Sunday November 29th, 2009

Analysts Kirk Herbstreit and Chris Fowler had a fascinating argument during ESPN's College GameDay on Saturday morning. Herbstreit complained about the constant blather about Notre Dame, saying the Fighting Irish don't deserve all the attention they get because they haven't been relevant on the national scene since 1993.

Fowler argued that Notre Dame's program remains special. Hours later, Stanford fans offered anecdotal evidence to support Fowler's theory when they rushed the field to celebrate the Cardinal's thrilling 45-38 win against Notre Dame.

Florida State, a program that was a power much more recently than Notre Dame, also went 6-6 this season. No one rushed the field when they beat the Seminoles.

The Notre Dame mystique still exists, and if we learned anything from the Charlie Weis era, the right coach can make the Irish relevant again on the national scene.

By signing studs such as quarterback Jimmy Clausen and receivers Michael Floyd and Golden Tate, Weis proved Notre Dame can compete with national powers for players. Because of location and academic standards, the Irish can't recruit from as deep a pool as Florida, Texas or USC, but Notre Dame can sign enough good players to take advantage of a system stacked in its favor and play in a BCS bowl three out of every five years -- as long as the Irish hire the right coach. Weis recruited great offensive players, but aside from freshman linebacker Manti Te'o, he didn't sign any difference-makers on defense. The next coach will have to recruit well on both sides of the ball. If he does, he'll restore the shine to the golden dome.

You'll see names such as Urban Meyer, Bob Stoops and Tony Dungy thrown around in the next week, but those are pipe dreams. The Irish will wind up hiring someone like Cincinnati's Brian Kelly, and that's a good thing. From Grand Valley State to Central Michigan to Cincinnati, Kelly has always had to mine diamonds in the rough. At Cincy, he knows Ohio State will sign the best players in the state of Ohio every year. Kelly doesn't care. He takes the players Ohio State never would consider and wins with them.

At Notre Dame, Kelly could sign the occasional five-star and then compete with other eagle-eyed coaches such as Georgia Tech's Paul Johnson and Oklahoma State's Mike Gundy for the three- and four-star players the megapowers didn't correctly evaluate. Such a team, coached by capable Xs and Os men, could easily win nine games against Notre Dame's schedule.

So the Weis era wasn't a complete waste of five years. It proved a few things. It proved a "decided schematic advantage" on offense means nothing if the coach cannot sign decent players on defense. It also proved Notre Dame still has the cachet to recruit its way back to relevance. The Irish just need to find the right man to lead them there.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.