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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.