As they trudged off the field following a dispiriting, hard-to-fathom loss to Syracuse in last season's Senior Day home finale, Notre Dame players were pelted with snowballs.
The anger was not as visible after this year's Senior Day loss, but the absence of snow on a balmy 52 degree day was more the reason than any sort of progress by the Irish. In fact, the gloomy, misty dusk that settled over fabled Notre Dame Stadium as a 33-30 double-overtime defeat to Connecticut entered the books was an appropriate metaphor for the current state of Irish football. Coach Charlie Weis' tenure is all but certain to end after five mercurial seasons of unmet expectations Weis himself was largely responsible for creating.
"You're a 6-5 football team," he all but sneered at his introductory press conference in December 2004, "and if you think they hired me to go .500, you've got the wrong guy."
Weis, 35-26 overall, is 6-5 this season and riding a three-game losing streak with one game remaining, a tough one at Stanford. The Irish were 7-6 last season, losing four of the last five before a Hawaii Bowl win over Hawaii, and a school-worst 3-9 in 2007. That is hardly evidence of an upward-trending arrow.
"Six-and-five is not good enough -- I still agree with that," Weis said on Sunday. "I intend to be here, but if they decide to make a change I'd have a hard time arguing with that."
Weis was hired to replace Tyrone Willingham, who had gone 21-15 in his three seasons but was done in by a 1-6 mark against the USC-caliber heavyweights on the schedule. Weis, 2-8 against USC and Michigan and 1-11 against ranked teams, has not shown that the Irish can compete at the highest level.
When Weis was introduced as the Irish coach he arrogantly flashed a Super Bowl ring and boasted of having "a definite schematic advantage" once the talent level had been upgraded -- he was coming down from a higher league. His schemes produced two field goals in Notre Dame's last nine possessions of regulation against UConn. The thought of Dave Wannstedt outscheming anyone prompts giggles in Chicago, where "Wanny" coached the Bears through six fruitless seasons of head-scratching confusion. But it happened last week when the befuddled Irish tumbled into a three-score hole against Wannstedt's Pitt Panthers and couldn't escape.
The week before Notre game lost to Navy -- the same team the Irish had beaten 43-straight times -- for the second time in three years.
Turnovers, bad penalties, poor tackling and silly mistakes like an out-of-bounds kickoff following a go-ahead field goal sabotaged Notre Dame against UConn. They've been common this year. They're not the sign of a well-coached football team, any more than those late-season losing streaks are.
And the talent level? Weis was 19-6 and took the Irish to two BCS bowl games in his first two seasons. He did a lot better with Willingham's players than he has done with his own.
"His players" locked arms with Weis and insisted he lead them onto the field for Saturday's Senior Day festivities, a gesture of support that brought tears to the eyes of the self-styled Jersey wise guy. "We're 110 percent behind coach Weis," star quarterback Jimmy Clausen said of the demonstration.
But those same players have known their coach's job was on the line all season, and they've hardly played like a team intent on saving it.
So a change seems inevitable. Domers will flood the blogosphere with breathless tales of Urban Meyer's lifelong love for Notre Dame and Bob Stoops' disillusionment at Oklahoma. Jon Gruden's dad was an Irish assistant on Dan Devine's staff, remember. Ara Parseghian is 86, unfortunately, but Lou Holtz is only 72. Catholic, too. So is Steve Mariucci.
All well and good. And not happening. Meyer chose Florida over Notre Dame in 2004 for a reason: It's a better job. Many of them are. Notre Dame hasn't won a national championship since 1988 or been in contention for one since 1993. It needs an upgrade to reach the middle-class prosperity of Iowa, Missouri or Cal -- decent every year, really good occasionally -- before it can aspire to rejoin the Florida-Texas-Alabama-Ohio State ruling elite.
Still a magic name, a special place? To some, but not everybody. Pat Fitzgerald was probably speaking for a lot of college coaches when he said don't even ask. He's at Northwestern, his alma mater, which is 8-4 this year.
Former Notre Dame athletic director Kevin White described ill-fated George O'Leary as "someone out of central casting" when the gruff Irishman was hired for about a week in 2001. Brian Kelly, from undefeated Cincinnati, can make the same claim; he's not a big name, but his record suggests he might not be a tough sell if he can survive a vetting process certain to be more thorough than the last few.
Athletic director Jack Swarbrick will make the call on Weis; Swarbrick is a smart lawyer and a savvy businessman, and it's doubtful he'd pull the plug without having a successor lined up. That's what happened last time. The Irish thought they were getting Meyer when they let Willingham go, and they wound up with Weis.
It seemed like a good idea at the time.