After a long week of reading everything I can get my hands on about Notre Dame football, and some time to look back at the Notre Dame program in my lifetime, with my multitude of experiences both as a fan growing up in South Bend, as a student, and as an alum, I have come up with a long-term strategy for the football program, which I think will result in a strong football program for years to come.
Priority #1: Solidify our coaching.
In order to solidify our coaching, here is my plan. While it may be overly technical and far-reaching, the specifics of the plan aren't as important as developing a system that will bring in and develop the best coaches in the country.
First, keep Coach Weis. Although I am disappointed in the on-field success of the program the last two years, Coach Weis has proven that he will not be out-worked, and he will not be out-recruited. Yes, he has been out coached at times, but even USC fans have said as much about Pete Carrol.
However, the head football coach at a major football program (college or pros) is only as good as his supporting cast. It is in this area that we need a more cohesive plan of action.
I would start by clarifying the roles of Corwin Brown and Jon Tenuta. Right now, their respective titles are: "Defensive Coordinator/Defensive Backs" for Brown, and "Asst. Head Coach (Defense)/Linebackers" for Tenuta. Based on those titles, I would place Tenuta above Brown on the organizational chart, but leave the responsibility for play-calling in the hands of Brown. I like this approach, which would leave the ultimate responsibility for the success of the defense in the hands of Tenuta, who is responsible for creating the gameplans, practice plans, etc. The actual gameday playcalling would be Brown's, subject to Tenuta's supervision.
I would take a similar approach on the offensive side of the ball, with one twist. I would go out there and find a new "Offensive Coordinator" for the offensive side of the ball, who would have the same responsibility as Brown on defense. Weis would be the de facto "Asst. Head Coach (Offense)," and would work as closely as he likes with his coordinator as far as playcalling would go. Weis would need to learn to defer to his Offensive Coordinator for the bulk of the playcalling, but would have the choice, at any time, to take over in critical situations.
The Offensive Coordinator for this team is not Haywood. I like Haywood, but he has been hamstrung his entire career here, and clearly Weis is uncomfortable with Haywood, since he took back the reins of the offense this week. He needs to get a guy he can trust.
At the end of the season, Weis should support Haywood in finding a new position as head coach at some small school, and then go (probably to the pro ranks), and find someone he can trust for this new position.
Finally, I would demote Brian Polian to Assistant Special Teams coach (Weis' position right now), if he will accept that. He is too good of a recruiter to just part ways with, but we need a legitimate special teams coach.
Which, of course, leads to my next suggestion - do a national search for the best special teams coach available, and hire him as Asst. Head Coach (Special Teams). Give him ultimate responsibility for the success of the special teams.
The hiring of the assistants on each side of the ball should be the responsibility of each Assistant Head Coach, subject to the approval of Weis. Weis would of course have sole responsibility on the offensive side of the ball.
Ianello, as recruiting coordinator and wide receivers coach, is clearly safe in his job, but may be looking to move up soon with his recent success. He may even be a good fit for coordinator, as Weis could teach him on the job about how to call plays and create offensive game plans.
This organizational approach would achieve several things, in my opinion. First, by giving each Assistant Head Coach ultimate responsibility for his area, Weis is freed up from attending all of those meetings on special teams and defense. Weis can give them an overall direction at the beginning of the week, and make changes to the finished game plan at the end of the week, but this frees him up to focus on the offensive game plan and coaching up the offense.
I think that this organization has suffered from a lack of clarity and support from the head coach, as well as a lack of experience. Tenuta has the experience to take full responsibility for the defense, and can perform hands-on training for Brown, his coordinator. Brown, as coordinator, will then be that much more prepared to take over for Tenuta in the future. Weis can train his coordinators to his liking, and maybe someday gain enough confidence to just hand over the reins completely - not because he feels like he needs to focus on other things, but because he genuinely feels that the new coordinator can do his job for him.
Finally, I would rework Weis' contract a bit. Tell him that, rather than parting ways with him after a second straight disappointing season, that you want to restructure the buyouts based upon on the field incentives. Bonuses and extensions for BCS wins and championships, but a lower buyout for failing to achieve certain thresholds.
Priority #2: Work with all of your constituencies to develop a scheduling philosophy that works.
Much has been made of the 7-4-1 scheduling philosophy, and the inability to schedule the marquee opponents for a home-and-home.
With Swarbrick coming into his position as AD, he should sit down with Coach Weis, Father Jenkings, and should quite frankly spend some time reading some of the message boards and blogs that have taken up this issue, to get a sense of what the fans are looking for.
Then, they should come up with a method for modifying the 7-4-1 scheduling philosophy in such a way that they meet both the administrative and fiscal goals, as well as respecting the tradition of the program.
I would look into reducing our commitments to the Big Ten and/or Big East, and come up with a schedule that looks something like this:
USC and Stanford (2 Pac-10), Michigan, Purdue, MSU (3 Big Ten), 2 Big East teams, and one other team (i.e. ACC/Big 12/SEC) - home and home. (4-4 each year)
Home-home-neutral agreements - alternate Tier 1 opponents with the Navy neutral game, ND-Alabama in the Superdome one year, at Alabama w/ Navy neutral the next, then at Alabama the year after that, with a one-off neutral site game (see below) the following year. (1-1-1 over three years)
Navy - home and neutral. (1-0-1 every two years)
Tier 2 opponent - neutral site game once every three years (yes, this would be the Washington State game played in Texas). (0-0-1 every third year)
Fill in the rest with a one-off home games against the likes of Army/Duke, etc. (1-0-0 or 2-0-0 each year)
Schedule would end up closely resembling a 7-4-1 model, with the good games that fans want to see. Try this scheduling sequence, using this year's schedule as the template for year 1:
vs. San Diego State
at Michigan State
at North Carolina
Alabama (neutral site - Superdome?)
at Boston College
vs. Michigan State
vs. Boston College
Navy (neutral site)
at Michigan State
vs. West Virginia
at Georgia Tech
Washington State (neutral site)
vs. Michigan State
vs. Texas (next year - neutral site, Cotton Bowl?)
at West Virginia
vs. Georgia Tech
Navy (neutral site)
Obviously, we would have to tweak the schedule along the way, but this is the type of schedule I'd like to see on an ongoing basis.
Priority #3: Plan for the future.
There needs to be an ongoing evaluation of available coaches, and a smooth transition program for when Weis leaves the program. Seek out young coaches that are on the verge of being ready to take over a program, and work with Weis (a Notre Dame guy) to leave the program on a pre-planned schedule and bring in a replacement the year before Weis leaves to go through the transition.
For the guaranteed opportunity to be the head coach of Notre Dame, I have to believe that a coach worthy of the position (lets take Gary Pinkel, for example) would be willing to come in and understudy for one season en route to taking over the team. In Pinkel's case, Weis would have to relinquish his duties as offensive leader of the team, and focus on transitioning the players to the new coach's system, while introducing Pinkel to the ins and outs of coaching at Notre Dame.
This approach takes an immense amount of foresight, and would require Weis to be willing to turn over the program, even if he has tremendous success (i.e. a National Championship). No more scrambling to find your coach at the last minute, and no worries about recruiting setbacks, as the kids coming in that year know that they would be playing for the new coach, and no hard feelings and transfers when Weis (or whomever) leaves.
In recent history, even successful Notre Dame coaches (Parsegian, Holtz) have a shelf life of around 10 years. Coincidentally, Weis has a 10 year contract. If Weis meets the expectations of the program, winning at least 1 championship in that 10 year period, we smoothly show him the exit into the legends of the Irish as we transition in the new coach. If it becomes apparent that Weis will not achieve those benchmarks laid out in ihs new contract, he will be given one final season to take his shot at immortality before leaving.
Best case scenario, Weis rides off into the sunset with a championship, worst case scenario, the new coach walks into the job without a wasted recruiting cycle and takes his shot at immortality.
Priority #3: Wake up the echoes.
The gameday experience at Notre Dame is often referred to as "magical" by visiting fans. Only in rare situations (88 Miami, 93 FSU, 05 USC) is Notre Dame Stadium truly an imposing place to play, however.
There are many excuses for the "Disneyfication" of the Notre Dame experience, but they all boil down to a mistaken emphasis on revenue generation over gameday experience.
We need an alcohol policy that provides for a racous but controlled environment. Lower enforcement outside of the stadium, get rid of public intoxication citations in the stadium, and actually increase enforcement and penalties for the truly offensive behavior - vomiting, fighting, etc. Teach the crowd how to drink responsibly, rather than trying to eliminate drinking entirely.
Crucify me if you will, but I would build some luxury boxes in the Stadium - seats where old geezers can get in out of the cold and enjoy the game. Do so without diminishing capacity in the stadium as much as possible. The outside seats would be filled by younger, braver souls willing to cheer their hearts out for the Irish. And lest you think I'm being sacreligious, the luxury boxes could serve as a buffer to reflect the crowd noise back into the stadium, rather than letting it float out unimpeded. Build the luxury boxes on the east side of the stadium, and connect the stadium to the Joyce with a Notre Dame athletics museum and grand entryway celebrating our long history, much like the monogram room in the Joyce, only way more impressive.
Have one night game per year. Pick the marquis game (under the scheduling philosophy, there should be at least 1 every year), move it to primetime. Increase law enforcement with an eye towards safety, rather than punishing drunkenness. Let the fans know that these games are not for the faint of heart. People in the stadium will be loud and obnoxious, and if you don't like it, buy a luxury box seat or stay home. Certainly NOT family-friendly.
The changes discussed above are drastic, and probably not easily implemented. However, many of the problems with Notre Dame's football program seem to stem from a lack of long-term planning.
More so than any other program, Notre Dame is in a unique position where they can be proactive in developing long-term plans to keep this program performing at a high level. Rather than holding on to coaches until they hit their expiration (ala Paterno), execute a transition to a new coach seamlessly - kind of like the transfer of power in the White House.
Have a long term scheduling philosophy that in time will honor Notre Dame's tradition of scheduling teams and games around the country, while achieving the revenue goals and scheduling difficulty that we have so long prided ourselves on.
Have an organization which encourages stability in the assistant coaches and clear paths for promotion (as well as mentor relationships throughout the process, between coordinator and assistant head coach) creates an incentive for assistants to work their way up the ranks, and churns out head coaches for other programs.
This was extremely long-winded (and probably boring as well), but it outlines the basic philosophy I would use to revitalize the program and bring Notre Dame back to their prominence as the greatest college football program in the land. Be a leader, not a follower.
We won't win championships every year, but we should win at least 1 per decade. And this philosophy, I believe, will achieve that goal for years to come.