Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Mr. Irrelevant: Why It Won't Matter Who Notre Dame's Next Coach Will Be

Right now, it's 33 degrees in South Bend, Indiana. A mixture of sleet is expected later this evening. This news can't be much of a surprise to anyone who's been there. The average high temperature in the city doesn't even get above 60 degrees. In a nation that's getting increasingly weary of the cold, in a nation that seems to be moving further south and west, that doesn't bode well for future growth and economic prosperity.

And it hasn't.

South Bend's population dwindled to 103,807 in July 2008, down 3.7 percent from the 2000 census. 22.3 percent of those nearly 104,000 people lived 2007 in poverty, including 38.1 percent of the community's African-American population. The estimated median household income in 2007 was only $34,774 well below the Indiana state average of $47,448.

But still South Bend attracts some of America's brightest teenagers to attend the University of Notre Dame. Their academic prowess is renowned the world over as it possibly the finest Catholic education this side of Vatican City. However, that is starting to slip as well. In 2009, Notre's Dame law school fell out of the US News and World Report's Top 25 for the first time in six years and actually ended up tied with their southside public brethren, the University of Indiana. Their MBA program has slid all the way back to 34th, and can't even be considered the best MBA program for a Catholic university any longer. Georgetown and Boston College both rank higher in the same 2009 US News and World Report survey, 22nd and 32nd respectively.

Most don't recognize these facts, though. Most are only aware of Notre Dame's struggles as a once-powerful college football giant struggling to regain the tarnished luster that used to be about the Four Horsemen, Win One For The Gipper, Joe Montana and Touchdown Jesus.

What it seems to be about now, much like the city of South Bend and its academic reputation, is decline. It seems to be about a football program that boasts an impressive 11 national championships but hasn't won a New Year's Day bowl game since 1994. It seems to be about 119 seasons with a winning percentage of .733, but only has a winning percentage of .575 since 1997. It seems to be about the Chicken Soup game and the Catholics vs. Convicts matchup, but is now more famous for the Bush Push contest.

Notre Dame won the first aforementioned two. They lost the aforementioned third.

South Bend, Indiana is a two-hour car ride from the nearest major airport, Chicago's Midway. It's a little longer if you want to fly into O'Hare, and a lot longer if you get stuck in Chicago's notorious traffic jams. For many recruits, both academic and athletic, Notre Dame is definitely not the easiest place to get to. Certainly, there are harder campuses to get to that play Division I football, but there's also a reason why they aren't traditional powerhouses.

Pullman, WA is the home of Washington State University, but even Washington State residents would have a hard time finding it on a map. It's almost two hours southeast of Spokane, practically sitting on the chimney of Idaho in the extreme east corner of the state. Right now, it's 12 degrees in Pullman.

It will be 16 degrees there tomorrow.

Starkville, MS is the home of Mississippi State University, and its athletic program has at least one thing going for it. 14,991 people made their way to Dudy Noble Field, Polk-DeMent Stadium to see the Bulldogs play baseball against the University of Florida on April 22, 1989. That game still holds the NCAA baseball on-campus attendance record. While it is widely regarded as one of the best places to watch a college baseball game, unless you live around Starkville chances are you're probably not going to see a baseball game there. Starkville is about two hours, fifteen minutes from the nearest significant airport in the state capitol of Jackson. It's about two hours, thirty minutes from Birmingham, AL.

Washington State and Mississippi State's combined football record since 1990 is 110-237. They've both had some good moments, of course. Washington State made two Rose Bowl appearances since 1990, once in 1998 and another in 2003. They lost them both.

Mississippi State made the 1998 SEC Championship game. They lost that game to Tennessee 24-14. Their consolation prize was a matchup with traditional powerhouse Texas in the Cotton Bowl. They lost that too 38-11.

While anomalies certainly exist in the college football hierarchy, it would appear that location, specifically the proximity to an airport of significance, does play a major factor in 21st century success.

The following is the final BCS Top 10 ranking. In parentheses is the distance from the airport of nearest significance and the major carrier that flies there. A major international hub is duly noted.

1. Alabama (Birmingham Int'l Airport--approximately 56 miles from campus/Southwest)
2. Texas (Austin--same city/Southwest)
3. Cincinnati (Same city/Delta)
4. TCU (Fort Worth--Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport/Major Hub)
5. Florida (Jacksonville--approximately 113 miles/Southwest)
6. Boise State (same city/Southwest)
7. Oregon (Portland--approximately 110 miles/Southwest)
8. Ohio State (Columbus--same city/Southwest)
9. Georgia Tech (Atlanta/Major Hub)
10. Iowa (Des Moines--approximately 112 miles/American)

What we can discern from the Top 10 is that majority of the schools are located right next to airports that are nearby, if not in the same city. The schools that aren't certainly have plausible explanations for their success. Gainesville is centrally located in Florida, and they are right in the middle of what is arguably the most fertile recruiting base in the country. Alabama is much the same way especially with their traditional degree of success in the football-mad southeastern region of the country.

Oregon has benefitted from their most famous graduate, Nike founder Phil Knight, dumping millions of dollars of his fortune into their athletic program and sparing no expense in turning the Ducks' training facilities into a gridiron palace that rivals the best of the NFL.

The only genuine anomoly of the Top 10 is Iowa, and their coach, Kirk Ferentz, has been long regarded as one of college football's best coaches. Due to his NFL ties, he has long been rumored to return to his roots, but has yet to do so.

Much like real estate, college football success as we approach 2010 is predicated greatly on location. Either the campus had better be readily accessible by airplane or the campus should be centrally located in area visible to top recruits if constant BCS attention is desired. Furthermore, half of the schools, including four of the top five in the BCS Top 10, are located in what are thought of traditionally as warm-weather climates. In a day and age where Americans are leaving colder climates in droves due to both economics and just plain ol' bad weather, it makes sense for top recruits to follow the current sociological trend as well.

Washington State and Mississippi State both recognized these trends years ago, and are content to enjoy the success they receive from time to time.

Meanwhile, Notre Dame just rejected a bowl offer, and will not be playing in the 2009 postseason. Just like Washington State and Mississippi State.

He has been sarcastically called Saint Tebow of Nazareth. But Florida quarterback will walk away from college football as one of the all-time greats. He has won one Heisman Trophy, possibly another on Saturday and has won two national championships. And he also wears divinity on his face. Literally.

Tebow has been known to sport eyeblack referencing John 16:33 which states, "These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world."

His Christian devotion is so famous that he even managed to recruit his head coach, Urban Meyer, to travel with him for one of his mission trips to the Dominican Republic.

Tebow's comparably famous counterpart, Texas Longhorn quarterback Colt McCoy, is nearly as successfully and devoted to the Christian faith as he is. McCoy, who is considered the front-runner for the 2009 Heisman Trophy, became college football's all-time winningest quarterback this year.

He, like Tebow, also has traveled significant distances for missionary work. McCoy has spent past Spring Breaks in Peru doing humanitarian work, and still manages to find time to visit local Austin children's hospitals as well.

Notre Dame has long prided itself on being not just a top-tier university or just a top-tier football program, but on producing top-tier student-athletes. While there are certainly a fair number of programs that allow sketchy characters to play football at their respective universities, it is also clear that football players do exist that excel both at the highest levels of athletics and their devotional calling. So why couldn't Notre Dame land either Tebow or McCoy? They may not necessarily be Catholic, but they would certainly embody many of the traits that Notre Dame is looking for.

At first glance, the obvious answer is proximity. Tebow and McCoy are from Florida and Texas, respectively. But there are other reasons too.

The first two pictures are obviously Tebow's female admirers. The third picture is reportedly Colt McCoy's girlfriend.

Is it to suggest that girls that are as attractive as the following three are impossible to find at Notre Dame? No, but all you need to do is go to virtually any Southern school in the country to know that the girls are quite a bit more attractive than the norm due to, in large part, the better weather. Even as devoted as Tebow and McCoy are to their Christian faith, let's face it, they are still young men who know how well they have it in the South. The beautiful weather, the good-looking girls, the chance to lead a football powerhouse, and a chance to nurture their spiritual nature all without having to leave home?

Isn't the decision a no-brainer for Tebow and McCoy? And if you're the next Notre Dame head coach, well...could you blame them?

That next Notre Dame head coach has been rumored to be Cincinnati's Brian Kelly. He has lead the Bearcats to an undefeated record this season and a Sugar Bowl showdown against Tebow's Florida Gators. Should he accept the job, no doubt it will be a tremendous pay raise. But along with it, he will have to accept an enormous degree of obstacles along the way. He will have to accept that the job he's taking is located in an economically depressed city in an economically depressed part of the country that's pretty hard to get to. He will have to find recruits that not only can pay only devotion to Christ, but can pay no mind to nearly five months of winter.

And Notre Dame should accept the fact that as we head into a new decade, their football program may not be what it once was, and may never be again. Meyer along with former Super Bowl winning coach Jon Gruden declined interest in the Notre Dame opening five years ago. Perhaps it's because they knew all of these truths, and knew Notre Dame was unwilling to accept these truths to be self-evident. Perhaps they recognized that Notre Dame should reassess itself as an academic powerhouse, and reestablish itself as the world's preeminent Catholic university.

Perhaps they both recognized that Notre Dame's football program is closer to Stanford and Northwestern than Florida and Texas, and that distinction is actually something to be proud of, not to be scoffed at.

But the Fighting Irish refuse to believe that. So Notre Dame is entrusting Brian Kelly to wake up the echoes, sounding Her name.

And if he fails? Then Notre Dame football will always be exactly that.

Just an echo.