Saturday, January 29, 2005

"It's like a new Notre Dame" | by Jay

Arthur Staple of Newsday just put together such a comprehensive and enlightening summary of the new dawn at ND that trying to pull out the pertinent snippets is pretty much an impossible task. So instead, I'll just offer up the whole thing. Enjoy.

Golden Dome Shines Again

After one of the worst periods in its history, there is a feeling of excitement at Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- D.J. Hord had been to Baton Rouge. He'd been to Madison. He'd been wooed and wowed by the facilities and the prospect of catching passes for LSU or Wisconsin, two elite schools using all their resources to get a commitment from a top 100 high school wide receiver.

Hord came here next, to the most hallowed ground in college football. Touchdown Jesus stood tall over Notre Dame Stadium. The Golden Dome glinted in the winter sun. The tradition called out, as it has to thousands of high school football players in the last century.

But Hord looked a little closer. That stadium? Not much to look at, really. And the part about walking -- in pads, helmets and jerseys -- from the stadium locker rooms to the practice fields a quarter-mile away ... This is the greatest program ever?

"I was shocked, actually," said Hord, a 6-1, 180-pound senior at Kansas City's Rockhurst High. "To be there, with all the greatness of the history, and see that the facilities weren't up to par with all the other big schools ... It was a shock."

Hord wasn't the first recruit to be stunned. Notre Dame's ignominious display of the past two months -- firing Tyrone Willingham, enduring the resulting cries of racism, failing to get then-Utah coach Urban Meyer into the fold -- diminished the stature of the program. Nevertheless, Hord did give an oral commitment to the Fighting Irish after that visit earlier this month.

He found three reasons to be optimistic about the future. They are the same reasons the Notre Dame family is so giddy, a surprising turn of events coming on the heels of one of the most humiliating periods in school history.

The first thing that impressed Hord is that those outdated facilities are about to get an upgrade: The 95,000-square-foot, $22-million Guglielmino Center will open in June. New coach Charlie Weis called it a major step forward for Notre Dame recruiting.

"No longer will you just have to sell the name. You'll have the school, the name and a facility that will be second to none," Weis said. "When players walk in, they'll say, 'Whoa.' That's what it's going to be when they walk in there: It's going to be a 'Whoa.'"

The second piece is Weis himself. The offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots is busy preparing for a third Super Bowl in four years, so he barely has had time to attack his new job. But Notre Dame might have accidentally helped point itself in the right direction by hiring the New Jersey native after the firing of Willingham, the misfire on Meyer and a few interviews that went nowhere. Weis, a disciple of Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick, has guided some of the top offenses in the NFL for the past decade.

Last, but hardly least, is the feverish fan base that athletic director Kevin White calls "the national parish." White, an Amityville native, said calls for Notre Dame to join a conference "have been around since the Rockne days." Through the lean years since Lou Holtz left as coach in 1996, the calls have become louder. But White said the school never has been more committed to playing -- and recruiting -- on a national scale and as an independent.

If the NCAA votes in April to go to a 12-game schedule, as is expected, Notre Dame plans to add a yearly date at the Meadowlands to revitalize the East Coast football community that once provided the Irish its talent base.

"The new staff, the new facilities ... It's like a new Notre Dame," Hord said. "I can't wait to be a part of it."

White has a blueprint of the Guglielmino Center in his office. He's been working to make the building a reality since he arrived on March 13, 2000. "He probably had better facilities at Central Michigan," one Notre Dame administrator said of White's days as a track coach in the 1970s.

White pointed out that he was at Central Michigan the same time as Willingham, who was coaching the secondary. "He's a friend" is among the few thoughts White offers on the Willingham debacle. He and outgoing university president Rev. Edward Malloy voted against the firing but were overruled by incoming Notre Dame president Rev. John Jenkins and three Board of Trustees members, led by Morgan Stanley CEO Philip Purcell.

"Any time you go through a staff transition, it's painful," White said. The ensuing debate about the racial implications of firing Notre Dame's only black head coach brought more pain, and layered onto the disgruntlement expressed by thousands of alumni who turned on NBC every Saturday and watched a disjointed offense get pounded from coast to coast.

"The level of interest and passion in this program is unquantifiable," White said. "It's what makes Notre Dame Notre Dame."

White knew what his program needed even after Meyer, a former Notre Dame assistant, decided the hubbub wasn't worth returning for. "It became," White said, "an opportunity for us to reinvent ourselves. We have a wonderful history and tradition that has served us very well for, oh, about 114 years in college football. But it's very, very important that we stay current. Any opportunity you have to get better, you do it."

Turning to a college coaching lifer did not seem the answer, even as time dwindled through December to an Insight Bowl date with Oregon State (a 38-21 loss, the Irish's seventh straight loss in a bowl game). In Weis, who signed a six-year, $12-million contract, White found fresh blood in a Notre Dame alum (class of 1978) and someone who could bring innovation to the field.

In six weeks, Weis has been at the school for perhaps five days total. He's turned into the personification of the old Army ads, doing more before 9 a.m. (and after midnight) than most people do all day. And his double duty, running the Patriots' offense while calling recruits and current Irish players at night, has impressed everyone.

"He's exceeded our expectations so far, I'd say," White said.

That started with his coaching staff. Weis, whose work with Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is an ongoing success story, never had met David Cutcliffe, who also helped produce one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL. Cutcliffe was offensive coordinator at Tennessee when Peyton Manning was learning the ropes; he also was head coach at Mississippi when Eli Manning was there. So Weis, lacking the time for a major search, called Cut.cliffe and hired him just before New Year's Day without ever actually meeting him.

Weis has three former head coaches on his staff, tantamount to heresy in the coaching world: You never hire someone who could just step right in for you. "I'd rather get the best people available, regardless of experience," said Weis, whose staff also includes former Cincinnati coach Rick Minter as defensive coordinator (his job at Notre Dame from 1992-93) and former Georgia Tech head coach Bill Lewis as assistant head coach.

"When you get three guys with that ability to come and join your staff, if you don't get them, you're the one making the mistake," Weis said.

"He's not coming in here to do well and make the move somewhere else," Cutcliffe said. "This is Notre Dame."

The next step for Weis was recruiting. National signing day is Wednesday. Not only did Weis and his staff have to establish relationships with high school coaches and athletes who had been recruited for months by other schools, they had to try to maintain commitments from those who had wanted to play for Willingham and turned away.

Weis has lost a few. Wide receiver David Nelson of Texas wanted to sit down with Weis before re-committing. The AFC Championship Game win by the Patriots made that impossible, and Nelson is going to join Meyer in Florida. But Weis has kept a few players, mostly skill guys.

"I'd say this could end up working out great for me," said Evan Sharpley, a quarterback from Marshall, Mich., who committed in July. "He's been so successful at the pro level and he's brought in such a good staff, it's hard not to be excited."

"That Super Bowl ring is huge!" said Ray Herring, a safety from Melbourne, Fla. "It doesn't even look real."

For better or worse, that is what recruits want: a chance to make their NFL dreams more real. Brady Quinn is the incumbent quarterback, a sophomore who endured a pair of 6-5 seasons but still can say he attends one of the top academic institutions in the land.

"When you make the decision to come here," he said, "it's a life-altering experience. Playing football is one thing, but it's joining a network of alumni that's better than just about anyplace else."

Still, as White said, "The goal is to play on Sunday." That's what sells blue-chippers, not Rockne and Parseghian and Holtz. It's why, in addition to the experienced staff he's hired, Weis will have Trophy winner and future NFL Hall of Famer Tim Brown on staff the minute Brown hangs it up in the pros.

"We've been able to recruit a very good cut of student-athletes," White said, "but I'll say we have to do a better job of identifying the four, five high-end recruits, the difference-makers. In football, you need the difference-makers."

Hord is the only difference-maker in the fold for this year's recruiting class, which is ranked in the 20s among Division I schools by ESPN and But "The Gug," as the training facility has been dubbed, will be open by June. Weis might have another Super Bowl ring to show off as he shakes the hand of a wide-eyed 17-year-old who can run a 4.5 in the 40. And the collective minds of Weis and his staff might excite plenty who watch on Saturday.

The national parish, said White, "has never been more galvanized."

"It's all about winning," said Hord, wise beyond his years. "And Notre Dame is willing to do whatever it takes to win."