Empires fall. Egypt gave way to the Persians. The Persians gave way to the Macedonian Greeks. The Macedonian Greeks gave way to the Romans. For their part, the Romans allowed their empire to rot and decay from the inside until hordes of barbarians kicked in its walls and brought it to an end. Which brings us to Notre Dame football.
For the better part of the twentieth century (1913-1996, to be precise), Notre Dame was the crown jewel of college football. During that time, the Irish amassed 11 national championships, 7 Heisman Trophy winners, legions of All-Americans and a combination of success and mythology unparalled in college athletics. In just 83 years, a small Catholic school in northern Indiana became known the world over; almost entirely thanks to its accomplishments on the gridiron. And then, after an excrutiating procession of failure, it was all over.
ND fans know the story well enough - Lou Holtz leaves in 1996 and is followed by a carousel of unworthy heirs who proceed to steer the Notre Dame franchise further and further toward the abyss of irrelevance. Then, every few seasons, fans (and t-shirt manufacturers) declare a "Return to Glory" after a rather pedestrian accomplishment leads to false hopes which are dashed by the following season's failures. So, how bad have the last 11 seasons been? By any objective measure, the worst in school history.
Most Irish fans would consider the Gerry Faust era (1981-1985) to be the low-water mark for ineptitude in the program. While Faust's 30-26-1 record was pitiful, it lasted only five seasons and, ultimately, was followed by the dominance of the Holtz era. In reality, the only comparable period to the current one in the history of Notre Dame football came in the ten years (1954-1963) between Frank Leahy's retirement and Ara Parseghian's hiring.
From the time Terry Brennan's first team set foot on the field in 1954 to the day Hugh Devore stepped aside in 1963, Notre Dame went a combined 68-48 (.586) as three different coaches (Brennan Devore and Joe Kuharich) tried desperately to bring the program back to the prominence it once enjoyed. From 1997 through the end of the 2008 regular season, Notre Dame has gone 84-62 (.575) while, again, three consecutive coaches have failed to return the Irish to the lofty position to which fans and alums had become accustomed.
With such a similar winning percentage, why is the current era worse than the post-Leahy (or pre-Parseghian, if you prefer) period? Well, for one thing, in spite of some bad or mediocre seasons mixed in, Notre Dame was still a highly ranked team roughly half the time. Between 1954 and 1963, the Irish finished in the the Top 5 once (1954 - #4), the Top 10 three times (1954, 1955 - #9 and 1957 - #10) and, overall, in the Top 20 five times (1954, 1955, 1957, 1958 - #17 and 1959 - #17). Conversely, from 1997-2008, ND has never finished in the Top 5, has finished in the Top 10 once (2005 - #9) and in the Top 20 four times (2000 - #15, 2002 - #17, 2005 and 2006 - #17). The only other season during this timeframe that a Notre Dame team ended the season ranked was in 1998-1999 when they were #22 after losing the Gator Bowl to Georgia Tech.
Beyond rankings, the Irish were also still able to produce historically significant moments for the program in the post-Leahy era. In 1956, in spite of playing on a team that finished 2-8, Paul Hornung became Notre Dame's fourth Heisman Trophy winner. Then, in 1957, the team scored one of the program's biggest victories when they went into Norman and snapped Oklahoma's record 47-game winning streak, 7-0. In the last decade, Brady Quinn's third-place finish in 2006 is the closest ND has come to the Heisman and, can anyone really name a significant win the school has had in that time? Really, the most memorable game during the period was the 2005 loss to USC. Moreover, ND has gone just 17-34 (.333) against ranked teams and have fared poorly against their rivals, going a combined 6-18 against USC and Michigan State and 3-7 against Boston College. To put things another way, the barbarians are in the foyer.
In light of how far the program's fallen, Notre Dame football has, essentially, just two cards left to play - one with Charlie, one without.
With the administration having now decided to bring Charlie Weis back in 2009, what needs to happen in order for him to be the program's savior? The short answer - Tom Coughlin. While Irish fans will always remember Tom Coughlin as the coach who led BC to victory and denied Notre Dame a national championship in 1993, his recent record with the New York Giants should give them something to pin their hopes on as it is a classic tale of coaching redemption.
In Coughlin's first season with the Giants (2004), the team raced out to a 5-2 start before faltering, down the stretch, to a disappointing 6-10 finish. Along the way, Coughlin opted to play for the future and replaced veteran QB Kurt Warner with highly-touted rookie, Eli Manning (shades of ND 2007). The following season, the Manning-led Giants won the NFC East with an impressive 11-5 record before being thumped at home, 23-0, by the Carolina Panthers in the first round of the playoffs (shades of Notre Dame's 2005 and 2006 seasons). 2006 began much like 2004. The Giants began the season 6-2 before injuries and inconsistency forced them to a 2-6 finish (shades of ND 2008). Of those six losses, the most disheartening was a 24-21 collapse to the Tennessee Titans in a game the Giants led 21-0 in the fourth quarter. After eeking out a win against the Washington Redskins in the season finale (in a game which ended up being much closer than it should have...much like Notre Dame-Navy this year), the Giants snuck into the playoffs where they lost in the wild card round to the Philadelphia Eagles. Following the playoffs, it was widely assumed that Coughlin would be fired. Fans and NY sports writers all clamored for him to be sacked. Then a funny thing happened - in a surprise move, the Giants gave him a one-year contract extension. 2007 would be the make or break year for Coughlin (does this sound at all familiar?). As everyone now knows, in 2007 Tom Coughlin was able to guide his team past injuries, low-expectations and the continual role of underdog to win the Super Bowl in one of the biggest upsets in the history of sport. Charlie Weis needs to somehow undergo a Tom Coughlin-like transformation this offseason. Clearly, it can be done. Giants fan (and former assistant) Charlie just needs to figure out how.
Assuming Weis doesn't manage to summon his inner-Coughlin and is forced out after the 2009 season, what needs to happen? There can be absolutely no doubt - the Irish must somehow secure the services of a proven, top-flight, college head coach. They can no longer afford to settle for an assistant taking the reins for the first time, head coach of a mid-level program or someone whose primary experience is in the NFL. Simply put, they need someone in the league of an Urban Meyer or a Bob Stoops. It doesn't necessarily have to be either of those two, specifically, but it would have to be someone of their caliber. This is a tall order. For one thing, Notre Dame no longer commands the same level of prestige it once did and getting a coach is in a comfortable position at a perennial winner to come to South Bend would take quite a lot. For another, this individual would have to deal both with a massive and ravenous fanbase clamoring for instant gratification as well as the pressure of knowing that failure would relegate Notre Dame football to the ash heap of history. This strategy is not a silver bullet, it's a Hail Mary.
Whither the Irish
The future of Notre Dame football now comes down to scenarios akin to the miraculous. Can a seemingly mediocre coach somehow achieve greatness? Would a proven champion agree to lead the Irish into the future? At this moment in time, neither seems particularly likely. Sadly, for Irish fans and, really, all of college football, it is beginning to appear that Notre Dame football, as we've come to know it, is dead. Sure, the Irish will still line up on Saturdays - the stadium will fill, the band will play and the fans will cheer; but they will do so largely out of reverence for the past, rather than excitement over the present and future. Notre Dame football will become like a Civil War re-enactment or a '50's themed diner - an anachronistic piece of nostalgia played out against the backdrop of a new world. I hope I'm wrong. I hope that a solitary candle burning in the Grotto somehow brings the blessings of providence down upon Irish football. I hope that future generations can grow up as I did; watching Notre Dame contend for college football supremacy year in and year out. Mostly, though, I hope that the barbarians can be pushed back and the empire rise again.