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Irish Off-Season of Change: Coaching Responsibilities Redefined

By · February 17th, 2009 · 2 Comments
Irish Off-Season of Change: Coaching Responsibilities Redefined

A relatively young off-season has brought a host of changes to the Notre Dame football program.

The Irish landed a solid, albeit not great, recruiting class and three new coaches were hired to replace offensive line coach John Latina, defensive line coach Jappy Oliver, and offensive coordinator and running backs coach Mike Haywood.

A more detailed discussion of these coaching changes is forthcoming, but the overall impression is positive. The new members of the Irish staff are all tough, vocal, demanding coaches who preach technique and represent an upgrade in recruiting prowess.

Perhaps more significant was head coach Charlie Weis’ announcement of coaching staff responsibility changes this past Friday. While the two items above may seem more substantial, the realignment of the coaching staff comes with considerable implications.

What Exactly Are The Changes?

There are three primary changes in coaching responsibilities for the 2009 season. The remaining staff adjustments announced Friday are mostly cosmetic.

First, Weis will be the offensive coordinator for the foreseeable future. At first glance, this seems like a small change from the 2005-2007 seasons. The reality is much different. As a play-caller in his first three years with Notre Dame, Weis merely reviewed the game plan and called the plays during the game. As the offensive coordinator he will devote the bulk of his energy during the upcoming season to constructing the offensive game plan. This is a sizable increase in workload, and the impact of this change should not be understated.

Second, former defensive coordinator Corwin Brown was “promoted’ to associate head coach. This seems to be a role where Brown will serve as more of a leader and motivator. Weis also intends to use Brown as a sounding board and to help manage game responsibilities as the offensive coordinator duties will occupy more time. Brown remains a co-defensive coordinator.

Third, assistant head coach, defense Jon Tenuta has become the co-defensive coordinator with Brown and will be calling the plays for the Irish defense.

This Is Good Right?

These all seem to be moves that maximize the talents of the coaches involved.

Weis is an extremely tactful and organized offensive coordinator. He possesses a first-class offensive mind and knows how to dial-up the perfect play at the opportune time. Brown is a players’ coach who maximizes effort and intensity and, by all accounts, is an exceptional motivator. Tenuta is an aggressive, instinctive, and tremendously prepared defensive play-caller.

Moreover, many Irish faithful are happy about these changes.

Haywood had a lackluster and forgettable play-calling career at Notre Dame and, if the bowl game against Hawaii was any indication, the sky is the limit with Weis at the helm of a 2009 offense that is more talented than any he has had in his tenure with the Irish. There is even a contingent of fans calling for Weis to continue to call plays from the press box.

The reality is that these staff modifications are likely more of the same. For the third straight off-season the Irish players are encumbered with a host of changes.

There was enormous player turnover at nearly every offensive skill position and all along the offensive line following the 2006 season. The problems associated with losing virtually every offensive starter were exacerbated when Weis morphed his offense and installed a spread zone-read package. Additionally, the Irish changed defensive coordinators from Rick Minter to Brown and switched from a 4-3 alignment to a 3-4.

Last off-season the en vogue move was 300-plus pound offensive linemen, interior defensive linemen that could squat over 600 pounds, and running backs who improved their bench press by 100 pounds (the applicability of this metric for running backs is suspect at best). Weis also relinquished play-calling duties to Haywood in an attempt to become involved with other facets of the team and act more like a “traditional” head coach.

This off-season has already produced three new coaches and more change in offensive and defensive coaching assignments as Weis takes back the offensive reigns and Tenuta calls plays on defense. The defense will also switch back to the 4-3, although it can be argued that transition began last season.

At some point, change is not constructive.

It is nearly impossible to isolate problems and implement solutions when there are differences in the team’s approach every year.

Constant change also stunts player development. It is difficult for a player to focus and improve within a system that is constantly evolving. It’s akin to hitting a moving target.

Finally, consistent change derails momentum and inhibits consistency, something the Irish have lacked over the past two years.

What Does It All Mean?

Make no mistake, change is needed to correct the problems of the Irish football team. Rectifying the woeful ground game and improving the run defense would be good places to start.

But Weis’ latest round of changes seem like a last-ditch effort to save his job by guessing what will cure the underachieving Irish squad. If the answer last season was to become more involved with the defense and special teams, why delegate those duties this off-season to take on more offensive responsibility than ever before?

Moreover, some of Weis’ decisions seem based on one data point, the season finale against Hawaii. Making Brown the de facto head coach and taking over control of the offense is eerily similar to the coaching model used on Christmas Eve. While the Irish did play their best game in two years, there were numerous underwhelming performances in 2007 and 2008 that suggest more deeply rooted problems.

That said, this move could work. As stated above, the shift in responsibilities maximizes the talent of those involved. Weis has also upgraded coaches at several positions that have recently underperformed. If he has found a way to maximize the strengths of he and his staff while simultaneously minimizing their weaknesses, these changes will pay huge dividends.

However, there is a reason this coaching model isn’t routinely employed across the college football landscape, it doesn’t have a high probability of success. As the motivation for these decisions was seemingly derived from one game’s performance, this shuffling of coaching duties doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence in the future.

The Irish will not underperform in 2009 due to a lack of effort on the part of Weis. Nor will Notre Dame stumble because he was unwilling to acknowledge failures or attempt to correct shortcomings.

But this seems to serve as another example of reactive decision making to correct existing problems, not anticipation of challenges confronting the Irish in 2009. In other words, this is more evidence that Weis is still learning on the job as a first-time college head football coach.

Over the last three off-seasons, the adjustments noted above have prevented significant improvement. This staff realignment could offset this inhibited progress, but it may be too late. The players are left to absorb and adapt to another off-season of relatively big changes.



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