The Problem With Hype and History
The head coaching position for the Notre Dame football team is arguably the most high-profile position in the country. Not only do you have to deal with constant exposure and criticism from television personalities, radio broadcasters, and magazine and newspaper writers, but you also have to deal with the incredible history of your position. Three of the greatest football coaches in college or professional history (Rockne, Leahy, and Parseghian), spent the majority of their careers under the Golden Dome. Throw in the success of coaches like Devine and Holtz, and the immense pressure to produce favorable results as quickly and consistently as possible is daunting, to say the least. The same can also be said regarding the quarterback position for the Irish. You have the same type of exposure that the coach of the program deals with, but you have arguably more history to live up to. Stuhldreher, Bertelli, Lujack, Guglielmi, Hornung, Huarte, Hanratty, Theismann, Clements, Montana, Rice, Mirer, and Quinn were all prolific quarterbacks for Notre Dame and college football as a whole.
Almost halfway through his junior season, Jimmy Clausen has felt the pressure of his high-profile position for the past two and a half seasons as the country has watched him develop from a freshman, with a “deer-in-the-headlights” look on his face through most games, to a quarterback with refined talent and a front-runner for the Heisman trophy. But has Jimmy Clausen lived up to, not only the history of his position, but the immense potential he had when he announced his intentions at the College Football Hall of Fame to play for Charlie Weis? As good as Jimmy Clausen may be this season and as good as he will be next year, if he decides to return to Notre Dame instead of taking an early exit to the NFL, the pressure on him is especially great for two very monumental reasons and neither of them is under his control: hype and history.
Jimmy Clausen was arguably the most successful quarterback Notre Dame had ever seen before he even stepped foot on campus. Clausen had a staggering 42-0 record as a starting quarterback in prep school. He amassed 10,677 yards passing for a California state record 146 touchdowns. His senior year, Clausen was named the USA Today “Player of the Year” and he won the 2006 “Hall Trophy”—the Heisman Trophy for high school football. He was so heralded coming out of high school that just about every recruiting analyst tabbed him as a “once-in-a-generation quarterback,” poised to eclipse the careers that his brothers Rick and Casey had at Tennessee.
Despite the inordinate amount of hoopla surrounding his verbal commitment to Notre Dame and his subsequent “championing” of the Notre Dame name, Jimmy Clausen had a rude introduction to NCAA FBS football during the 2007 season. However, Charlie Weis had no problem prognosticating that by his junior year, Jimmy Clausen would be as good as, if not better than, Brady Quinn was in his junior season. Through his freshman and sophomore seasons, which were fairly pedestrian, the hype surrounding Clausen continued to circulate, which caused most Irish fans to reconsider their collective anointing of Clausen as “The Chosen One.”
We are now in the middle of Clausen’s junior season and the apparition in Charlie Weis’ crystal ball is becoming more and more a reality. As Clausen continues to display the arm strength and pinpoint accuracy that made him so famous in high school, the buzz surrounding Clausen has progressed beyond hype and has morphed into those concerned with college football, from professionals who write about it to fans who argue about it, comparing Clausen to Notre Dame’s most recent successful quarterback—Brady Quinn.
Throughout his career, Jimmy Clausen has been, and will continue to be, compared to Brady Quinn. This is especially difficult because Quinn played a scant three years ago. To put it succinctly, Irish fans have been spoiled by Quinn—and rightly so. Nobody expected Quinn to be as good as he was at the beginning of his junior year and it was even more surprising because the Irish had not had a very successful quarterback for nearly a decade. There were few expectations for a truly good quarterback before Quinn had his breakout junior year: not because the tradition of the position had diminished, but because it had been almost a dozen seasons since the Irish fielded a more than competent passer. However, despite all of the accolades that Brady Quinn garnered while he played at Notre Dame, he will be forever discounted from being a truly great quarterback because he never possessed a signature win.
Brady Quinn’s biggest game at Notre Dame was the loss in 2005 to USC. He never won a big bowl game for Notre Dame and he never defeated USC. The same can be said for Jimmy Clausen. He has not had a signature win for Notre Dame: he hasn’t beaten USC and hasn’t won a notable bowl game. No matter how many records Clausen breaks and no matter how he elevates his play while donning an Irish uniform, he will never be labeled as a great quarterback until he delivers a significant win for Notre Dame.
Is this fair?
Jimmy Clausen (and Charlie Weis, for that matter) has failed to deliver on the national stage for Notre Dame. At the end of the season, both may depart—one leaving voluntarily for greener pastures, a bigger stage, and a hefty contract worth millions, and the other being asked to leave for not producing desirable results. It would be naive to think that the matchup against USC this weekend has little bearing with either Clausen or Weis’ future at Notre Dame or the legacy they ultimately leave behind. Lose, and it will only be another notch in a long line of disappointments in marquee games for this program. But win, and this game will be remembered as a moment in the long history and never-ending hype surrounding Notre Dame football when a good player and a good coach delivered on their potential to be truly great.