Tough to take Pat Fitzgerald seriously

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The fruit has been hanging pretty low for Notre Dame detractors since the Irish unraveled last weekend. Low enough for Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald to take a shot at the Notre Dame program as well.

In his weekly “College Football Overtime” roundup, Sports Illustrated’s Stewart Mandel took advantage of the high-water mark wins for both Stanford and Northwestern and the low-water mark loss for the Irish, and postulated that the three programs really aren’t all that different. He even got this money quote out of Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald.

“Even though we’re similar academically, we’re in a little different boat as Stanford and Notre Dame,” Fitzgerald said. “We’ve been consistently winning since 1995. They’re still saying they can do it, but we’re doing it.”

While Mandel was quick to get his jabs in about the Four Horsemen, Touchdown Jesus, and Rudy, he wasn’t too quick to look at the record books. It’s tough to take Fitzgerald seriously if he thinks a 3-8, 4-7, 3-9, 6-7, 4-8, and 6-6 seasons since 1995 can be considered consistent winners. Likewise, it’s tough to take Mandel, a Northwestern alum, seriously if he’s going to merely just sidestep pretty obvious facts.

It’s very likely that Fitzgerald was directing his blast toward Palo Alto and not to his next-door neighbor, but to compare this season’s Northwestern squad with either Notre Dame or Stanford is pretty difficult. Mandel states that all three teams have six victories and only Northwestern and Stanford have a victory over a Top 10 opponent, but let’s see which one of these teams doesn’t belong:

TEAM:               RECORD:     SCHEDULE STRENGTH

Stanford                6-3                15
Notre Dame          6-3                 26
Northwestern        6-4                103

For as embarrassing a loss as the Navy game is perceived to be, Northwestern lost to both Syracuse and Minnesota, won very ugly against one-win Miami of Ohio, and their signature win was against one of the all-time smoke-and-mirrors teams in Iowa after their starting quarterback went down and they turned the ball over four times.

The point of this isn’t to ridicule Northwestern, but to merely ridicule the idea that the two programs can now be linked together. Notre Dame is into “Year Three of the Weis hot-seat debate” precisely because these programs will never be linked together. While the Four Horsemen will never run again and there likely won’t be a Rudy sequence hitting the multiplex, there will never be a day where I can go to the Notre Dame website and buy four seats on the 35 yard line for next week’s game. (And no, I don’t count returned ticket allotments from visiting teams.)

The Irish have struggled since Lou Holtz departed, and they’ve done so for a variety of reasons, institutional arrogance among them. They’ve done plenty to sully the brand that was once the gold standard in college football.  

But for Mandel to compare these three programs, without pointing out that Northwestern hasn’t played a Top-70 schedule in the past three seasons, and Stanford hasn’t beaten Notre Dame in the past seven tries is disingenuous. Even if your only criteria is wins and losses, Northwestern sits at
88-85 since they began winning “consistently,” while Notre Dame is
108-73. Notre Dame shouldn’t be puffing its chest about this mediocre
stretch of football, but it’s a far cry from the three games above .500, especially considering the recent shift in scheduling philosophy for the Wildcats. 

I’m trying hard not to come down too hard on Mandel, one of my favorite college football writers out there. But if you try hard enough, you can find plenty of things that Weis and the Irish have failed to achieve. There is no need to manipulate the numbers.