight other offensive starters with (mostly) a totally green bunch of freshmen and sophomores. (Pick your doomsday scenario: Did Weis waste precious practice time trying to install an unfamiliar read-option offense for athletic quarterback Demetrius Jones, only to junk it after a single, disastrous quarter in the opener and discover a week later that Jones had left school without telling anyone? Did he play head games with the young offense instead of just naming hyped freshman Jimmy Clausen the starter, as he’d planned all along, and giving him the reps in practice? Did his NFL-conditioned brain spend too much time trying to upload complex Xs and Os instead of fundamentals?) At no point, though, could Weis claim he didn’t have the players or the schedule to succeed — at the end, the roster was all his own, and still couldn’t hold up to Navy, Pittsburgh, UConn or Stanford in his final four games.

The emphasis there is mine. What really could Weis have done in 2007? Willingham recruited like garbage and there was absolutely nothing there except for freshman and sophomores to compete with in 2007. The writing was clearly on the wall in 05-06 when Weis was winning with junior/senior dominated teams. Simply put, there was going to be some lean years in South Bend after the disaster that was Ty Willingham.

The Irish were underdogs in 9 games and they finished 3-9. Nobody expects Notre Dame to go 3-9, but according to the oddsmakers, ND finished exactly as they should have. Weis was 1-1 in close games. The schedule played out like it was supposed to. The 2008 schedule worked out for ND to go 7-5 according to the oddsmakers. Instead they went 6-6, but Weis was 2-3 in close games that season so finishing 6-6 makes some sense. Throw in a bowl win for the first time since 1993 and the season wasn’t a complete abomination.

What killed Weis was 2009. Dr. Saturday is right here in that Weis couldn’t blame any shortcomings within the program on how the Irish finished in 2009. Weis had his own players and they were now juniors/seniors. When Brady Quinn was a junior, Weis went 9-3 with a BCS bowl berth. When Jimmy Clausen was a junior, Weis went 6-6 without a bowl appearance.

The kicker here in 2009 was the close games. Notre Dame had 10 close games with a record of 4-6. You can’t blame everything on luck and the bottom line is that Weis got himself into too many close games where he hasn’t shown the ability to win. Take a look at the close game records of guys like Urban Meyer & Brian Kelly. They don’t play a lot of close games and they win a large percentage of the close games they do play.

The one aspect Weis didn’t get as a coach was that he wasn’t a good enough coach to win the “luck” games over his career at Notre Dame. Nor was it apparent that he was good enough to stay out of close game situations. A good counter example of his is Pete Carroll at USC. Carroll was around a .500 coach in close games while leading the men of Troy, but the secret to Carroll’s success was keeping USC out of close games to begin with. If USC blew everyone out by three touchdowns it didn’t matter how Carroll coached at crunch time. This could also be indicative of why Carroll had a hard time of it in the NFL. Most NFL games are within 7-points. Unless Carroll has massively changed (and it didn’t look like it at USC) then the Seahawks are going to get a middling coach that can produce 9-7/10-6 seasons as a ceiling for success but nothing more.

But the bottom line for Weis is that Notre Dame can’t lose to a Michigan team introducing a new QB when Jimmy Clausen is supposed to be All-World. They can’t lose to a Navy squad that doesn’t have a single player in their 3-deep that could be a backup on Notre Dame’s squad. They cannot lose to unranked Connecticut & Stanford teams. ND was 6-6 last season. You take those 4 losses out and they are 10-2 playing in the BCS and Charlie Weis is still the HC and Jimmy Clausen & Golden Tate are possibly suiting up for their senior years.

If you believe the Web gurus, the one arena where Weis always succeeded was recruiting (especially relative to his predecessors, Bob Davie and Tyrone Willingham, who combined to leave the cupboard embarrassingly bare of elite talent), and though 2009 should have been the culmination of those efforts on the field, there’s plenty on hand for Kelly to recreate the fast start he orchestrated at Cincinnati.

Here is the crux of the Weis era to me. If Charlie had been more personable and greased a few media members to the fact that Davie & Willingham were so awful attracting talent to South Bend, I think Weis probably gets pass for 07-08. Sure the pressure would be on to win in 2009, but it wouldn’t have been the pressure Weis saw in actuality. Ultimately, Weis was coaching for his job from the very beginning last season. If he somehow had said ND was going to suck in 07-08 and there was nothing he could do about it, I wonder if the heat wouldn’t have been quite so hot in 2009?

Instead Weis let his ego trump everything else with a win at all costs mentality. This led to unreachable expectations in 07-08 which led to incredible expectations in ’09 that could never have been met. And don’t forget that the ’09 squad wasn’t FANTASTIC. The offensive line was average at best. Clausen took a pounding at times under center and receivers Michael Floyd & Kyle Rudolph dealt with injuries. RB Armando Allen missed 5 starts. Defensively the secondary was awful as ND’s had consistent problems at corner. Even this season Kelly inherits corners that didn’t live up to the hype they had coming out of HS. Kapron Lewis-Moore, Ethan Johnson, Darius Fleming & Manti Te’o were all underclassmen. You have 4 of your front-7 as underclassmen without outmatched corners? It’s not going to be pretty.

Maybe that is Weis’ fault for not having a defense in place by the time 07-08 was over. I think there is nobody else to blame in that respect.

The one interesting aspect to all of this however is how new HC Brian Kelly will do. He’s got more talent than he’s ever seen on a football in his coaching life. If Weis could take Willingham’s holdovers on a two-year stint culminating in a 19-6 record including two BCS bowl appearances and a top-10 and top-20 finish, then what does Kelly do with a heavily stacked cupboard filled by Weis? Weis certainly isn’t leaving the cupboards bare of talent. ND has a ridiculous amount of it and Kelly has been successful in his early stints too. Phil Steele ranks the 2010 class as the 15th best in the nation. Steele ranked Weis’ first class in 2005 28th in the country.

It’ll be interesting to see how Kelly does with Weis’ players at first, but then with his own in the ensuing years. I don’t think Kelly will have cushion Weis did in 07-08 with the lack of talent, but Weis wasn’t smart enough to play that card. I believe Kelly would have.

As a Notre Dame fan I couldn’t be happier that we landed Brian Kelly. I think Notre Dame is incredibly lucky to have him. In fact, I think he’s going to go down as the one of the most successful coaches in Notre Dame history which is setting the bar exceptionally high. I think he’ll do it, but the Charlie Weis era will always be interesting for me. Not only because of how it started, but also because how it ended. Maybe Weis does feel more comfortable in the NFL “just coaching football”, but it certainly seems to be the case that if Weis had been just a little softer and allowed himself the realization that the 2007 & 2008 teams were going to suck, he still might be the HC at Notre Dame and fighting towards a National Championship for his alma mater.

Notre Dame is going to come out the big winner here, but this is a fascinating example of how sharp the edge is from being a highly lauded coach to being a coach viewed as a failure.

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July 12, 2010 - Posted by | Brian Kelly, Charlie Weis, Coaching, Notre Dame

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