Friday, February 12, 2010

Coaches and the culture of Notre Dame, part one: "you're fired!"

When Knute Rockne took over as head football coach at Notre Dame in 1918 the Fighting Irish were a non-entity compared to the more prominent Western [Big Ten] Conference programs of the region's Protestant-controlled state universities. The league would not permit a Catholic school to join, and often its members would not even play Notre Dame. Until the tenure of Rockne’s immediate predecessor Jesse Harper, no coach had served more than three seasons or twenty games. Notre Dame had a football team, not a program. By the time of his untimely death in March 1931 Rockne had solved Notre Dame’s scheduling problems, built a new stadium, developed a lucrative national fan-base, created a lasting ‘brand’ image, and won 105 football games. He had given the men of South Bend a taste for success and set the bar of achievement very high. So high, in fact, that no division one coach has surpassed his .881 career winning percentage in going-on eighty years.

Rockne inherited many problems when he assumed his role as Notre Dame football coach and athletic director. He left an entirely different set behind him. One of them, every single one of his successors has grappled with every single day on the job: the pressure of sustaining a winning tradition. “Success breeds success” is an old platitude that carries some truth. Even truer is that success breeds the demand for success. At Notre Dame it has also bred a rather unpleasant culture of ousting unsuccessful Rockne successors.

Everyone knew following Rockne would be a nearly impossible task. The man had become a larger-than-life figure, admired and adored nationally. When university president Father Hugh O’Donnell asked Jesse Harper to return to South Bend he consented only to assume the role of athletics director, steering clear of any coaching responsibility. Regardless of the obvious pressures there were several candidates understood to be interested in the job. Some already had head coaching experience elsewhere, but the Notre Dame priests were as insular and snobby in 1918 as they can be today. Frank Thomas was overlooked because Alabama was considered a backwater, insufficient to prepare a coach for Midwestern football. That was surely a mistake.

In the end the job fell to Heartley “Hunk” Anderson, Rockne’s assistant. Hunk had played as a lineman on Rockne’s earliest ND teams, though somewhat undersized at 170lb – even for 1918. A five sport letterman, Anderson was extremely athletic and very talented. Hunk came to Indiana from Michigan because of a hometown friendship with the now legendary George Gipp. His years as a player were the first great era of Irish football, the school lost only two games in his four seasons. He went on to play several years with the Chicago Bears before returning to South Bend as an initially unpaid assistant coach in 1927. Hunk had passion, commitment, a desire to win, a love of the game, and no end of athletic aptitude. He was not at all a poor choice as head coach, at least on paper. Unfortunately he lacked Rockne’s affable charm – but then, who doesn’t?

Rockne had insisted upon complete control of the athletics department, books and all. He could always find grant-in-aid scholarships for his players and maintained a large roster. When Anderson assumed the role Notre Dame Vice-president Father Michael Muclaire made clear that the new era would be different. The priests would subject athletics programs to complete institutional oversight. Anderson enjoyed the same basic amount of scholarship packages from the school that Rockne had been given. What he failed to do was maintain the network of unofficial booster relationships that Rockne had established to provide off-campus jobs for ND players. That system enabled Rockne to take on more and better players, but on Anderson's watch the gravy-train dried up.

The same bullish lack of charisma that inhibited Anderson's efforts at glad-handing boosters also made him a less capable motivator of players. He had always been the aggressive task master as assistant and filled the role admirably. But a head coaching job requires much more. Managerial skills, media relations, giving players a sympathetic ear, inspiring respect, motivating deeper effort… These roles are not new to modern head coaching culture. Hunk did not change the tactics or philosophy that he and Rockne had successfully employed on the field. He stuck with the famous “box” offense, built around controversial multiple-player pre-snap shifts. Anderson knew this system as well as any living man. He could coach it and had done so. His teams did not lack talent. That showed in the fact that they routinely beat the lesser opponents that Notre Dame teams were supposed to beat. But occasional performances began to lack luster. Inevitably, unacceptable losses followed.

Anderson’s career as head coach opened with a 25-0 romp over a useless Indiana team, but questions were raised the following week when the Irish played out a thoroughly uninspiring 0-0 tie against Northwestern at Soldier Field. Following that performance with four wins over lesser teams failed to convince the most powerful newspapers. After a 20-0 win over a comparatively poor Navy side in Baltimore on November 14th one Eastern journalist complained that:

“A stern and fearless [boxing] fight commission with the honor of the grand old game at heart might suspend them for not trying…”

Notre Dame was then 6-0-1, a good record. Anderson was a first-year head coach. The walking legend who had built the program from nothing had died tragically less than a year previously, leaving the team in shock. Wouldn’t it be reasonable to expect a little grace? But reasonable and the measure of expectation that comes with being Notre Dame football coach had about as much to do with one another in 1931 as they do today. Hunk received no grace.
The following week USC visited South Bend. A crowd of 52,000 watched Anderson’s team control the first three quarters and reach the forty-five minute mark up 14-0. Early in the final period USC began to build momentum but Anderson, not perceiving the shift, pulled many of his first string players. Under one-platoon substitution rules they could not be returned to the game that quarter. Notre Dame’s best players watched helplessly as the Trojans surged to a 16-14 comeback win, sealed on a scoring drive sustained by a reckless penalty that blew a Notre Dame defensive stand. In the final fifteen minutes the Irish had committed errors, relinquished the ball weakly, been out muscled at the line of scrimmage, and fallen foul of a sucker trick-play. Notre Dame had been out coached. Rockne’s teams lost games, sometimes. But they were never out coached, ever.

The 1931 season finished with a 12-0 road loss at Army. One newspaper reported that Notre Dame had so been so utterly inept on offense that Irish coaches suspected Army of knowing their signals. In fact the play-calling was predictable enough that knowledge of the signals was unnecessary. Whispers of Hunk’s inadequacy began, even after one season with a not unrespectable 6-2-1 finish. Rumors were strong enough for the campus newspaper to openly acknowledge. The Scholastic reported that Hunk would stay on, making a point in Anderson’s favor that would be repeated many times for many coaches in future years, regardless of the argument’s relevance:

“Hunk Anderson is a Notre Dame man.”

By the time the following season began Anderson could feel the weight of expectation resting heavily upon him. Once again the schedule provided very few chances to truly prove Notre Dame’s worth. Three wins over Haskell Institute, Drake, and Carnegie Tech by a combined score of 177-0 meant very little and impressed no one but the ever enthusiastic student body. The seemingly surging Irish came unstuck in their fourth game, at Pittsburg. Two interceptions returned for scores in a single minute gave Pitt a 12-0 lead. They held on and late in the game the Notre Dame offense that had scored so freely against minnows looked frantic and clueless. An AP writer described the “strange” sight:

“A Notre Dame team, its assurance and cohesion absolutely destroyed, passing wildly like a bunch of high school kids in a demoralized effort…”

Newspaper exaggeration and speculation abounded to the point that now Jesse Harper had to explicitly address the situation. He told reporters that Anderson would be coaching at ND the following year:
“The fact that he lost one game is no reason to fire him. We at Notre Dame feel he has done a fine job.”

On the face of things there was every reason to agree with Harper’s statement. The Irish answered the Pitt loss with four wins over Kansas, Northwestern, Navy, and Army, giving up only a single touchdown. The Army win, at Yankee Stadium, was particularly impressive. One newspaper called the display “dazzling”. Notre Dame’s countless New York ‘subway alumni’ were thrilled. But the mood did not last. Again Anderson’s team finished the year on a loss, and a most inopportune one. Two weeks and three-thousand miles of rail travel after beating Army in New York the Irish faced USC in Los Angeles. 93,000 came out to witness a dominating physical display up-front from the Trojans, who won handily 13-0.

Over the year Notre Dame had racked up 540 penalty yards against 245 by their opponents. That was sloppy play, even when they were winning. Anderson couldn’t seem to keep referees on his side. He apparently didn’t care about winning the press over, either. After the USC loss he gave only a single interview to one paper, angering a host of Midwestern beat writers who had travelled 2,000 miles to cover the game. Francis Wallace, an influential writer who had always vocally backed Rockne’s Irish, complained that Notre Dame was “learning to lose.” Four losses in two years were, he said, not acceptable in South Bend.

Going into the 1933 season Notre Dame had never fired a football coach. One might be forgiven for thinking that a man with a record of 13-4-1 could hardly be considered a candidate for setting that precedent. And yet the tension around Anderson was palpable. One prominent Irish-Catholic priest wrote in his widely read column that Notre Dame football was “a spiritual service played for the honor and glory of God and his Blessed Mother.” This magnitude of sentiment did not seem overstated to many Notre Dame backers. So when Hunk prohibited visiting priests from watching pre-season practices without letters of clearance from their bishops, the move naturally created a bitter reaction. Most wondered what of such secretive importance had gone on in those practices when the Irish opened with a pathetic 0-0 tie against Kansas. Notre Dame had won its season opener every previous year since 1901.

Only one game into the season Anderson’s uninspiring personality and his team’s poor play had already turned even the home press against him. The South Bend Tribune editorialized:

“This fellow Anderson may be a coach, but if he is, I’m ready to accept my post as ambassador to China.”

An anonymous open letter signed by “an irate fan” and dated the day after the Kansas game ran in several papers. It began:

“There is no disgrace in failure. There is disgrace in sticking through when one sees that he has not measured up.”

Such audacious, irreverent attacks from ordinary fans were par for the course. Rockne had built his success on making Notre Dame the ultra-accessible, globe-trotting team of the huddled masses. He welcomed the sentiment that poor, uneducated, immigrant Catholics possessed a meaningful sense of ownership in his program. With Rockne as coach that ownership only ever took the form of adulation and vicarious enjoyment of ‘their’ team’s success. Rockne never lived [and likely never would have lived] to see that sense of ownership become a problem. But as so many coaches can confirm, the cheers of the emotionally invested turn very quickly to jeers when results begin to waver.

Results did waver. In 1933 Anderson’s team began losing not only crucial games to good opponents, but many games to mediocre one. Losses to Carnegie Mellon, Pitt, Navy, and disdained in-state step-sister Purdue were unacceptable. As was a third straight loss to Southern Cal. By the season finale in Yankee Stadium vs. 8-0 Army Anderson seemed like a dead man walking. To the surprise of all, ND won a field-position battle on a late, late Army punt that was blocked in the endzone for a touchdown. New university Vice-president Father John O’Hara’s praise of the comeback as “a thrilling exhibition of old-time Notre Dame football” sounds to modern ears like the dreaded Board of Trustees ‘vote of confidence’. The fact remained, 13-12 comeback win or no, that Notre Dame had finished 3-5-1: the school’s first losing season since it had played Michigan three times and lost all three in 1887 – its first year of football.

The following week the university announced that both Harper and Anderson had ‘resigned’. Hunk’s position was untenable and he could not have stayed had he desired to do so. Notre Dame had pushed a football coach out of the door for the first time in its history. The man was an alumnus, a celebrated letterman, a former Rockne assistant, and a childhood friend of George Gipp. Anderson could not have been more of “a Notre Dame man”. More importantly, [if being a ND man is important to coaching in South Bend at all] his record over three seasons was a reasonably respectable 16-9-2.

On November 30th, 2009 Notre Dame fired Charlie Weis after a more generous five seasons and with a far less respectable record of 35-27. The university paid him the ungodly $18,000,000 remaining on his ridiculous contract just to get him out of South Bend. Many harsh words were said by fans, media, and general passers-by regarding Weis’ performance. The disgracefulness of “sticking through when one sees that he has not measured up” was oft commented upon. In stark mockery of the chest-thumping promises made at his 2005 introductory press conference, Weis ended as just the latest in a long line of coaches to learn that it is very, very difficult to succeed Knute Rockne.
Even after eighty years.

(Sources: Murray Sperber, Shake Down the Thunder -- Sperber's book is the exhaustive, definitive, must-read resource for the early history of ND football. It is a peerless achievement.)

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