Notre Dame Football Retrospective: Why Bob Davie Failed as Head Coach

This is a continuation in an ongoing series where I look at where things have gone wrong since 1993 and how we got to where the program is today. A couple of weeks ago, I looked at the fall of Lou Holtz and what led to that. Give that a look if you want to catch up before this one. 

If you have been following the Notre Dame YouTube account, you’ve noticed some nostalgia over the last couple of months. Specifically, over the previous two weeks, Notre Dame has released all of the home games from the 1998 and 1999 seasons, two seasons coached by Lou Holtz’s replacement, former defensive coordinator Bob Davie.

One of those seasons, 1998, was good. The team finished 9-3 in the regular season, beat defending national champions Michigan and quarterback Tom Brady in the home opener, and a couple of weeks later beat sophomore quarterback Drew Brees from Purdue.

The 1999 season was not good. They lost to Brady and Brees in back to back weeks, lost to Michigan State for the third straight season, and finished 5-7. Such as it went for Bob Davie during his coaching tenure at Notre Dame. They were bad in 1997, good in 1998, bad in 1999, good in 2000, bad in 2001. There was no consistency, nothing that you could count on, except that you knew it’d be messy.

And it wasn’t for lack of talent. From 2001-2005, the players who matriculated through the Davie era, Notre Dame saw 26 players drafted, an average of a little over five per season. It also wasn’t for the lack of a talented staff. Greg Mattison, Urban Meyer, Charlie Strong, and hotshot offensive coordinator Kevin Rogers all coached with Davie during this tenure. It’s hard to remember, but at the time, Rogers, who had just finished turning Donovan McNabb into a college star and first-round pick, was seen as a home run hire. He was going to turn 5th-year senior quarterback Jarious Jackson into Notre Dame’s version of McNabb. Unfortunately, that’s not how it went.

Davie himself was a fantastic coordinator, akin to someone like Dave Aranda, formerly of Wisconsin and LSU and current head coach of Baylor. But, his fatal flaw came in the form of all the things head coaches have control over, and coordinators do not: game management.

Davie Was…Not Good At Clock Management

I was wondering when to bring this up, whether to hold back till the end, but let’s get it right off the top. And this is really more of not being very good at managing the football team, period. If you watch the games from 1998 and 1999, the thing that stands out is how much of a mess everything is. It’s hard to quantify it in words, but it just looked chaotic. And that chaos reared its ugly head during end of game situations, and none more than what happened during the 1999 season, and the end of game scenarios against Michigan and Purdue.

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Against the Wolverines, Notre Dame is down 26-22 in the final moments, Notre Dame is out of timeouts and Jackson takes a sack which leaves the clock running. On third and 20, Jackson fires for Raki Nelson over the middle, but he’s marked a yard short at the Michigan 11, and time runs out.

The next week against Purdue, down 28-23 and the ball at the Purdue one-yard line and out of timeouts with 16 seconds left, Notre Dame botched the play call, and Jackson scrambles on a broken play for a loss of nine. Because Notre Dame was in a full house backfield at the one, they try to run on three receivers. Except none of the backs exit, so Notre Dame attempts to line up with trips right, double tight end, full-house backfield. That’s 14 players. Never mind that, time ran out anyway.

This came after the end of the first half when Jackson was driving the team for a half ending field goal, except with the clock running and (surprise!) no time outs left, Davie sends the field goal unit onto the field. Jackson, however, thinks Notre Dame is going to spike it to stop the clock. So the kicker and holder are lined up to receive the snap and kick while Jackson is under center. The ball never gets snapped, and the half ends. Not great.

Davie Never Found An Offense

What was considered a coup at the time, Ron Powlus deciding to return to Notre Dame for a 5th season, sent Bob Davie on an interesting course offensively. First, he fired offensive line legend Joe Moore (and was later sued for age discrimination) and hired former Purdue head coach Jim Colletto to run the offense and coach the offensive line. He was going to tailor the offense to Powlus’s strengths as a passer, bringing in three-wide sets and the shotgun formation. This was a tremendous mismatch of Notre Dame’s personnel and identity; the team started 1-4, and the offense was scrapped midseason, and the Irish finished 7-6.

While Colletto focused on the running game the next season with Jackson at the helm, as did Rogers with Jackson, then a multitude of QB’s in 2000 and 2001, a powerful offense never matriculated under Davie. They never broke 30 points a game in a season, averaging a high of 29.7 in 2000 and lows of 21.7 in 1997 and 19.5 in 2001. His teams only averaged 400+ yards per game one season, 419 in 1999.

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Davie also ushered in the death of the fullback era in South Bend. We all know how much the fullbacks were involved in the Holtz era, and even with the non-running quarterback Powlus, the fullbacks were heavily emphasized. In 1995, Notre Dame’s fullbacks touched the ball 182 times and scored 13 touchdowns. In 1996 it was 174 and 17. From 1997 to 2001, fullback touches decreased every season, almost to the point of nonexistence as offensive threats. Touches dropped from 97 in 1997 to 93, 62, 20, and finally 19 in 2001, with five total touchdowns scored by fullbacks over that time period, with none scored in 1999 and 2001.

Overall

Davie’s good teams and bad teams weren’t really all that different. Except for the 1999 defensive unit that gave up 27.6 points per game, all the other defenses were around the 20 points per game given up mark, which isn’t bad. Some years, they lost the close games, and other years they won the close games, and that’s what separated the good from the bad with Davie. Special teams were consistently putrid, except for the 2000 unit, which featured Joey Getherall returning punts and a kickoff return unit that stole Oklahoma’s blocking scheme that ripped Notre Dame apart in 1999.

One thing Davie was, he was a pretty good recruiter, as evidenced by the number of players he got drafted into the NFL. But, he never learned how to manage a team and get them to play at a high level consistently, and he certainly never figured out late-game management. He ended his Notre Dame career with a 35-25 record, and no bowl wins. So for Davie, he was a good recruiter who couldn’t find an offense, couldn’t figure out how to run, and couldn’t manage a team in-game. And that’s why things didn’t work out with him.

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4 Comments

  1. Bob Davie failed because he coached when ND still had the talent, pressure, and expectations of competing for a championship….coming right on the heels of Holtz.

    Brian Kelly is a similarly overmatched coach…but remains there because he: a) caught a huge break in 2012, and b) despite the public spin, ND accepts it will never win a football championship again. Just keep the car out of the ditch.

  2. Ahhh The Bob Davie era….. If my memory serves me in those two games mentioned, I believe one reason that the Irish had no timeouts was because we had to take them on the goal line to avoid delay of game penalties. Good times!!!! Very similar to the false start penalties that the current staff seem to struggle with.

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