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The Politics of Notre Dame Football, Or, Desperately Seeking Princeton

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Everyone talks about the Notre Dame football tradition as if they've been above canning coaches for the sake of canning coaches, but history records that Notre Dame doesn't have a whole lot of patience with coaches -- something Brian Kelly might want to consider.

Point of fact, they've had 30 coaches in 114 years which averages to a little bit under 4 years per coach (which is hardly enough time to learn all the names of their players) and no coach, other than Rockne, has coached for more than a dozen years. Three coached for 11 years: Leahy, Parseghian and Holtz. One coached for 7 years; one coached for 6 years; 5 coached for 5 years; one coached for 4 years; 3 coached for 3 years; 6 coached for 2 years; and 7 coached for 1 year. So, while Paterno has coached at Penn State for 40+ years and Bowden at FSU for 30+ years, and Hayes coached at Ohio State for 27 years, and Bryant coached at Alabama for 25 years and Wilkinson coached at Oklahoma for 16 years, the best Notre Dame could do was 13 years, since Rockne's life was cut short. That really doesn't sound like they've raised the bar for dealing ethically with coaches. Touchdown Jesus wouldn't be happy.

What the Notre Dame administration (if not the rabid Notre Dame alums) haven't seemed to realize is that since 1980, they've had 5 coaches -- only one of whom has survived more than 5 years: Holtz. He was fired with a better record (100-30-2) than anyone else at Notre Dame but Rockne. Go figure. But what's interesting is not the apparent impatience that Notre Dame has with its coaches, but the reason why firing coaches won't make any difference anymore. Why? Perhaps, it's demography more than it is defense or offense.

For example, since 1980 Florida's population has climbed from about 10 million to an expected 20.4 million by 2010. Likewise, California has gone from 24 million in 1980 to an expected 38 million by 2010. Does that mean anything? Well, I'm not an expert in demography and its side effects, but from 1983-2008, 3 Florida schools (Miami (5), Florida (3), Florida State (2) won 10 NCAA championships and from 1972-2004, USC won 5. One can't overlook the fact that 9 of Notre Dame's championships came between 1901-1966 and 3 after 1966 (2 in the '70s, and Holtz's in '88) when the demography of the United States was beginning to change radically. Just ask Minnesota which won 6 national championships 5 of which came between 1934-1941 and hasn't come close in about a half-century. But twenty years on and Notre Dame isn't any closer to winning a national championship than Indiana. Well, maybe closer than Indiana which, historically, has been one of the worst college football teams in the nation.

Certainly, as Sun Belt states like California and Florida have dramatically increased their populations, and will continue to do so, there's the concomitant increase in football talent. With the increase in football talent, even younger universities like the University of Central Florida (1963) and the University of South Florida (1956) already have recruited exceptional athletes and created highly respected football programs that will certainly become "players" on the national stage in the recent future as attested by the fact that five Florida schools played in 2008 bowl games. California teams like Fresno State that weren't even on the "radar" once upon a time can field highly competitive teams as well and if Pete Carroll continues to coach at USC for as long as Joe Paterno there's no limit to how many he can win provided he doesn't piss off too many Pac 10 teams.

So, what's all that have to do with Notre Dame? Perhaps, the football talent of today isn't impressed with the fact that Notre Dame hasn't won a national championship in 20 years. Perhaps, many of them have never heard the names Rockne, Parseghian and Leahy and if Dr. Lou weren't on ESPN they'd probably not know who he is either. Perhaps, they don't want to play in cold weather or spend their weekends in South Bend. In the 21st century, history has a short shelf life and certain traditions don't mean much to young athletes especially if Notre Dame has to compete with old football traditions that have suddenly been revivified (Oklahoma, Alabama, Ohio State, USC) and newer ones (Miami, Florida, Florida State) that will continue to be competitive precisely because of the demography of the state.

All that said firing Charlie Weis was really meaningless regardless of what certain alums demanded. The fact is Notre Dame will not regain the prominence it once had regardless of who's coaching. Weis had already surpassed the Notre Dame average life span for coaches by over a year and he was denied five more years, when he would have become only the 2nd coach in 114 years to last for more than 7 years. If history is the judge, then it doesn't matter how Irish Kelly may be, five years from now, Notre Dame will be looking for yet another coach, and Kelly will be another ex-Irish coach hired as an ESPN commentator. The only way Our Lady would ever win another national championship (and they need 17 to tie Princeton) will be because all those Florida players decided to migrate north because they wanted to experience autumn colors. Otherwise, Touchdown Jesus might as well lower his arms.

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