Friday, September 11, 2009

September 12th, 2009: The Tipping Point

This weekend two storied programs arrive at a tipping point. One team will leave the field at the Big House with confidence riding high enough to push season and program expectations up notch. The other will likely be left to wade through a quagmire of doubt and back-breaking pressure for what could be a season that feels longer than eternity.

Notre Dame and Michigan have weathered similar trials and tribulations since 2007. They both registered disastrous 3-9 campaigns, suffered arguably the worst home loss in school history, and both teams’ coaches desperately need an immediate 180 degree turnaround to stave off those that want their heads on a platter. Notre Dame seemingly is a year ahead of Michigan in the rebuilding process, but the patience for Coach Rodriguez has whittled down to just about absolute zero after a staggering number of bad decisions. Shortly after taking the job he publicly bashed Michigan boosters (claiming they needed to “get a life”…in the north they call that biting the hand that feeds you Rich), he’s had a mass exodus of players, he’s embroiled in a scandal where former and current players have reported NCAA violations of breaking practice limit rules, and by all accounts he has alienated many important people within the University. Rodriguez doesn’t seem to grasp the culture of a football program that matters more than just about anything to some people. There’s no denying his talent and ability as a coach, but there is quite a bit of uncertainty as to whether he fits in at such a school.

Billy Gillispie at Kentucky provides a perfect precedent. He was a very capable coach who came in and made a splash…then quickly went to work destroying all good will within the administration through moves like not ever signing his contract (one of the dumbest and most mind-blowing things I’ve ever heard) and turning the fan base against him with both mediocre to poor performance and an icy personality. Before anyone had time to utter the words “rebuilding” he was gone. Two years from the toast of Lexington to being chased by a camera crew through the halls of the athletic department after being canned. Could Rich Rod be on the same track? Does he just not get it?

There just seems to be an awful lot of smoke surrounding the program. The fact that so many people transferred and took shots while walking out the door is not as alarming as people think—it’s the fact that CURRENT PLAYERS are reporting violations, essentially undermining and disrespecting the coaching staff. A beatdown of Western Michigan has cautious optimism flowing again, but to me this just seems like their foundation is as sturdy as a house of cards. A win could solidify that base of confidence and springboard them to a season that surpasses all preseason expectations. Another loss to a hated rival like Notre Dame—especially if it gets ugly—could put him in the express lane to Billy’s ultimate destination…and this time crocodile tears won’t flip the fan base in his favor.

Coach Weis’s problems have been well-documented but things seem to be stabilizing a bit compared to Rodriguez’s situation. The Irish demonstrated just how explosive their offense could be last weekend against Nevada and the defense—while certainly not perfect—put the clamps on a pretty dynamic offense led by one of the best multi-threat quarterbacks in the country. If Notre Dame leaves Ann Arbor with another convincing victory suddenly the bandwagon will begin to fill. If they leave with a loss to a Michigan team that is clearly not “back” yet Charlie will have to deal with more questions and more damaging things than derogatory billboards.

The fact of the matter is the fate of the next five years for the program hinges on the success of this year. As opposed to the past few years major difference-making recruits are playing a wait-and-see game when it comes to the Irish. Entering the national title discussion COULD lead to a haul that would make ND recruitniks weak at the knees. Another season of mediocrity could get the ball rolling in the wrong direction and lead to the end of this regime. Winning Saturday sends them down one path—losing sends them down the other.

My buddy and fellow die-hard Pat and I used laugh at the fact that every game seemed to be the most important game of the season the week leading up to the game. When you aren’t quite sure whether your team has turned the corner or not that becomes true though. Michigan is the most important game of the year for Notre Dame. Next Tuesday I’ll get on the phone with Pat and we’ll both agree that Michigan State is the most important game of the year. A month from now we’ll get on the phone and talk about how Southern Cal could be the most important game in school history. It’s a vicious cycle. Older alums hate being on it and long for the days of being the hunted not the hunter. Younger fans yearn for those days too but just don’t know any other way.

When the final gun fires a little over 24 hours from now we’ll know a lot about both teams. There will be clarity on the general direction of both programs and it will set a course for which way the momentum cascades the rest of this season. For Michigan a hard-fought, close loss will at least sustain some semblance of momentum. For Notre Dame the bar is set at winning—there is no such thing as a moral victory. Both coaches seem to have a lot of people with one foot on the bandwagon. When the final gun sounds in the Big House one will have everyone all aboard and the other will immediately face the wrath of skeptics from outside the program and within.

The spotlight has never burned brighter, Charlie. This is an opportunity to take that next step and kick a rival down the stairs in the process. After a victory pundits will downplay it, saying Michigan wasn’t very good and it means nothing—just like they did after the Nevada game. Those who truly watch will know better though.

Those are the people you want on your bandwagon, Coach...and they’re yours for the taking tomorrow.


  1. That was one of the most well thought out and written blogs ever. It is nothing but the truth and I applaude you for it

  2. Spicy > Bill