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PTI Timeline: Notre Dame — History not kind to Wilbon

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There are numerous reasons I find HBO’s The Newsroom grating. Skipping past the one-dimensional female characters, melodramatic plot cheats, and overly political agenda, the biggest issue I have with Aaron Sorkin‘s one-hour drama is the omnipotence of Will McAvoy and his news team. The ACN News Night team never gets a story wrong, a product of Sorkin and a writing staff building a show set in the very recent past, and equipping their altruistic journalism staff with a time machine that feels like it’s at their disposal.

If you were to believe Sorkin, Jeff Daniels’ McAvoy — the savvy, battle-tested evening anchor that’s ready to cut through the B.S. and give America the straight story — is the only reporter willing to cut out bias and tell you the truth. But that truth is mighty easy to find when you’ve got the benefit of time and history.

I suppose that’s a very long introduction for something that only tangentially applies to the point of this post. But after being asked a few dozen times what I thought about the PTI Timeline on Notre Dame, I wanted to make sure that any reaction wasn’t simply the product of being able to look back at history and use that as a determining factor of right and wrong.

Of the past decade, Pardon the Interruption — PTI as it’s more commonly known — made household names out of sportswriters Tony Kornheiser and Mike Wilbon. The debate show between two friends and Washington Post colleagues was a game-changer for sports television programming, an instant hit that spawned dozens of imitators.

The crew at PTI put together a very interesting look at Notre Dame football over the past eleven years, starting with 2001, when PTI went on the air. Of course, anyone that followed the Irish over that time period knows there was plenty to talk about, and most of it pretty bad.

Here’s a look at Part One, a segment that looks at the firing of Bob Davie, the hiring and resignation of George O’Leary, and the selection of Ty Willingham as head coach, who was fired after three seasons:

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It’s not hard to watch this segment and think that Mike Wilbon didn’t have many nice things to say about Notre Dame. Whether it was his Chicago upbringing, his Northwestern degree, or anything else, from the very first frame of this video, you get the feeling that Wilbon dislikes Notre Dame and doesn’t have a problem saying it.

Another thing that’s quite interesting to follow is the PTI crew’s building of a narrative that lasted the better part of a decade. First, it’s the firing of Bob Davie.

In retrospect, the decision to fire Davie — even after a mind-boggling five-year extension — seems like an easy one. Yet instead of looking at the regression in the program over Davie’s tenure, Kornheiser, who presented himself as a Notre Dame fan, positioned the move as one that was hypocritical.

“He has a 100 percent graduation rate, which is something that every school would strive for,” Kornheiser said. “But they didn’t reward him for that. They fired him, because he doesn’t have a 100 percent win rate.”

One of the brilliant parts of PTI is the use of a running clock to push the pace of the show. Yet that seems to be to the detriment of this discussion because in the 90 seconds the two hosts had to discuss the firing, Kornheiser selects Davie’s inability to win 100 percent of his games as the reason he’s fired.

From there, Notre Dame’s most high profile coaching search dominates the discussion. Most pointedly, will Notre Dame hire Stanford’s Tyrone Willingham? Wilbon, who advocated Notre Dame tabbing Willingham as their coach, had this to say at the time.

“I don’t think Notre Dame is going to give serious consideration to Ty Willingham,” Wilbon. “They’re scared of hiring a black candidate. That’s why… Is his resume not impeccable? Give me another reason.”

Again, looking back there were plenty of reasons why Willingham might not have been the ideal candidate. While he did have the experience of coaching at an academically elite university, his on-field results were far from a slam dunk. In Palo Alto, Willingham had only one more winning season than he did losing. He won eight games or more only twice. Yet Wilbon, with perhaps one of the loudest microphones in the media at the time as a part of a sky-rocketing TV show, tabbed this decision as one that was largely based on race, leading him to crow after George O’Leary, whose Georgia Tech team beat Willingham’s in the Seattle Bowl that year, was hired.

“They seriously considered him?” Wilbon crowed at the time. “I told you Notre Dame wouldn’t seriously consider a black coach. This time around, even in 2001. And I told you they wouldn’t seriously consider Ty Willingham. Did I stammer? Did I stutter? No.

“I’m not saying they shouldn’t hire George O’Leary. I don’t believe they seriously considered Tyrone Willingham. And I don’t believe they were going to seriously consider him. And I’ve got a lot of history on my side.”

“History on his side,” hangs there, with what Wilbon isn’t saying feeling far more incriminating than anything he is. And with just a few seconds remaining in the segment, that’s how the PTI crew is willing to leave it that afternoon, though Jason Whitlock, who guest hosted for Kornheiser later that December, crystallizes Wilbon’s stance on Willingham’s chances of getting the job in South Bend.

“Before there’s a Tyrone as the head coach at Notre Dame there’ll be a Shaniqua as the first lady in the White House,” Whitlock cracked, getting a laugh out of Wilbon.

Of course, after a second search, athletic director Kevin White tabbed Willingham as the head coach of the Irish. But that didn’t satisfy Wilbon.

“I’m not going to admit I was wrong. You can make Notre Dame into Branch Rickey now if you want, but the fact is they didn’t consider Ty Willingham the first time, they didn’t even interview him,” Wilbon said. “They called, they got permission. They didn’t interview him. They wanted Tom Coughlin. They wanted Mariucci, they wanted Shanahan, they wanted and didn’t get six different coaches before finally they got desperate and turned to Ty Willingham.”

Let’s take a look at the candidates that Notre Dame had in front of Willingham, according to Wilbon:

Tom Coughlin – NFL head coach (with Jacksonville at the time)
Steve Mariucci – NFL head coach (with the San Francisco 49ers at the time)
Mike Shanahan – NFL head coach (with the Denver Broncos at the time)
Jon Gruden – NFL head coach (with the Oakland Radiers at the time)
George O’Leary – Georgia Tech head coach

It’s hard to know who Wilbon thought the sixth coach was, but if that’s the list in front of Willingham, who could have a problem with that? While it may have been unrealistic at the time and was the basis for two more very unhappy coaching searches, Wilbon wasn’t satisfied, though he was willing to give Notre Dame a bit of credit.

“Here’s the credit I’ll give to Notre Dame: They got it right,” Wilbon said. “But don’t expect me to sit here and tell you that this is some great movement in progress for the hiring of black coaches. You know you aren’t going to get me to go in that direction.

Of course, after three seasons, Willingham was on rocky ground, bringing back to a boil the emotion Wilbon had for the hire and Willingham’s chances for survivial at Notre Dame.

“I think they are quick on the trigger with Ty Willingham,” Wilbon shouted. “What’s my position on Notre Dame and Ty Willingham?”

“They never fired somebody before the end of their first contract,” Kornheiser responded.

“How many of those people that they didn’t fire were people of color?” Wilbon asked.

“Let me think,” Kornheiser said, knowing the answer, and knowing that the segment was already over.

And with that the bell rung, signaling a chance of topics, and the audience likely frothing for more. Yet as we look back on Willingham’s era, and his subsequent years in Washington, it paints a more complete picture of Willingham’s inability to survive as a head coach in the modern era. His four seasons in Washington had the Huskies at rock bottom, opening with a two-win season and ending with an 0-12 thud.

Of course, that’s what we know now. And while it’s too easy to shout that from the rooftops, Wilbon even acknowledging how the story ends shouldn’t be too much to ask.

But then again — that doesn’t make good TV.

 

Restocking the roster: Wide Receivers

Notre Dame v Florida State
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Some believe that the best way to look at recruiting is in two-year increments. As programs rebuild and rosters turn over, covering the needs of a football team over two recruiting cycles  allows a coaching staff to balance its roster.

That balance is critical to the health of a program. And it’s not just the work of a rebuilding coach. As we saw in Brian Kelly’s sixth season, injuries, attrition and scheme change impacted the defense, especially in the secondary.

Another position set to deal with major change is wide receiver. Gone is All-American Will Fuller, departing South Bend after three years, scoring 29 touchdowns over the past two seasons. He’ll look to run his way into the first round of the NFL Draft. Also gone are veterans Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle, putting the Irish in an unenviable position, needing to replace the team’s three leading receivers.

Reinforcements aren’t just on the way, they’re already on campus. While there’s not a ton of production to see, the recruiting stockpile has created a chance to reload for Mike Denbrock’s troop. So let’s take a look at the additions and subtractions on the roster, analyzing the two-year recruiting run as we restock the receiving corps.

DEPARTURES
Will Fuller
, Jr. (62 catches, 1,258 yards, 14 TDs)
Chris Brown, Sr. (48 catches, 597 yards, 4 TDs)
Amir Carlisle, GS (32 catches, 355 yards, 1 TD)
Jalen Guyton, Fr. (transfer)

 

ADDITIONS
Equanimeous St. Brown

Miles Boykin*
CJ Sanders
Jalen Guyton
Chase Claypool*
Javon McKinley*
Kevin Stepherson*

 

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Corey Robinson, Sr.
Torii Hunter, Sr.*
Justin Brent, Jr.*
Corey Holmes, Jr.*
CJ Sanders, Soph.
Miles Boykin, Soph.*
Equanimeous St. Brown, Soph.
Kevin Stepherson, Fr.*

 

ANALYSIS
Brian Kelly expects St. Brown to step into Will Fuller’s shoes. If the Irish are able to pluck another sophomore from obscurity to the national spotlight, it’ll say quite a bit about the depth and productivity the Irish staff has built at the position. At 6-foot-5, St. Brown has a more tantalizing skill-set than Fuller—and he was a national recruit out of a Southern California powerhouse. But until we see St. Brown burn past defenders and make big plays, assuming the Irish won’t miss Fuller is a big leap of faith.

The next objective of the spring is getting Corey Robinson back on track. The rising senior had a forgettable junior season, ruined by injuries and some bruised confidence. A player who has shown flashes of brilliance during his three seasons in South Bend, the time is now for Robinson, not just as a performer but as an on-field leader.

Torii Hunter Jr. is also poised for a big season. After finding reps at slot receiver and possessing the versatility to see the field from multiple spots, Hunter needs to prove in 2016 that he’s not just a utility man but an everyday starter. His hands, smooth athleticism and speed should have him primed for a breakout. But Hunter might not want to stay in the slot if CJ Sanders is ready to take over. After a big freshman season on special teams, Sanders looks ready to make his move into the lineup, perhaps the purest slot receiver Brian Kelly has had since he arrived in South Bend.

The rest of the spring depth chart should have modest goals, though all face rather critical offseasons. Justin Brent is three years into his college career and the biggest headlines he’s made have been off the field. Whether he sticks at receiver or continues to work as a reserve running back remains to be seen. Corey Holmes is another upperclassman who we still can’t figure out. Will he ascend into the rotation with the top three veterans gone, or will he give way to some talented youngsters?

Miles Boykin earned praise last August, but it didn’t get him time on the field. He’ll enter spring with four years of eligibility, same as early-enrollee Kevin Stepherson. The Irish staff thinks Stepherson has the type of deep speed that they covet, capable of running past cornerbacks and stretching a defense. Boykin has size and physicality that could present intriguing options for an offense that’ll be less reliant on one man now that Fuller is gone.

Live Video Mailbag: 40-year decision, more BVG, freshmen and more

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We’ve done plenty of mailbags, but this is our first shot at a Live Video Mailbag. This should be a better way to answer more questions and hopefully interact with a few of you as we try to work off some of yesterday’s Super Bowl snacks.

Topics on the list: The 40-year decision, more Brian VanGorder talk, the incoming (and redshirt) freshmen and a whole lot more.

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Kelly and Swarbrick turn attention to science of injury prevention

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Amidst the chaos of their live Signing Day show, UND.com ran had a far-reaching interview with head coach Brian Kelly. It was conducted by his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick, and his former team captain, Joe Schmidt.

So while there was a little bit of talk about the 23 recruits who signed their national letters-of-intent, there was also a very illuminating exchange on an issue that’s really plagued the Irish the past few seasons: Injuries.

Football is a dangerous game. And for as long as people play it, there’ll be impactful injuries that take players off the field. But as Notre Dame settles into what looks like their longest run of stability since the Holtz era, the focus of Kelly and Swarbrick has moved past modernizing the team’s medical services, strength program and nutrition and onto the science of injury prevention.

Here’s what Kelly said about the efforts currently taking shape:

“I think the science piece is very important, because no longer is it just about strength and conditioning,  it’s about durability. It’s the ability to continue to play at an optimal level but also with the rigors of a college schedule, and particularly here at Notre Dame, how do we maximize the time but maximizing getting the most out of our student-athletes and not lose them?

“As you know, we’ve had a couple years here in a rough stretch of injuries. And how do we have an injury prevention protocol that brings in the very best science? You’ve done a great job of reaching out in getting us those kind of resources. so I think tapping into that is probably the next piece. As well as providing the resources for our student-athletes. Continuing to look at facilities. Continuing to give our student-athletes maybe that little edge. Because everybody’s got 85 scholarships.”

It’s clear that the issue is one that’s on the radar for not just Kelly, but the athletic administration. So it’ll be interesting to see some of the steps taken as the program begins investing time and additional resources to an issue that’s really hit the Irish hard the past few seasons.

There’s plenty of other good stuff in the 13-minute interview, so give it a watch.