When No. 1 Notre Dame defeated No. 2 West Virginia (remember Major Harris?) in the 1989 Fiesta Bowl, the undefeated Fighting Irish were crowned national champions.
A big reason for Notre Dame”s success that season was the play of its quarterback, Tony Rice. Rice fought tremendous odds he was an academic non-qualifier his freshman year to lead the Fighting Irish to their 11th national title in school history.
When Bob Davie was fired as Notre Dame”s coach this past Sunday, it got me thinking about Rice and his exploits in South Bend. In particular, I couldn”t help but be struck by how different Notre Dame is now than it was a dozen years ago.
Rice is the perfect example in 1988, he helped Lou Holtz win a national championship and cemented his place as a legend in Notre Dame lore. These days, Tony Rice (or someone in a situation similar to the one he was in) wouldn”t stand a chance of being admitted to Notre Dame.
In the 1980s, Notre Dame wasn”t much more than a football school. Consequently, Holtz could recruit pretty much whomever he wanted, including non-qualifiers like Rice. He knew that the university would admit just about all of his recruits, so he was able to bring blue-chip talent such as Jerome Bettis, Bryant Young and Tim Brown to South Bend. It”s no surprise that Notre Dame was a perennial national title contender throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s.
But and this is something that I think Notre Dame supporters have yet to grasp things have changed at Notre Dame. In the latest U.S. News and World Report rankings of colleges and universities, Notre Dame was ranked No. 19. That puts the Fighting Irish ahead of other world-renowned private schools such as Vanderbilt and Georgetown (and six spots higher than Michigan).
In other words, in terms of academic standards, Notre Dame and Vanderbilt are roughly on a par with each other. When”s the last time Vanderbilt had a good football team? Heck, when”s the last time Vanderbilt won six games?
Granted, Notre Dame”s football tradition is far superior to Vanderbilt”s. So on average, the Fighting Irish should be able to get better players than the Commodores. But, Notre Dame fans don”t care if the Fighting Irish outrecruit Vanderbilt they expect Notre Dame to outrecruit Florida State, Michigan and Texas. That”s just not possible, considering how strict Notre Dame”s admissions requirements have become.
I remember hearing a few years ago that Notre Dame has a freshman calculus requirement all incoming students (with no exceptions) must pass freshman calculus. This single requirement prevented Davie from signing T.J. Duckett and David Terrell, both of whom really wanted to go to Notre Dame, but neither of whom could pass a calculus class if their lives depended on it.
Even if the Irish find a topflight recruit who can pass calculus, they must then convince that player that Notre Dame with its mediocre facilities, horrendous Northern Indiana climate and ridiculously hard schedules is a better choice than any other school.
Now all of this isn”t to say that Davie is without blame for his struggles. He made his share of mistakes he was sued for age-discrimination a few years back but he still won nearly 60 percent of his games over a five-year span, with all of the obstacles I”ve just described.
But that wasn”t nearly good enough for Notre Dame, so Davie got the boot on Sunday. What I find ironic is that the Fighting Irish are now talking to Stanford coach Tyrone Willingham, whose record at Stanford was 35-33-1 entering this season.
Willingham”s supporters point out his ability to win at a school that has tougher academic standards than Notre Dame. Correct me if I”m wrong, but a 35-33-1 record isn”t much to brag about. In his first five years at Stanford, Willingham had two losing seasons and only won one bowl game those are the kinds of numbers that got Davie fired.
In addition, Willingham has had no pressure on him from Stanford fans, who unlike Notre Dame fans don”t expect the Cardinal to go 10-1 every year. Willingham also coaches in the wide-open Pac-10 and has the luxury of recruiting players to what may be the nicest campus in the country. Stanford doesn”t have Notre Dame”s reputation for football, but the Cardinal do have arguably the best athletic program in the nation Stanford has won 14 NCAA team championships in the last four years and has 79 NCAA titles overall.
Make no mistake, Willingham is a fine coach, but Notre Dame fans don”t want a fine coach who goes 6-5 they want a Knute Rockne clone who can win national titles under impossible circumstances. Notre Dame fans are dreaming if they think that the Fighting Irish will consistently win big again, and I have a feeling that whoever ends up as Notre Dame”s next coach (whether it is Willingham, Tom Coughlin, Jon Gruden or someone else) is in for a brutal wake-up call.
Arun Gopal can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.