Notre Dame officials made a critical choice a few years ago. They could lower their academic standards to allow in better athletes so alumni could take pride in their football team, or they could keep those standards high so alumni could take pride in their university.
By placing the school's primary mission above athletic success, they chose correctly. Unfortunately, Notre Dame fans must accept the consequences.
The Fighting Irish can fire or keep Coach Charlie Weis. It won't matter. The combination of high academic standards and a changing recruiting landscape has assured that even if the Fighting Irish somehow genetically engineer a coach who combines the best traits of Knute Rockne, Vince Lombardi and Winston Churchill, Notre Dame still won't have the players to compete for BCS bowl berths on an annual basis.
On Saturday look at the discrepancy in talent between USC and Notre Dame. The Trojans are allowed to recruit just about anyone, and that, combined with a talent-rich backyard and charismatic coaching staff, allows USC to stockpile quality players. Texas, Oklahoma and Florida enjoy similar advantages, and though Ohio State and Penn State must face slightly tougher standards than the others, they still aren't as restricted as Notre Dame, which falls closer to Duke, Stanford and Vanderbilt on the athletic admissions continuum.
Yet Notre Dame is expected to compete for the national title every year because it is Notre Dame. The popular notion now is that Weis can't coach. He coached just fine when he had the players from the "empty cupboard" Tyrone Willingham left behind. Notre Dame earned BCS bowl berths in his first two years and got blown out by teams (Ohio State, LSU) that can recruit better players.
Why do you think Urban Meyer took the Florida job in December 2004 when he could have taken his "dream job" -- his words -- at Notre Dame? Meyer knew he could win more easily at Florida. Winning consistently in college football is tough enough without having to fight the admissions office at every turn. Quarterback Tony Rice led Notre dame to a national title in 1988. Rice, who was admitted under Proposition 48, wouldn't be considered by Notre Dame today.
Another popular knock against Weis is that while he has recruited well, he hasn't developed those players. That's a misconception. Recruiting gurus say Weis recruits well because, for years, players had stars added in front of their names because Notre Dame was recruiting them. But let's look at the actual players who showed up on campus. Yes, Weis has brought in receivers Michael Floyd and Golden Tate and quarterback Jimmy Clausen. He also has a 2009 commitment from top-ranked Oxnard, Calif., tailback Cierre Wood, and the Irish are in the hunt for Honolulu linebacker Manti Te'o, but how many of Notre Dame's other recent recruits would start for a perennial top-10 program? The Georgias, LSUs and Penn States sign five game-changers every year. Notre Dame, fishing from a much smaller pond, can't match that depth.
The best recruiting year for Weis should have been 2006. He had just come off a 10-3 season, he had just signed a monster contract extension and he could easily dismiss the Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State as a fluke. Rivals.com loved his class, ranking it No. 8. That's one spot ahead of an Oklahoma class that included quarterback Sam Bradford, tailback Demarco Murray, tight end Jermaine Gresham, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy defensive end Jeremy Beal and offensive tackle Trent Williams. Meanwhile, Florida (Rivals.com No. 2) signed a class headlined by quarterback Tim Tebow, receiver Percy Harvin and linebacker Brandon Spikes. Alabama (Rivals.com No. 11), still led by soon-to-be-fired Mike Shula, signed offensive tackle Andre Smith, cornerback Javier Arenas and strong safety Justin Woodall.
Few of the players Notre Dame signed that year would start on any of the 2008 versions of the teams listed above. There's no need to name names, because those players are working hard on the field and in the classroom, and it's not their fault they aren't as fast as Harvin. Weis probably would have loved to sign any of those players from the other schools, but most of them weren't on Notre Dame's board because they wouldn't have been admitted. Of the players listed, only Oklahoma's McCoy seriously considered Notre Dame. Oklahoma's Beal probably could have gotten in -- he got an offer from Duke -- but he didn't consider the Irish.
Academic standards aren't the only issues hamstringing Weis or any potential successor. Notre Dame also has lost one of its major recruiting chips -- the lure of national television. Telling a recruit "NBC broadcasts all of our home games" is like telling him the coach drives a souped-up Edsel. Every team in the top 30 or 40 team plays every game on national or regional television, and games not on TV are broadcast on the Internet, which for a 17-year-old is just as meaningful. That generation makes no distinction between something it sees on broadcast TV, basic cable, premium digital cable or ESPN360.com. Make a big play, and everyone will watch your YouTube clip whether it originated on NBC or the equipment manager's digital HandyCam. So why would a player from California, Florida or Texas want to go all the way to South Bend, Ind., when he could stay home and get as much exposure?
Notre Dame's strongest selling point is the education it provides. But Duke, Northwestern, Stanford and Vanderbilt offer an equally prestigious or more prestigious education, and they're chasing the same players. To truly have a chance to win 10 games a year on a consistent basis, Notre Dame would have to sign 25 of the best 50 players every year from the pool of those capable of meeting admission standards. But it won't have to fight only the pocket-protector crowd for those players. Michigan, Virginia, Cal, Missouri and all the rest want smart players, too. They make for great PR, and their intelligence usually makes them coachable.
Maybe Notre Dame fans should stop pining for the glory days and adjust their expectations. Even with all its built-in advantages in the BCS, Notre Dame might be able to compete for a BCS bowl once every five to 10 years. These things happen. Harvard, Princeton and Yale dominated college football in the early 20th century, but those schools de-emphasized the game because leaders felt cutthroat recruiting would undermine their academic mission. Army was a power at one time, too, but the U.S. Military Academy also has a loftier purpose than winning football games.
Notre Dame alums will have to accept the fact that the decision to keep academic standards high has made for a middle-of-the-pack football team. But they can look at the diplomas on their walls and be proud that they remain among the nation's elite.
This time next year, recruitniks across the country may be weeping tears of joy or sorrow into their mashed potatoes and gravy. If football coaches have their way, this final week of November could be the new first week in February. More coaches than ever embraced the concept of an early signing day this past offeseason, and more probably will jump on board after signing day 2009. If the NCAA approves a change, the first signing day for the class of 2010 might take place Nov. 29, 2009.
That's using the model set forth by SEC coaches, who asked that the date be set on the Monday before Dec. 1. Other coaches may want to wait until after conference championship games. That way, college coaches could concentrate on their teams, and high school stars wouldn't have to interrupt critical late-season or playoff preparations to deal with recruiting.
Of course, if you read this space regularly, you know I'm no fan of the early signing period -- or the February one, for that matter. I believe players should be able to sign whenever they want.
South Carolina needs to change its mascot from the Gamecock to the vulture. Coach Steve Spurrier and his staff have feasted on the carcasses of the recruiting classes of programs that fired coaches.
On Sunday, Greenwood, S.C., safety D.J. Swearinger switched his commitment from Clemson -- which pushed out Tommy Bowden last month -- to South Carolina. Swearinger will join Rock Hill, S.C., safety DeVonte Holloman, who also decommitted from Clemson, and Bradenton, Fla., tailback Ben Axon, who decommitted from Tennessee, which fired Coach Phillip Fulmer last month.
The Gamecocks aren't done picking the bones, either. They lead for Tampa, Fla., tailback Jarvis Giles, another former Tennessee commit. Giles, who visited South Carolina earlier this month, plans to visit Nebraska this week. South Carolina also has continued to recruit Marietta (Ga.), tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen, an Auburn commit who began looking at other schools after the firing of offensive coordinator Tony Franklin, but Lutzenkirchen told Rivals.com last week that he feels more comfortable after Auburn coaches answered some of his questions.