D-Day in South Bend

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

Ever the diligent recruiter, ever seeking the player who can fit in at Notre Dame athletically, academically and socially, sometimes Tyrone Willingham gets to a prospect's high school and seeks out not just principals and coaches, but the janitor.

"You'd be surprised what janitors know," says the Notre Dame coach.

So perhaps the janitors believe, as Willingham does, that Notre Dame put together a fabulous recruiting class announced Wednesday on National Signing Day.

Or maybe they will go the way of the recruiting gurus, who aren't sold on the Irish's star power. Or perhaps they are like the hungry alumni who are downright worried that something is amiss under the Golden Dome.

"Is the sky falling for the Irish?" boomed the headline in Wednesday's South Bend Tribune. That pretty much sums up the mood.

National Signing Day is, of course, a smoke and mirror show. After all the hype, the college football world puts its faith in recruiting web sites that claim to know definitively that a linebacker from Pennsylvania is the No. 55 prospect in the country while a wide receiver from Los Angeles is No. 56.

"As you know this day has become to some people the most important day in college football," Willingham says. "I'm one who still thinks there is some value in the games."

Willingham, of course, is correct. But then again, what else is he going to say this year?

For decades, the first week of February gave South Bend two reasons to celebrate: Groundhog Day and a Notre Dame top-10 class of recruits. But very few recruiting gurus have the Irish in their top 20 this year. And even with a late commitment from Terrail Lambert, a California cornerback who chose ND over Florida State, the Irish lack a single consensus top-100 recruit.

According to conventional wisdom, Willingham just signed a class that is long on good players but short on great ones. But is good actually good enough at a place with 11 national titles, seven Heisman Trophies and 12 nationally televised games every season?

"What I would ask them to do," Willingham says of the critics, "is go back and look at all the classes [in the past]. And see what really happened. What [a] class actually accomplished. What did it do?"

Fair enough. Go back four years to what would make up last season's senior class, and according to both Tom Lemming and Bobby Burton the No. 1 class belonged to Florida, which just went 8-5. Also in the consensus top 10 were Alabama and Penn State. Yeah, 4-9 'Bama and 3-9 Penn State.

Guess who wasn't in anyone's top 25? LSU.

Besides, didn't Bob Davie annually sign top classes?

But then, again, so did Lou Holtz. In his final nine seasons, the Irish averaged 9.9 victories, finished in the top 12 of the AP poll six times and won a national title.

But since Holtz left the program in 1996, Notre Dame has been at a perpetual crossroads, mired in mediocrity. In two of the last three seasons the losses have outnumbered the wins.

The question everyone seems to have – from recruits to alumni – is whether Notre Dame, considering its immense resources, unsurpassable history and sweetheart television deal with NBC, ever will get back to being a powerhouse.

Everyone wants to say yes. Everyone wants to have full faith in Willingham after he started his tenure here 8-0. But since then Notre Dame has been 7-10. Last season it lost by a combined score of 120-14 to Southern California, Michigan and Florida State.

And now the recruiting guys are decidedly lukewarm about the future.

"The No. 1 thing that attracts guys is they want to win," Willingham says, acknowledging the inherent difficulty of recruiting after a 5-7 season.

Notre Dame still is Notre Dame. It still commands unparalleled media attention. It still plays a national schedule. It still combines academics and athletics better than anyone.

So why no top-100 recruits? Why a perception of a program slipping?

"I can't dispel that," Willingham says. "It is not my battle to fight. I have all the confidence in the world this will be a fine class when this is played out at Notre Dame."

In the coming autumns, we will see who is correct: the recruiting sleuths or Willingham and his janitors.

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