Notre Dame has tapped Charlie Weis' forehead with the hammer and as we wait for the white smoke to emerge from South Bend, signaling the hire of a new head coach, two comments keep resurfacing.
1. Notre Dame isn't an elite football coaching job anymore.
Notre Dame has eight AP national titles, but none since 1988.
2. Notre Dame should join a conference.
Ironically the "elite job debate" was even conducted on ABC's Saturday prime time broadcast of the Irish loss to Stanford. Considering the fact that no other team that was about to go 6-6 would demand national TV (ABC wasn't there to show Stanford), it seems like the forum for the question provided the answer.
Of course Notre Dame is still an elite coaching job. It's not the No. 1 job in the country any more, but it's in the top 10.
The fact the school has made three consecutive bad coaching hires has certainly slowed the Notre Dame brand, but it hasn't destroyed it. Bad coaches happen to every school. If you're big enough, you can quickly recover.
Over the past two decades Texas, Alabama, USC and Oklahoma, among others, have had extended periods of mediocrity. Then they found Mack Brown, Nick Saban, Pete Carroll and Bob Stoops and returned to greatness.
When Notre Dame gets a good coach again, it will be good again. This isn't rocket science. Had the Irish snapped up current Florida coach Urban Meyer, a former star assistant, when they could have, there would be no debate, Notre Dame would be Notre Dame.
Instead they were stuck with Bob Davie (1997), chose Tyrone Willingham (2002) and fiddled until they were forced to settle on Weis (2005).
The Fighting Irish may be the nation's most despised team, but ignoring its institutional advantages and assuming the Irish will never again amount to anything is folly.
The program has tradition, a massive fan base and unequaled media attention. The school's will to win is considerable, with all the necessary budgets and facilities. The campus sits near a number of fertile Midwestern talent bases (Chicagoland, Ohio, Michigan). The team still has appeal to high school stars across the country – signing good players was not Weis' problem.
Charlie Weis had six years left on his contract before Notre Dame fired him.
ND plays a national schedule – trying each year to compete against teams, if not visit, all corners of the country to help recruiting. Next year it will play just three true road games, a dream slate for the new coach.
It has a legendary home stadium, both state of the art and draped in history. There's a great fight song, a picturesque campus, etc.
Notre Dame's major imperfections are by its own choosing. It not only won't significantly lower admission standards, but it requires the players to be actual students. I know, I know, it's a crazy idea. That means not just taking real classes, but living in humble dormitories and not luxury apartments like some other places.
That hurts in the recruiting of some great athletes, limiting the available talent pool. However, there are still some guys who not only seek out a place where they can be both students and athletes, but want to be surrounded by others who do. There's a reason the program's latest graduation rate is 96 percent.
And if that is what Notre Dame is supposed to apologize for, well, it is willing to live with it.
Notre Dame needs a coach – I'd recommend Cincinnati's Brian Kelly, although Tony Dungy is a dream worthy of pursuing.
What it doesn't need is a conference, most notably the Big Ten, which surrounds South Bend.
Last year the Big Ten went 1-6 in bowl games. This season it was just 5-9 against teams from the other Big Six conferences. Why does anyone think the league has some roadmap to national prominence?
You join a conference to provide scheduling stability, recruiting credibility, BCS access and TV exposure. That's about it.
Irish stew of mediocrity
A look at the past three Notre Dame coaches:
Charlie Weis ('05-'09)
Hawaii, Sugar, Fiesta
Tyrone Willingham ('02-'04)
Bob Davie ('97-'01)
Fiesta, Gator, Independence
*Willingham fired after regular-season finale, and didn't coach bowl
Notre Dame's current schedule is an advantage, not a hurdle. It plays wherever it wants against whomever it wants – including at least one game a year in California. This season, in a return to its roots, it took on Washington State in San Antonio to maximize recruiting exposure in two critical areas (the Pacific Northwest and Texas).
If it joined the Big Ten, that would be gone. The Irish might be able to keep a traditional rival such as USC and Navy, but the rest of the time it'd be stuck in the Midwest.
The Big Ten wouldn't allow the Irish to recruit better, it would limit it. Weis did great in the Big Ten states, landing stars such as Michael Floyd (Minnesota) and Kyle Rudolph (Ohio) among others. Landing national recruits such as Jimmy Clausen and Dayne Crist (California), Golden Tate (Tennessee) and Manti Te'o (Hawaii) would be tough without playing all over the place.
Weis signed plenty of players that USC and Florida and others wanted. He had a team that was good enough for nine or 10 wins. He just couldn't coach them into a viable unit.
Forget BCS access, Notre Dame already has that. And it doesn't have to share bowl money – in the Big Ten the bowl pot gets drained by league appearances in smaller games which are financial losers.
As far as TV exposure, every home game is broadcast nationally (not regionally) on NBC. All road games are on ABC or ESPN. No one has a better TV deal.
The only thing the Big Ten could offer is a potential increase in television revenue, the league cashing in on not just broadcast partners but its own league cable channel. That number is, at best, only $2-3 million a year however. The Irish could also share in bowl money in bad years – but is a financial safety net for bad years the goal?
Besides, it's not like Notre Dame needs the money to compete. Budget isn't the school's problem.
A coach is. That's it, that's all. Notre Dame's wounds over the past 15 years are self-inflicted, one bad choice after the next.
If the Irish can get it right this time, they'll be back to delivering a record that is indicative of the outsized interest in the program.
The fact the college football world is waiting for those puffs of smoke pretty much proves its elite status.