At a time of the season when most college football teams are gearing up for conference championship games and prospective bowl bids, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish's season is over. With one final humiliation (and a team no-vote on a minor bowl) at the hands of ex-Michigan quarterback (and the intelligent choice for the future Wolverines' coach) Jim Harbaugh and the Stanford Cardinal, Notre Dame completed yet another season of disillusioning disappointment and slipped further away from the mists of their storied past.
But although Notre Dame Stadium falls silent as the winter winds descend upon the Midwest, all is not quiet on the campus in South Bend. In fact, the state of things football-wise is quite the opposite.
Coach Charlie Weis' firing was the first headline grabber of the premature offseason. But in reality, anyone who follows the team regularly saw that coming long before the proverbial ax fell on his five-year tenure. It was a major bowl or bust for Weis, and he fell notably short of that officially unspoken ultimatum. And thus — as was the case in the situations of his two slightly more successful (cringe) predecessors — Charlie Weis (another ex-savior/demi-god for a desperate fanbase) was fired.
Predictably, following that turn of events involving the coaching position, Notre Dame star juniors (and Weis recruits) Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate announced that they will forgo their senior seasons and register for the NFL Draft, partly on the advice of the dismissed coach himself. Irish fans (and old school college football fans in general in respect to their own programs of interest) would like to believe that players such as Tate and Clausen would return to a place of tradition on the level of Notre Dame for one final chance to bring home a national championship and finally restore the program to glory. But the reality is that the team-first perspective is outdated and virtually nonexistence (aside from Superma….Tim Tebow) in the modern generation of players. Young athletes see little difference between playing ball at Florida State or Central Florida when both are on TV regularly and both allow a near equal opportunity at passage into the NFL. The smaller schools provide more opportunites to play sooner and hence longer, padding statistics and increasing the chance of exposure, both to the media and to the consciousness of the decisionmakers for the various NFL franchises..
Clausen, despite going 6-6 on the season, was arguably the best quarterback in the nation. His 161.43 passer rating tells the story in and of itself, but further analysis of his statistics only boosts his status. Jimmy ravaged opposing defenses for 3,722 yards (68% completion percentage) and 28 touchdowns to only four interceptions (three of which came off of tipped balls). And he accumulated those numbers in a pro-style offense, with pro-style reads and pro-style checks. From any perspective Clausen is ready for the NFL now and should be the first quarterback taken in the draft. Weis may not have helped him achieve the victories both envisioned when this marriage took place, but he most definitely prepared him for a lucrative and successful professional future.
In Tate's case, many of the same analytical factors apply. He too is an amazing athlete who posted astounding numbers in a pro-style offense, despite the team's struggles. As Clausen's favorite target the bizarrely-aptly named Golden (Tate) caught 93 balls for 1,496 yards and 15 touchdowns. And to watch him play regularly is to realize that — despite his relatively small size (5-11, 195) — the statistics don't do the receiver's intangible value justice.
He is most definitely fast (4.44/40 time) but most importantly he is deceptively strong, aggressive and fearless over the middle. Think Hines Ward with more speed. And he will likely follow a similar career path in the NFL as the aforementioned Steelers' wideout. Irish fans will lament the loss of their two most prolific offensive weapons but the logic seems to indicate that given the success of both, and the fact that whomever the new coach is, he will undoubtedly bring with him a new offensive system to learn, both players are well served personally to enter the draft and make their money while their statistics in college are likely at their peak.
And then of course there is the coaching situation. The second Weis started losing games again in 2009 speculation began over who would relieve the embattled coach at the end of the season. Everyone from Brian Billick to Urban Meyer was thrown out there as a possibility but now the primary focus seems to be on one man alone: Cincinnati's Brian Kelly.
ESPN reported on Tuesday that an announcement naming Kelly the next Irish head coach may come as early as Friday. A figure who has found success in challenging situations at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan, and now in Cincy, Kelly may be what the Irish need to utilize their wealth of talent and finally turn potential into production. Kelly — another "offensive guru" who runs a version of the spread offense — may be the answer Notre Dame has long sought after to give the program the vital balance between the Irish's traditional philosophies and the modern advancements of offensive technique, to rejoin the college football elite. But Division II national championships and a MAC Conference Championship scantly guarantees preparation for the illuminate gleam that unceasingly reflects off of the Golden Dome and blasts upon all those who mind the helm of the Irish football program.
At one time, Notre Dame football teams would perennially finish their seasons preparing for which ever major bowl game they happened to find themselves in. Now the Irish instead find themselves once again preparing for a massive transition into another "new era" of football. But even the casual football fan understands this time it is different.
13 years after Lou Holtz roamed the sidelines in South Bend for the last time, Notre Dame must get it right this time or risk permanently falling into the oblivion of mediocrity. The little Catholic school tucked away in the cold, wooded Indiana town, can only recruit upon its fading aura from past laurels for so much longer. Soon non-existent academic standards, warm weather, and sandy beaches (yeah… the beaches) will win out over tales of glories long passed. What's a Johnny Lujack you say? Nevermind…
If the reports are true and Brian Kelly does take the head coaching position of the Irish he will be saddled with the historically rare additional pressure of determining the future relevancy of one of the most storied programs in all of sports. NBC will only maintain a TV contract with a 6-6 team for so long. And if that crucial contract goes away so will Notre Dame football, most probably forever. And the college football landscape would never be the same again.