PTI Timeline: Notre Dame — History not kind to Wilbon

84 Comments

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:

***

***

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.

 

Where Notre Dame was & is: Defensive Line

Getty Images
1 Comment

Heading into spring practice, a quick look was taken at each position group in order of “expected level of interest or question marks,” from least interesting to most, as dictated by an “Inside the Irish” reader. That series concluded with the defensive line.

Exiting spring practice, let’s reprise that premise and reverse the order. If the defensive line triggered the most questions, then answering them first seems to make some version of sense.

WHERE NOTRE DAME WAS:
“Will enough defensive linemen prove themselves deserving of playing time to create a viable threat up front?” this space asked. “If so, who will those linemen be?”

RELATED READING: One day until spring practice: A look at the defensive line

Aside from senior end Andrew Trumbetti (26 tackles last season, 0.5 for loss), senior tackle Daniel Cage (10 tackles, 0.5 for loss amid a season lost largely to concussion) and junior tackle Jerry Tillery (37, 3), the Irish defensive line had little track record to cite or rely upon for confidence. Leading the unknowns and unprovens were sophomore ends Daelin Hayes, who recorded 11 tackles in 2016, and Julian Okwara (4).

The lack of depth and experience was apparent heading into the 15 spring practices.

WHERE NOTRE DAME IS:
Look past the 11 sacks in the Blue-Gold Game. Intrasquad scrimmages featuring red-jerseyed quarterbacks make for inexact and context-less statistics. There is some value, however, in noting the defensive line got within reach of the quarterback at least eight times in an abbreviated game. (Three “sacks” came from the linebacker corps.)

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, just buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

RELATED READING: What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

Hayes led the way with three sacks, and he will be expected to continue that in the fall, starting at the weakside/rush defensive end spot. Exiting spring, though, only he and Tillery solidified themselves as starters. Nonetheless, defensive coordinator Mike Elko claimed a successful spring for the front.

“I’m happy with our defensive line progress,” Elko said Friday. “Obviously there was a lot written about that group. I’m happy about the progress they’ve made this spring. I think [defensive line coach] Mike [Elston] has done a good job developing them. I think they are buying into the way we want to play defense. There’s probably four to five guys on the inside that are starting to get into a position where we feel comfortable that they can step in and help us.” (more…)

Brian Kelly & Jack Swarbrick on Notre Dame’s changes moving forward

56 Comments

Whether 2016’s disappointing 4-8 finish was the impetus to program-wide alterations at Notre Dame this offseason, it certainly underscored the need. For the last few months, Irish coach Brian Kelly has focused those changes on himself and self-assessment, and he reiterated that approach when talking with PFT Live’s Mike Florio early Monday morning.

“This is my 27th year of being a head coach, and prior to last year I had one losing season,” Kelly said. “You have a way of doing things, you have a system in place, you follow that year after year. Certainly you make tweaks along the way, but this is the first time where I’ve really taken a step back and made substantial changes in terms of how I’m doing things on a day-to-day basis…

“From my perspective, after being at it as long as I have, you have to take it on yourself that you’re the one that needs to make the corrections. It’s not the players.”

None of this is new. Kelly has been consistent in his springtime messaging, but others have looked past the effects of the 4-8 record and insist the changes were coming regardless of the win-loss totals. Senior captain Drue Tranquill, for example, acknowledged the severity of the losing record Friday but argued adjustments were needed no matter what the final scores were.

“If you have an average season like 8-4, some things might carry over to the next season,” Tranquill said the day before the spring practice finale. “Whereas when you go 4-8, something has to change.

“But I think even at Notre Dame, 8-4 is never really acceptable or tolerated. Those things that were taking place, just within our culture, would have been noticed whether we were 10-3, 4-8. The criticism gave it a lot more hype and juice. We could kind of feel as guys in the program throughout the past three years that certain things needed to change.

“Those things were finally brought to light and it happened to be during a 4-8 season. I don’t necessarily know that 4-8 was the reason all this change happened.”

New Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko expressed a similar sentiment Friday morning, discussing the pressure moving forward.

“If we were coming off a 12-0 season in which we were competing for the national championship, there would be pressure on us at Notre Dame to be successful this year,” Elko said. “That’s Notre Dame.”

Elko has been a quick study, as his comments were echoed the next day by Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick during NBC Sports Network’s broadcast of the Blue-Gold Game.

“We expect to compete for national championships and 4-8 is not acceptable,” Swarbrick said. “On the other hand, when you’re in that situation, you have to decide how you’re going to move forward. We decided to move forward by making a major investment in retooling our program with Brian as the leader of it. That’s not a one-year investment for us. We brought in some talented assistant coaches. We rebuilt elements of the program

“We view it as a multi-year investment going forward.”

KELLY ON RECRUITING PITCH
Using this week’s NFL Draft as a peg, Florio also asked Kelly about balancing players’ NFL aspirations with team success both in the recruiting process and during the actual season.

“We have to talk more in terms of process over production,” Kelly responded. “We talk in terms of you’re coming to Notre Dame for a reason. You’re going to get a degree, which will set you up for the rest of your life, and you’re going to play on the grandest stage at Notre Dame, so everybody will see you.

“As long as there’s the balance there—and there has to be that balance in terms of getting your education and playing for championships—then we’re okay. It’s when that balance is out of whack, we’ll have an issue. We vet that out in the recruiting process and make sure we don’t take any kids that are coming to Notre Dame just because they’re waiting for that [junior] year to complete so they can go to the draft.”

A reminder: The NFL Draft begins with its first round Thursday night. Kelly will be joining former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer at the draft in Philadelphia to await Kizer’s destination and future employer.

MISSED THE BLUE-GOLD GAME?
It is available for streaming: here.

Following spring practice, will Notre Dame continue habitual progress?

Getty Images
16 Comments

By no means is Irish coach Brian Kelly going to measure Alizé Mack’s progress by if the junior tight end makes his bed every morning. Mack’s mother might—mine would certainly factor it in—but when Kelly cited the need to start the day with hospital corners, he was simply trying to make a point.

“He’s taking care of business off the field, which invariably it always comes back to this,” Kelly said Wednesday. “If you’re taking care of work in the classroom and you’re starting the day right, making your bed—I’m just using that analogy—if you start the day right, it’s going to trend the right way and it’s trending the right way on the field for him.”

Mack is the most obvious example of a needed change in habits. When you miss a season due to academic issues, reconfiguring your priorities becomes a topic of conversation. His instance, though, serves as a readily-cited example of a more widespread concern. Of all the optimistic conversation and concerted change following last season’s 4-8 disappointment, Kelly’s preaching of good habits simultaneously appears as the most abstract aspect and the easiest understood.

“It starts with guys being aware of it first,” Kelly said following Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold Game on Saturday. “Then once they are aware that they need to have these good habits to be good football players, then you start to see it show itself in good run support angles. You see it offensively, guys always lined up properly. We had very few penalties today, and that’s a product of some of the habits that are being built on a day-to-day basis.”

It makes sense. If a receiver doesn’t realize he lined up a few feet closer to the sideline than desired, for example, then he will make that same mistake the next time, especially if he still makes a catch on the play. Next time, the defensive back may be more able to capitalize on the gift of less route uncertainty.

It is unrealistic to expect anyone, let alone a 19- or 20-year-old, to display this exacting discipline on the football field without practicing it throughout the rest of the day. Successfully cutting corners in one area of life convinces the psyche it can be done anywhere. Thus, Kelly has needed to harp on his charges about their off-field activities, including—but perhaps not seriously—making their beds.

“I think we ask our guys to do a number of different things on a day-to-day basis,” Kelly said. “First of all, understanding how habits carry over to what they do in the classroom and what they do on the football field.”

Kelly and his coaching staff have had four months to make this impression. The issue is, bad habits are hard to break. They’re usually more fun, anyway. As Kelly pointed out, the rewards of good habits are slow in coming. Delayed gratification, if you will.

“I think our guys understand that it takes time to build those habits, because some of them have bad habits, and to get rid of those bad habits, you really have to be creating good habits over a long period of time,” Kelly said. “That’s the process that is hard for these guys, because it takes time, and they want it to happen right away.

“Sometimes they forget and they just want to go out and play. If you go out and play, but you don’t do it the right way, it’s going to get you beat.”

This all sounds well and good, and some of the effects were evident Saturday. There were few penalties (none, in fact, according to the official statistics), the quarterbacks took advantage of the receiving corps’ size and missed their targets high. But soon comes the toughest time to continue this trend.

Kelly and his staff have worked on the Irish to internalize these lessons. Now, Kelly and his staff will cover the country in recruiting. In a few weeks, the players will scatter home for a break before returning for a summer session spent in the weight room and classroom. If they slip back into old habits, the last four months were spent fruitlessly.

Mack played well Saturday. The question has never been does he have physical talent. He undeniably does.

The question has been, is and will be: Did you make your bed today, Alizé?

What we learned: Hayes, Book star in Notre Dame’s spring finale

Getty Images
30 Comments

Time spent on a traditional game wrap of a spring intrasquad exhibition seems misspent. Gold won Notre Dame’s annual Blue-Gold Game 27-14 led by rising sophomore quarterback Ian Book. The first-string defense (Gold) held the first-string offense to an average of 5.4 yards per play. For context’s sake: Last season Notre Dame gained an average of 6.1 yards per play and held opponents to 5.4.

With that abbreviated recap out of the way, what did Saturday’s pseudo-game environment show about the Irish? If the 20,147 in attendance paid attention, they had the chance to learn a few things:

Daelin Hayes will be ready to hit a quarterback in September
Notre Dame’s quarterbacks were off limits all spring. Bulls might charge when they see red, but the Irish defensive line has had to remember to ease up when they come across a quarterback’s red jersey. If sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes had forgotten that Saturday, Notre Dame might not have any quarterbacks left to play in the fall.

“At the end of the day, we’re on the same team,” Hayes said, dismissing any bitterness about the quarterbacks’ protections. “We have to keep our guys healthy. I wasn’t frustrated, but come September 2, you know.”

Officially, Hayes was credited with three sacks and another tackle for loss among his seven tackles. Admittedly, gauging sacks is tricky when the quarterback does not actually go to the ground. How many of Hayes’ three sacks and the defense’s 11 total would have been evaded if the defender needed to do more than touch the passer? That answer is highly subjective, but discounting Hayes’ numbers would miss the bigger picture.

“We showed [pressure] in as far as the quarterback wasn’t getting really comfortable, not having all day to throw back there,” Hayes said. “I think it’s been huge, buying into that process. Seeing it come to fruition today was huge.”

Senior end Jay Hayes (no relation) notched two sacks and sophomore end Ade Ogundeji came the closest to tackling a red jersey when he stripped junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush from behind. The defensive line has been expected to be a weak point for the Irish moving forward, but the spring performance indicates it has a chance at holding its own. These accomplishments bear further merit considering Notre Dame’s offensive line is widely-considered one of its few spots of expected quality.

RELATED READING: Now is the time for Daelin Hayes to turn athleticism into pass rush threat

“I think it’s pretty clear Daelin Hayes is going to be around the football and be a disruptive player for us,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “I’d have to watch the film, but it seemed like [sophomore end] Julian Okwara was a hard guy to block coming off the edge, as well.”

Ian Book provides some peace of mind
Book was not spectacular, but he was also far from incompetent or intimidated. In his first action on the field at Notre Dame Stadium, Book completed 18-of-25 passes for 271 yards and a touchdown, highlighted by a 58-yard connection with sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson. Meanwhile, junior Brandon Wimbush completed 22-of-32 passes for 303 yards.

Bluntly, one has not needed to follow Notre Dame for very long to fit that “long enough” qualification. Last season’s backup, Malik Zaire, saw competitive action against both Texas and Stanford. In 2015, DeShone Kizer came off the bench to start 11 games after Zaire suffered a season-ending ankle injury. (more…)