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Notre Dame’s Coaching Search, Avoiding the Availability Bias

By · November 30th, 2009 · 4 Comments
Notre Dame’s Coaching Search, Avoiding the Availability Bias

Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis’ failure was evident long ago. His lack of experience with the college game and as a head coach made him unable to anticipate future problems and incapable of implementing changes to correct them.

His list of shortcomings is long and condemning, but painfully reiterating what the on-field product clearly shows adds no value other than venting frustration at the most readily identifiable target.

He deserves better.

In 2005, Weis took a job no one wanted. Notre Dame had a reputation as a program that couldn’t recruit. The Irish offense was a trainwreck. And the secondary was among the worst in the country.

During his tenure, Weis developed two Heisman Trophy candidate quarterbacks in Brady Quinn and Jimmy Clausen, and morphed the Irish offense into a modern, pro-style unit. While the production of his offense has been overstated both last year and this season, these accomplishments are far from trivial.

Perhaps more important was his work on the recruiting trail. Weis and his assistants were tireless in their efforts, scouring the country from coast to coast to find talented players like Clausen, Ethan Johnson, Michael Floyd, Golden Tate, Kyle Rudolph and Manti Te’o. The last of these Weis recruited on crutches with two knees that desperately needed surgery.

His teams have performed well in academics, there have been very few disciplinary issues off the field, and he was an excellent steward of the players. Stories like “Pass Right” will forever be inscribed in Irish football lore.

There is no questioning his effort, devotion or love for his alma mater, and that is ultimately what separates him from his previous two predecessors. Weis did everything he could, and for that his legacy deserves to be remembered better than that of Bob Davie or Tyrone Willingham.

But with a 6-6 record in year five of his tenure, his best simply isn’t good enough.

It’s Time To Move On, But To Whom?

So who should athletic director Jack Swarbrick hire as the next coach at Notre Dame? First, let’s examine the situation surrounding Weis’ hiring.

It is human nature to focus on recent and negative data. Negatives are viewed as the cause of failure and the latest evidence and experiences often seem to be the most pertinent, especially when emotion is involved. This is known as the availability bias and the natural consequence is seeking a corrective action that compensates for these deficiencies.

In many ways, Weis’ hiring reflected this philosophy.

Much of Notre Dame Nation, myself included, didn’t see this at the time. While I wasn’t sold on Weis, I was impressed by his success in the NFL and partially won over by the “hard-working, intelligent, nasty” team promised at his introductory press conference. I was more impressed when he turned the once-dormant Irish offense into a scoring machine. And I was even more impressed when I read his book “No Excuses,” and heard the things he said to the team upon his arrival at Notre Dame. Eventually, I moved from skeptic to believer.

I did this mostly because many of Weis’ strengths were the weaknesses of Notre Dame’s previous two coaches.

Weis is brash, confident (almost to a fault), and direct. Willingham was timid, guarded, and lacked transparency (also almost to a fault). Davie seemed to always have a canned response. Davie and Willingham fielded offenses that lacked explosion and production. Weis’ offenses set record after record. Neither Davie nor Willingham “got” Notre Dame and what it stood for. Weis not only “gets it,” he is an alumnus who embraces it. Willingham was lazy, Weis never stops working. Willingham couldn’t recruit, Weis has hauled in several highly-ranked recruiting classes.

But does that mean that Willingham and Davie didn’t do good things during their tenure in South Bend? Furthermore, does it mean that Weis is infallible? It was nearly impossible to foresee his failure at the time of his hiring, but the past three seasons have certainly proven it.

The lesson of Weis’ failure (and Davie’s and Willingham’s) is that Notre Dame needs a coach who does many things well, not one that excels in a few areas that have been lacking over the recent coaching regimes.

So this begs the question: who should be hired as the next head football coach at Notre Dame? There is no simple answer. Notre Dame is a unique place that has unique coaching challenges. What works for other programs doesn’t necessarily apply.

The Criteria For Success

The list below doesn’t answer this question with a specific name, but rather with a specific set of criteria. To ensure success, the following criteria (in no particular order) must be satisfied:

  1. He must have head coaching experience. Notre Dame is not a place where you learn on the job. The margin for error is small, and even small mistakes are unforgiving. Prior head coaching experience is necessary to develop requisite leadership, organizational and time management skills.
  2. He must have experience in a college football program with consistent success. Too often coaching hires are based on the performance of one or a few seasons. A coach must be proven through consistent success. Hot coaching names come and go (see Turner Gill), but consistent success in the past is the best indicator of succeeding in the future. It is preferable that this come as a head coach, but many assistant coaches have learned what it takes to succeed from their superiors.
  3. He must have offensive or defensive coordinator experience. Part of being a head coach is allocating time and effort of the assistant coaches and players. A head coach must have a first-hand understanding of the effort level and time needed to prepare and implement a game plan in order to properly and effectively allocate resources.
  4. He must be able to relate to younger players and adapt to their changing needs. One of the primary jobs of a head coach is having his team emotionally prepared for each game. To effectively motivate and lead, a head coach must connect with young adults and understand the challenges college students face. Additionally, a freshman is not the same as a senior. The head coach must adapt his approach as each player matures.
  5. He must be able to recruit well. There is a litany of things that go into this—proven success, being able to relate to high school players, forming relationships with high school coaches, working tirelessly, and hiring a staff who can also recruit. At Notre Dame this also means casting a nationwide net. Academic standards make the number of potential recruits much smaller than at other schools. The only way to combat this problem is to delve into every available talent pool.
  6. He must be able to recognize and hire assistant coaches who can develop and utilize the talent he recruits. Talent is synonymous with athleticism and proportional to potential. Players who excel at the high school level frequently do so by being more athletic than their peers. This is not sufficient at the college level when teaching fundamentals that maximize potential becomes far more important to success. Assistant coaches must be able to teach and instill fundamentals, as well as put players in positions that maximize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses.
  7. He must be disciplined, well-organized, and consistent, and he must maintain a team with those same qualities. With few exceptions, players take on the attitude and persona of their coach. Discipline minimizes turnovers and penalties. Organization minimizes poor game and clock management. Consistency ensures continued success and sustains player development. The lack of consistency over the past few years has severely hampered the progress of many Irish players.
  8. He must have goals that are aligned with Notre Dame’s athletic department and administration. This is more important at Notre Dame than perhaps any other program. The head coach at Notre Dame must “get it,” and embrace what the Notre Dame family represents. He must work well with the administration and maintain a vision for the program that is consistent with the aspirations of the University.
  9. He needs to have a well-defined and complementary offensive and defensive philosophy. This doesn’t mean he has to be a play-caller on either side of the ball, but it does mean he needs to hire offensive and defensive coordinators/coaches who are capable of implementing schemes congruent with the philosophies of the head coach. Moreover, these schemes need to complement each other such that the strengths of the scheme on one side of the ball accentuate those on the other.

In Closing…

The next few weeks will be filled with speculation as hot names like Bob Stoops, Urban Meyer and Brian Kelly dot the headlines covering the Irish coaching search.

Some candidates may be disinclined to take the job. Many of the coaches that exhibit the criteria listed above are in established programs where success is more easily achieved. Taking a more difficult job like Notre Dame isn’t necessarily appealing, even with the unparalleled praise that comes with leading the Irish back to the top. But these candidates are not the only ones that can succeed.

There are other coaches that possess most of the items above. To maximize the chance of success Swarbrick must find a candidate with as many as possible, and a well-defined plan to minimize risk in the others. Additionally, more emphasis must be applied to some of the criteria—e.g. head coaching experience and recruiting prowess—than to others.

Weis will leave the program in a better state than his predecessor. While they may not rival USC or Florida, the Irish boast plenty of talent on both sides of the ball. With better fundamentals and improved coaching, Notre Dame can certainly succeed at an elite level.

It is Swarbrick’s task to find this coach and bring him to South Bend. His legacy will be defined by it.



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