Sunday, February 19, 2006

Mike Davis + Indiana University = Tyrone Willingham + Notre Dame

(First, allow me to apologize for my lack of posting, but I have actually been studying this semester...)

As an Indiana alum and current Domer, I can't help but feel a strong sense of deja vu between the situation currently transpiring at Indiana and what happened last year at Notre Dame.

1. Both were coaches hired in a big hurry by a program with a big black eye.

In Notre Dame's case, it had just fired a mediocre coach (Davie) who had failed to live up to expectations. It bungled the whole search process, being turned down by coach after coach, and then the coach it settled on was fired for lying on his resume. Enter Willingham, an easy band-aid to place over the sucking wound, a character guy from an academic school, with the added bonus that he would be Notre Dame's first African-American head coach, and also the most prestigious college football program to hire an African-American coach. Race shouldn't ever be an issue, but ND learned the hard way that as an issue it's impossible to avoid.

For IU, they had just fired their legendary coach, who was on the brink of becoming the winningest coach in history and had already procured three national championships, in a widely publicized and controversial breach of the "zero-tolerance" policy. Because this firing occurred in September, there was no opportunity to complete a coaching search, and IU needed something to keep their recruits from fleeing the sinking program. Enter Mike Davis, who along with Mike Treloar, was hired as the interim head coach. After a 21-win season, Davis became an easy fix, much like Willingham, with the similar bonuses: he was from the program, a great defensive coach, and also had the added bonus of providing the PR bump that a school's first African American head coach brings.

2. Both coaches had amazing runs early in their careers, providing them with more job security than they ever deserved.

Notre Dame started Willingham's first season 8-0, winning exciting close games on Davie's defense while Willingham's west-coast offense struggled. The amazing run stumbled down the stretch, though, with blowout losses to USC and NC State.

Davis' first year without the interim label saw him literally limp into the NCAA tournament on the strength of two wins in the Big Ten tournament after a solid (but not spectacular) 18-win regular season and a spate of injuries. After a thrilling win over top seed Duke in the Sweet Sixteen during the Cinderella run to the Championship game (which ended in a double-digit loss to the Terrapins), Davis also appeared much more brilliant a coach than he actually was, still coasting on his legendary predecessor's recruiting and coaching acumen.

3. Both coaches turned in pitiful performances for the remainder of their careers, with just enough wins to keep the dogs at bay for a couple of years.

Willingham posted the worst 15-game stretch since 1960 during the period following his 8-0 start. Worse, he lost more games by three or more touchdowns during his three years than Notre Dame failures Bob Davie and Gerry Faust combined.

Davis, who inherited a program with one of the longest streaks of NCAA tournament appearances in history, missed the tournament in his third year after being bounced in the second round in his second.

Now, Indiana's AD, Rick Greenspan, needs to pick up the phone and call the Irish, inquiring about the process that led them to hire Coach Weis, as their coaching search is going to be very similar:
- Notre Dame fans, upon Willingham's dismissal, were clamoring for Urban Meyer, a former assistant at the Irish who was doing well at a lesser school (Utah), and spoke as if his return to the Notre Dame family was a foregone conclusion.
- Indiana fans, upon Davis' rsignation, are clamoring for Steve Alford, a former player who is doing well at a lesser school (Iowa), and are speaking as if his return to the Hoosier family is a foregone conclusion.
- Notre Dame had to deal with media speculation about the desirability of their head coaching position, lamenting about the demise of their program, and a list of candidates that included anyone who had even thought about coaching anything (football preferred).
- Indiana is already in the middle of the firestorm questioning the desirability of the position and a laundy list of candidates that includes anyone who has even thought about coaching anything (basketball preferred).

I don't know nearly as much about basketball coaches as I do about football coaches, but I I were to put my two cents in, I would look for the following attributes in a head coach:

1. A proven history of excelling/winning
Coach Weis improved his team in EVERY position he held as a coach prior to going to ND. As a high school head coach, he won championships, as a position coach, he created pro-bowlers, as a coordinator, he won Superbowls and molded a legend (2-time Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady).
I'm not as familiar with the candidates in basketball that meet this criteria, but some that stand out are: Mark Few, Gonzaga head coach; Bruce Pearl, Wisconsin-Milwaukee head coach; Karl Hobbs, George Washington head coach

2. A connection with the program
With Weis, we hit the jackpot on this one as well, a Notre Dame alum who gets Notre Dame. Indiana also needs a coach that understands the history of the program.
Coaches that fit this mold: Steve Alford, Iowa head coach; Isaiah Thomas, Knicks President; Larry Bird, former Indiana State and Celtics player, former Pacers coach.

3. Dedication to the program
This one is harder to measure quantitively, but if you want to know why I think this is important, look at how Willingham was talking to Washington long before the Irish canned him, and consider the following words form Davis' press conference:
"When I took over the head coaching job here at Indiana, I never planned on being here for a long time. It was my first year as a head basketball coach, and I was a young coach and we won 21 games. As I said before, I stayed here because when Coach Knight was fired, the majority of the basketball players wanted to leave. I stayed here to keep a basketball team together. That is why I stayed for that reason. Not one player left, everybody stayed. I felt like I did my part when everyone stayed. We had a good season and won 21 games. The next year, we played for a national championship. The year after that, we won 21 games. I never felt like I would be the basketball coach here for the rest of my career. I just felt like it was time for me to step aside. When you love something and you know it is better without you, to step aside is the best thing to do. That is what I am doing. I am stepping aside, but I am still coaching these guys. This is my basketball team. These guys have a chance to make it to the (NCAA) tournament. Our guys are going to fight. It is time for them to clear their minds about me as a basketball coach. I just feel like it is the best thing for us."

I hope the Indiana brass will take their time and hire the RIGHT coach, not simply the popular one.