Notre Dame Football Needs To Stop Playing Catch Up

© Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Upon reflection following his Notre Dame career, head coach Lou Holtz surmised that his biggest mistake as the Fighting Irish head coach was complacency. Following the teams success in 1988 and 1989, which brought a 24-1 record and a national championship, and having reached the “pinnacle” of the sport, he simply sought to maintain their status, instead of trying to grow on it. Subsequently, they stagnated while the rest of college football caught up, and they were never able to fully regain their dominant form.

Since Holtz resigned in 1996, they’ve been chasing a formula of excellence ever since, with different coaches, schemes, and athletic administrations. As a fan of the team since 1990 and my formative years occurring during the final years of the Holtz era, one thing has remained constant since Sweet Lou stopped roaming the sidelines: Notre Dame has been reactive every step of the way to the changes in college football, and as a result, has consistently been a step behind other power house programs.

Consequently, while the Alabama’s, Ohio State’s, Stanford’s and USC’s are on the cutting edge in the areas of training regimen, diet, recruiting tools, and facilities, Notre Dame finds itself lagging behind, trying to catch up to the latest edge those schools have had at their disposal for years. And when Notre Dame finally makes those improvements, the top schools have moved on to something else.

This isn’t about Brian Kelly and the job he has done. Notre Dame has consistently missed or failed to attract what most would consider tier 1 coaches. It’s time to start thinking about why that is.

Recruiting

For a long time during the Holtz era, the Notre Dame brand was enough of a selling point for most recruits. They played on national TV all the time, they had the (recent) tradition of winning, and they had a recruiting coordinator in Vinnie Cerrato, who some may say was a little loose with the rules and the way things were supposed to done. Not that they did anything illegal but, you know, maybe not in the best practices of university protocol and the types of guys Notre Dame brought in. Corners were cut. Which, surprise!, worked out really well from an on-field performance perspective.

Following his departure in the early 90’s, the administration cracked down on admissions and the types of players Notre Dame could offer scholarships. This lead to frustrations, particularly from Holtz’s successor Bob Davie, who was rumored to have steered Urban Meyer away from Notre Dame in 2005 because he didn’t think he’d be given enough leeway on the recruiting front.

To date, Notre Dame has been slow to upgrade their recruiting operation, only recently beefing up their social media and recruiting support staff, while Alabama and Ohio State have had literally dozens of people working in this area for a number of years.

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This gap has been exacerbated by head coach Brian Kelly not placing a big enough emphasis on recruiting in his coaching staff. His first hire at defensive coordinator, Bob Diaco, was a serviceable recruiter, but he wasn’t excellent. His replacement was a total abomination. Brian VanGorder was an NFL guy who showed very little interest on the recruiting trail and it showed. Subsequently, big time defensive talents have turned Notre Dame away on signing day–they came in second last year to two five star and one four star linebackers last season, and saw four defensive players de-commit this year, including elite defensive end Robert Beal.

This isn’t to say Kelly doesn’t understand the importance of recruiting, or doesn’t take it seriously. I’m sure he does. But, he had to build a recruiting operation through a mandate from the administration, something a head coach at football power like Notre Dame shouldn’t have to spend time on. He shouldn’t have to ask for recruiting support staff, or a social media operation. These are things the school should be out in front of, but are just now getting caught up on in Kelly’s eighth season. He and those that came before him have been playing from behind, and that shouldn’t happen.

Strength, Conditioning, Nutrition

How many years running has this been a problem for the football program? 10 years? 15 years? We first heard about the need for a training table during the Weis era, when it was discovered that their late season collapses might have been due in part by the fact that the players were feeding their body with whatever they decided to eat in the dining hall. Now look, I’ve seen the spread at the dining halls, it is delightful. I’m also not a division one athlete whose body performance is put on display in front of millions on national TV. I’m also not a nutritionist, and neither are the players. The idea that in the late 2000’s they had a diet that wasn’t being monitored is mind boggling.

Remember, the installation of a training table was something that Kelly had to fight for as a pilot program when he was hired in 2010. And to make matters worse, six years into the implementation of this program we were still hearing stories from players, like receiver Chris Brown, who talked about his dramatic weight loss during the season because he didn’t have the money to eat nutritious meals and lived off of fast food. This was a major college athlete on a team that was a couple of plays from a playoff berth and he’s surviving on happy meals.

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Kelly made major changes to the strength and conditioning program this offseason, which of course is a good thing, but again, year eight. There were stories of complacency in the weight room, a certain “get in here when you can” to put the work in mentality. They acted like a program that had arrived, even in the face of getting blown out in the Fiesta Bowl. Now they are forced to play catch up, again. They’ve got schools like Stanford, whom they play every year, with an innovative program that is the envy of college football and Notre Dame is cycling through their strength coaches and trying to get the training table right.

Facilities

This is an area where Notre Dame has mostly striven to be competitive, but not ground breaking. They built the Guglielmo Athletics Complex in 2005 in a pretty welcome move; it wasn’t the best athletics center in the country, but it was certainly a very nice facility. Of course, now it needs updates, and those have predictably been slow arriving. And that underscores one of the problems with the way the program has been run in the last couple of decades; they make an improvement to catch up to the football world in terms of facilities, and they check it off the list like it’s a job well done and move on.

Predictably Notre Dame has been passed by other programs. Alabama famously built a nine million dollar weight training facility in 2013 which was an add on to an already state of art athletics complex, Oregon put together a 68 million dollar 145,000 square foot monstrosity also in 2013, and schools are constantly updating their facilities. And the thing is, the further away Notre Dame gets away from their dominant years, the more they need to sell their current product. Let’s face it, they are in South Bend. It’s not Los Angeles. It’s not Columbus. Players need a reason. And the current facilities are not a reason. They aren’t terrible by any means, but they don’t stand out. They are standard.

Notre Dame is updating the stadium by adding a jumbotron, building another press box and inclosing things a little bit, which is a good thing. The louder, the better. The challenge though, is to keep pushing forward, not just with facilities, but with all of it. What are other schools not doing in recruiting that Notre Dame can capitalize on? What are the cutting edge ideas in the weight room and in training that can be implemented? How can they make their facilities the best in the nation?

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Notre Dame is too often playing catch up in these areas, and it has been a detriment to every coach since the Holtz era. They’ve relied too much on their name and past glory and have been slow to adjust to the changing college landscape. This isn’t about changing who and what the university is. It’s about making the decision to be the top in college football in every aspect. When innovations and ideas that are state of the art are implemented, it sends a signal not to just players, but to elite coaches, that Notre Dame is serious about and not going to be accepting anything less than the best. It goes from something that is not only talked about, but is shown.

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54 comments

  1. bruce johnson 3 years ago

    One more time

    For more than two decades, Notre Dame has neglected its greatest teaching instrument-its football team. At one time the team’s success made Notre Dame unique. You learned that on any give day you could rise to the challenge and beat anything, or anybody, no matter what the odds. Everyone learned Rudy’s lesson: you never ever gave up. You learned about teamwork and that people who work together will win, whether it be against complex football defenses, or the problems of modern society. The team’s striving for incredible excellence permeated everything at Notre Dame. Every graduate believed that in his life he could take all those lessons and apply them to politics, to public service, to his family life and his faith.

    But two decades of neglect have put all that the University stands for in jeopardy. Who could not watch dumbfounded as the University let one athletic director hire one loser after another. The first an assistant coach- you never ever hire an assistant coach for the toughest coaching job in the nation. He then tried to hire the rambling Irish wreck, who was not even much of a coach, and didn’t even vet him properly. It was a huge embarrassment for the University. To save face he hires another, whose uniqueness as a black head coach makes him initially immune from criticism; but ultimately he is not a great coach. Finally, he tries to buy a big time professional coach, whose waddling across the field is an embarrassment to all great athletes. Even more embarrassing watching him yell at Brady Quinn on national tv. In the end the players gave up on him. The result was the worst football season in a forty years year. Someone was a completely poor judge of men.

    We get a new athletic director who says maybe Notre Dame might win a national championship one day. Hardly a commitment to excellence, when at one time the team fought for the national title every year. Then he hires a new head coach from a second rate football school in ten whole days, hardly an auspicious beginning.

    If you want to be the best, you take time, you prepare, you find the best coach in America. Even then the odds are long.

    It becomes quickly apparent that Brian Kelly is no messiah. There is no quick return to glory. The defensive coordinator the new coach brings allows the opposition 25 points a game on average. There are no shutouts. They lose more games in half a season than Ara Parseghian lost in four years. And this coach too humiliates his players on national TV by yelling at them. Such a lack of dignity and grace under pressure. Imagine, John Wooten, having ever having done such a thing. If they had been coached and trained properly, there would have been no need to yell. I praqy that he can grow into the job.

    Even worse the new athletic director says the new coach is like a great corporate ceo. I am reminded of the JFK quote: “My father always told me that all businessmen were sons of bitches, but I never believed it till now.” The team’s integrity has been sold: a new plush stadium, a TV show for the athletyic director, gimmick helmets and shoes to promote sales, even a commercial where the sacred fighting Irish leprechaun is used as a prop. Shades of the gecko. Notre Dame football has become a business, not an instrument for learning, self sacrifice, excellence or teamwork.

    Imagine how the players must feel. When I was there you never ever criticized the team. That was gospel. I do not do that now. But, many of the best players in the nation believe Notre Dame has lost its will. And go somewhere else. Jimmy Clausen left early and I heard him say on national TV, he never lost a game until he came to Notre Dame and they went 3-9. And he was a great quarterback.

    Something is terribly wrong. Not just football, but the University’s acceptance of this bumbling toward pathos. Vince Lombardi said it this way: “Once you learn to quit, it becomes a habit.” This failure, this acceptance of failure, this benign neglect affects all the University does and the way it presents itself to the nation.

    Father Hesburgh once said: “ My belief is and always has been that the University
    ought to do everything, academics, athletics, you name it in a first rate manner.”

    But, the athletic director, the University’s President, the Board of Trustees and the Holy Cross Fathers have accepted something less.

    Unless that changes, what set Notre Dame apart and above, Duke, Yale or Harvard or Stanford, was its belief in itself. At one time the University’s team was an inspiration for poor and middle class kids all across the country, and no other school had such a faithful feeder system or a subway alumni. No other school had such a rich legacy. No other school had Notre Dame’s true grit, or its indomitable spirit. But that is all at risk now. Espn’s definition of Notre Dame football, mediocrity.

    America’s greatest President Franklin Roosevelt knew the value of spirit:

    “It is not enough to clothe and feed the body of the nation, and instruct and inform its mind. For there is the spirit and of the three, the greatest is the spirit. Without the body and mind, as all men know, the nation could not live. But, if the spirit of America were killed … the America we know would have perished.”

    Our spirit, our legacy is at risk.

    I have been hard. Dale Carnegie teaches us that genuine appreciation and seeing things from the other fellow’s point of view are the keys to personal success. All the efforts of every member of the Notre dame family are appreciated and we can see that many of these people did their best and often above their best. But, another coach said it this way: “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”

    Its time to regain our legacy of winning and make sure that the spirit of Notre Dame never perishes. It takes a great leader, a motivator, someone who can inspire.

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    1. Ron Burgundy 3 years ago

      No way anybody reads all of that.

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  2. Tom 3 years ago

    The article is spot on. Being “proactive” instead of “reactive” is the difference between success and failure in everything, not just football. Let’s face it we all love ND, the university and especially it’s football team, and always will but South Bend is a tough place to recruit to. USC (Los Angeles), Stanford (Bay area), Alabama (Coaching and NFL path). Kids have to have a reason beyond faith and football history to choose ND over other top schools. Notre Dame requires an elite student athlete. Academically focused and understanding the 40 year decision that attending ND is. To close the recruitment deal the athlete needs to see “state of the art” facilities, training, nutrition and coaching that evolves every year to keep it at the top of college football. If anyone should share the blame it is the University Vice President, James E. Rohr Director of Athletics, Jack Swarbrick and the top leadership of the university.

    Does ND football have a Director of Football Operations, Data Analysts, and all the other football personnel support staff that other top schools have. No
    Time for the Irish top management to wake up and catch up.

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  3. NemesisTheDestroyer 3 years ago

    I think a lot of valid points are raised within the article and apply to the program over the course for the last 20 some years. Speaking to the specific debacle last year, a lot of that I attribute to the decisions made by the football CEO, Mr. Kelly. A lot of the off the field stuff that occurred right before the start of the season were players engaging in activities that you can’t tell me BK didn’t address or talk about with his players yet it occurred, meaning, players weren’t listening to the head coach. That was indicative of a big problem right there. If players aren’t listening to the head coach, that is evidence of a disconnect, which further makes me wonder how much that extended to on-the-field activities last year. We will see how all the coaching changes pan out, given now we are in year 8 of the Kelly era. This program has to return in winning and beating significantly ranked opponents which includes getting to a major bowl and not getting the shit kicked out of them, but, instead, doing the shit kicking to their opponent. When that starts to re-occur consistently, that will tell me ND football brand is back on the track. If wins continue to get vacated, off the field shenanigans still occur and continued subpar W-L records happen, it’s time for further changes besides department heads ( assistant coaches).

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    1. Bruce Gregory Curme 3 years ago

      Nemesis,
      For what it’s worth, I’d like to echo much of what is in the article and all of your comments.

      I especially agree that we need consistency. The absolute lack of consistency between the LSU bowl game, the 2015 season and the 2016 season. A “down” year for us should be 8 – 4, NOT 4 – 8.

      Bruce G. Curme ’77 ’82

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  4. Ian Ross 3 years ago

    This article is just a continuation on a theme that’s been ongoing for decades. The administration is only too happy to have piles of cash generated by the football program but they’ve been constantly lax in investing and reinvesting in the program. To that extent, they keep hamstringing their coaches with what can’t be done, won’t be done or what they’re blindly oblivious to.
    The only reason they won a national championship in ’88 and came close to another in ’93 is that they had Lou Holtz who was a true believer in Notre Dame. All it did was perpetuate the illusion and myth that ND should compete for national championships without putting in the all-effort to establish a modern program (a training table, fer cryin’ out).
    May have one of the oldest college football programs in the country, but that doesn’t make them any smarter.

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  5. Joe McLaughlin 3 years ago

    As a lover of the idea of ND since the Leahy era, I am convinced that the potential rebirth of the football team will lie dormant until all vestiges of “football factory” paranoia is removed from the sports department as well as the administration.
    Number1: giving consideration to a student football player, who, because of football may have need of academic considerations ( that is travel, out of classroom, etc) beyond other students should never be considered coddling, or preference treatment for football players.
    As long as sports players keep their grades acceptable and obey institutional rules, even with additional consideration from the school, nobody at ND should feel the need to be paranoid about ND being a football factory.
    I look forward to the time when on campus family members once again look forward to great football and take as much pride in that as they do in academics and character issues. There’s no sin in that.

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    1. Bruce Gregory Curme 3 years ago

      And there is no sin in letting student athletes transfer in since we have always allowed academic transfers to come in. We need to allow 1 transfer in per class, and also allow graduate student-athletes to transfer in. The student athletes need to transfer in after their freshman or sophomore year though; this is necessary to get a diploma from ND.

      Bruce G. Curme ’77 ’82

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  6. Ron Burgundy 3 years ago

    Let’s not overcomplicate the issue here. If you have the right coach in place you win.
    Since the glory days everybody is pining for other sports at ND have succeeded at the highest level and won championships with this admin and philosophy.
    Bama was in ruins and then Nick showed up, USC was a disaster and then Pete showed up, Oklahoma was a mess and then Stoops appeared, heck even tOSU was a mess in the short interim between sweater vest and Urban.
    Does anybody really doubt that if Saban or Meyer was named coach tomorrow that ND wouldn’t win and win in a big way. And in a hurry too. It wouldn’t matter if Charlie Brown was the AD and Bart Simpson was the president.
    The Cubs analogy is perfect. 108 years of nothing, hire the best baseball mind ever and boom you win a title and appear to be on the verge of a dynasty.
    Now for finding the right coach, easier said than done.

    Fire everyone!
    Sincerely, BJ

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    1. SteelFanRob 3 years ago

      Who is this “Ron Burgundy”?

      I like him a lot more than the old “Burgy”!

      God bless “bj”!

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      1. Damian 3 years ago

        I don’t know if that’s Burgundy posting that comment, since he rarely posts anything of that sort, or did he go back to some comment BJ posted in the past and reposted here as Burgundy is prone to do.

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      2. Ron Burgundy 3 years ago

        Keep me posted as to when you figure this out.

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    2. bruce johnson 3 years ago

      I think my friend Ron got religion. Must have been a trip to the grotto. Swarbrick has been responsible for this debacle for more than a decade. A salesman in a lawyers costume. Shoes helmets gimmicks fads nothing that was real. He even took the grass. Unless you fire Swarbrick and Kelly and replacement them with people who have some kind of soul you will
      get football as entertainment not as a metaphor for the greatness of Notre Dame. President@ndu.ed

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  7. SubwayAlum 3 years ago

    To all:

    The underlying theme of this article is ‘What is Wrong with ND Football?’ The author bravely points to ‘the Administration’. First, Greg, how about being specific. Who in the Administration is responsible? What can we, the fans and supporters of the school and FB Program do to help remedy the problem. I suggested bringing in someone with a keen FB mind who possesses a love for ND as well as for ND-FB. Put that person in charge of all things FB.

    If the University is ‘all-in’ then they have to realize that just replacing Swarbrick is not the answer, a new DC, or a new OC, or even new HC are not the answers. We have to do something drastic like what the Cubbys did in Chicago. We need a Theo Epstein kind of mentality. For 106 years the Cubs sucked. It was a staple of sports that they would never win a WS. My son who is a Cardinals fan rooted against the Cubs in the WS, not only because they and Cards are arch enemies but because the “Cubs losing annually was an American tradition”. ND losing in FB, I’m sorry to say, has become an American tradition also. I’m sick of it.

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    1. qb2333 3 years ago

      Not sure where you’re going here. Cubs got new ownership that changed their ways. Is ND supposed to sell the school off and get a new president?

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      1. SubwayAlum 3 years ago

        @qb####,

        Sorry you missed the point. Maybe if we got a 5-star CB we’ll start winning again. I’m sure you are right.

        BTW, back in October of 2009, I was in that conference room when the new owner of the Cubs, Mr Ricketts, asked if any of us knew anything about baseball. Responses from all the attorneys went something like…yeah, I can renegotiate the TV and cable rights, another would work on concessions, another thought maybe adding pretzels with mustard might be a good thing, but the best was to suggest that maybe we can get that Harry guy to cut a record of Take Me Out to the Ballgame. And so it went for two years, ‘band-aids’, with pretty much the same results. Until (thank the Lord) they hired Theo away from the Boston Red Sucks. While at Boston, he did a pretty damn good job, much to my disappointment as a life-long Yankees fan. In 2011, Ricketts hired him as “President of Baseball Operations”. Something ND should do, only call it President of Football Operations. WS in 5 years. Got it?

        I don’t want to just put another ‘person’ between the HC and the Administration, I want to build a “Trumpian” wall, electrified and with a moat, between the two. I want the new PoFBO to oversee the hiring of ALL coaches, to establish a recruiting program like in the late ’80s-early 90’s. He would not have to go out on recruiting missions, or get involve in the daily practice grind, but his presence would loom large.

        Can anyone guess who I’d hire (clues)…Greg called him “sweet”, Coach Bob said there was no comparison to his recruiting mandate. OK, you guys got it.

        Or maybe all we need is another 3 star LB, I dunno…

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  8. Theodore Kazmar 3 years ago

    The same garbage that has been written for the last 10 to 15 years. Get a new head coach next year, it will make no difference. Until ND quits using the opposing team’s officials, ND is going downhill. It is obvious and quite simple.

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    1. Bruce Gregory Curme 3 years ago

      I agree 100% on using our own officials at home, or a split crew everywhere. We used to use Independent Officials when there were 12 Independents. Now there are only four Independents, but that is enough to make it fly again. I’m pretty sure BYU would be with us (I saw them get hosed big time last season…I’m sure they remember the game I’m thinking of). Father Jenkins should put the ACC on notice that their conference officials start flying right, or they’ll be grounded the first time possible with our contractual obligation, whatever that may be.

      Bruce G. Curme ’77 ’82

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  9. Greg Flammang 3 years ago

    Just want to thank everyone for the comments and feedback, hopefully you found it interesting and entertaining.

    Appreciate all of you for taking the time to read my work.

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