January 29, 2010

The 2009 NBA Draft Revisited...And Other Basketball Thoughts

It’s the midpoint of the NBA season, and while Irish fans stew over Brian Kelly’s recruiting and enthusiasm turns to apathy over the ND basketball program, I figured it would be a good time to take a look back at the 2009 NBA Draft Lottery and make some evaluations. What, I can’t write about something other than Notre Dame football?

Full disclosure, I haven’t watched as much NBA action as I would have liked. Some of these guys I’ve watched on TV (thank you Time Warner for adding NBATV in HD for free!), but others like Tyreke Evans, I’m just going off of SportsCenter highlights and stats, because as far as I can tell the Kings are in the NBA’s version of the witness protection program.

I do know that Larry Brown has cemented his legacy as one of the best pure coaches ever, as in the history of basketball. If you don’t believe me, look at what he has done with the Charlotte Bobcats, who play in a morgue and have a GM who is more concerned with, well, just about everything than actually being a GM. Their best player is an undersized forward who is 7th in the league in rebounding (Gerald Wallace). Their leading scorer, who they willingly traded for, is a guy more known for a) brawling in the Palace, and b) shooting up a strip club parking lot (Stephen Jackson.) So yeah, Larry Brown has earned his paycheck by getting the Cats into the playoff picture. Living in the Charlotte area, myself and 14 other people have definitely caught Bobcat fever.

Ok, back to the draft. I figured I would give the stats of the guy (ppg / rpg / apg, unless otherwise noted), his bust potential going forward, and a reconfigured lottery looking back in hindsight.

1. LA Clippers – Blake Griffin – N/A
No brainer pick at the time and no way they could have known he would blow out his knee, try to come back, and have to shut it down for the whole season. The curse of the Clippers lives on!

Bust potential: Low, unless he can’t shake the injuries. He was too good in college too flame out this early.
The pick: Blake Griffin

2. Memphis : Hasheem Thabeet – 2.7 / 3.2 / 1.2 bpg
A pick that was universally panned at the time, and what do you know – it still was a crappy pick. Anyone who watched college basketball could see that Thabeet had no semblance of an offensive game. Anyone who watched pro basketball could see that the NBA was moving away from these big, clumsy, lumbering centers. Apparently the Grizz front office watched neither.

Bust potential: Through the roof. At this point, his ceiling is an Adonal Foyle type career if he’s lucky.
The pick: Tyreke Evans

3. Oklahoma City: James Harden – 9.9 / 3.3 / 2.2
I wasn’t high on this pick and I’m still not loving it, but it’s turned out ok for OKC. Harden will never be a star, which is ideally what you would want out of the #3 pick in the draft, but it filled a need and Harden looks like he has a long NBA career ahead of him as a 12-15 ppg scorer.

Bust Potential : Low, as talked about above
The pick: Brandon Jennings

4. Sacramento: Tyreke Evans – 20.8 / 5 / 5
Umm, not sure if everyone realizes this, but here was LeBron’s rookie line – 20.9 / 5.5 / 5.9. Tyreke Evans through half of a season is the equivalent of LeBron, and he’s doing it while playing the point. He’s already locked up the Rookie of the Year, and there is no question that he is a superstar in the making. The only question is whether he is a point or two guard going forward.

Bust potential: What’s the opposite of through the ceiling? Through the floor?
The pick: Stephen Curry

5. Minnesota: Ricky Rubio – N/A
Who knows what was really talked about between Rubio and the TWolves in the days leading up to the draft? I was buying into the Rubio hype, but if the kid said he wasn’t going to come and play in Minnesota, then maybe they should have moved on and let him be somebody else’s problem.

Bust Potential: Anybody’s guess. I’d like to see him in an NBA uniform before I make any proclamations
The pick: Jonny Flynn

6. Minnesota: Jonny Flynn – 14 / 2.4 / 4.2
I actually like this pick. I always liked Flynn’s game in college and so far it has translated relatively well to the pros. Not that it has actually helped the T-Wolves. Although Kevin Love is actually averaging a 15 and 12 (fourth in the league in rebounding) in case you were curious.

Bust potential: Small. I don’t think Flynn will ever be an All-Star, and his size is a little concerning, but I think he can be an effective point for a long time. Maybe like a TJ Ford type career.
The pick: James Harden

7. Golden State: Stephen Curry – 14 / 4 / 4.5
Curry has pretty quickly silenced the doubters that he was too small or that his game wouldn’t translate to the Association. Sure, it helps that he’s playing NellieBall, but facts are facts. Steph is shooting 43% from 3, and that will earn you a paycheck for a long time. Check out his 26-10-6 and 29-9-7 game from the last 5 games to see how effective he has been.

Bust Potential: None. If he is this proficient offensively as a rookie, there is no doubt he has a permanent place in the NBA. Of course his size will always be a liability defensively, but guards who average 20 a game, which is where I think Curry will end up, don’t grow on trees.
The pick: Ty Lawson

8. New York: Jordan Hill – 4.3 / 2.4 rpg
Wasn’t a huge fan of this pick at the time and obviously I’m guessing the Knicks and their fans aren’t big fans of this pick right now. In fact, his Arizona teammate Chase Budinger, who fell all the way to the middle of the second round, is enjoying a more productive rookie season so far.

Bust Potential: High. Mike Dantoni compared him to a young Amare at draft time. Today, he might be comparing him to a young Stromile Swift. Not great. Could still evolve into something, but really hasn’t shown much on a bad Knicks team.
The pick: Ricky Rubio – Who knows, maybe Rubio comes over to play at the World’s Most Famous Arena for 7 Seconds or Less Genius Mike Dantoni. In fact, yes, I believe that Rubio would have found a way out of his Euro contract to come play for the Knicks. Would playing with a young exciting point guard have been enough to lure LeBron away from Cleveland this summer? We’ll never know.

9. Toronto: Demar DeRozan – 8.2 / 3 / 1
Solid pick for the Raptors. DeRozan is the rare SG who doesn’t shoot 3’s (only 14 all year) but instead is more of a slasher. That fits in well with the Raptors who already have a bunch of 3 point bombers in Hedu and Bargnani. I think DeRozan could evolve into a solid player, maybe like an Andre Iguodala, down the road.

Bust Potential: Medium. You have to be able to shoot in the NBA, plain and simple. If DeRozan can work on his outside shot, he could be a star. Even if it never comes around, he’s a good enough athlete that he’ll make it.
The pick: DeRozan

10. Milwaukee: Brandon Jennings – 17.8 / 3.5 / 6.3
The Bucks straight up nailed this pick. The dreaded “character concerns” plagued Jennings leading up to the draft, but the Bucks obviously did their homework and when he fell into their laps they made the pick. Jennings was anointed the next big thing after his 50 point game, but he has struggled somewhat since then. Of course, it doesn’t help playing on a Michael Redd-less Bucks team. Even so, he is going to be a star in the league for a while. Think Steph Marbury in his prime (and that’s a compliment.)

Bust Potential: None
The pick: DeJaun Blair. With Jennings off the board, the Bucks might have looked to western Pennsylvania for a forward who inexplicably fell to the second round and into the hands of the savvy Spurs. Dejuan Blair – best pick of the draft.

11. New Jersey: Terrence Williams – 7 / 3.8 rpg
What does it say about Williams that he is only getting 20 mpg on a historically terrible Nets team while shooting a horrific 37%. I think it says that he fits into a category that I like to call the “jack – master” player. As in, jack of everything, master of nothing. Williams did a little bit of everything at Louisville, but could you ever really say that he did ONE thing at an NBA level. He was never a great shooter, never a prolific rebounder, and he was a good passer for a bigger guy but nothing that was incredible or anything. There have been a few of these “jack-master” players recently, and almost all of them just haven’t panned out. Corey Brewer (career line of 8-3-1). Julian Wright (career 4-2-1). Even a guy like Hakim Warrick has been a relative bust with a line of 10 points and 4 boards. Look around NBA rosters, and you’ll see plenty of jack-masters who were BMOC’s on campus but whose game just didn’t translate into the NBA.

Bottom line, if you’re not a natural scorer and you don’t do at least one thing really well, whether it’s shoot (Steve Novak, Jasaon Kapono, Kyle Korver), rebound (Paul Millsap, Reggie Evans) or penetrate and dish (Aaron Brooks, Lou Williams), it’s tough to carve out a productive career in the NBA.

Bust Potential: High
The pick: Austin Daye

12. Charlotte: Gerald Henderson – 2.7 / 1
Stop me if you’ve heard this before. The Bobcats get lazy in their scouting, let their marketing department make the pick, and draft an overrated local player WAY too early. They did it with Ray Felton, Sean May, and now Henderson, who is rotting on Larry Brown’s bench. This was just a dumb and wasted pick. Henderson obviously has the bloodlines, so I’m not willing to write him off yet, but right now he looks like he’ll join the lengthy list of Coach K NBA busts.

Bust Potential: High
The pick: Omri Casspi

13. Indiana: Tyler Hansbrough – 8.5 / 5 / 1
Larry Bird loves his white guys, and he took the best available one here in the lottery. They have to be the only NBA team that can throw out a whitewash lineup of Travis Diener, Mike Dunleavy, Hansbrough, Troy Murphy and Jeff Foster, with Josh McRoberts as the 6th man. Seriously, there can’t be any other NBA team that can make that claim. And Larry doesn’t mess around with those Euro’s. Give him red-blooded Americans. Unfortunately, the Pacers are 16-29 and 18.5 games out of first. Might be time to rethink that strategy, Legend.

Bust Potential: Low. Hansbrough will never be a star, but in a relatively weak draft class, getting a rotational big man here is ok.
The pick: Hansbrough.

14. Phoenix: Earl Clark – 3 / 1
Move along, nothing to see here, other than a big man shooting 38%. The Suns may be the worst drafting team of the decade. Other than Amare, they have either gotten nothing or dealt away their pick to save cash every year. Clark is another one of those “jack-master” players. Was never really blown away by him at Louisville.

Bust Potential: Higher than high
The pick: Taj Gibson

Some other NBA thoughts:
- It wouldn’t be an NBA column from me if I didn’t give a State of the Sixers address. I can sum up their organization right now in three words: Blow. It. Up. The whole things. Ed Stefanski, GM? Goodbye. Eddie Jordan, 1st year coach? See ya. Elton Brand, Sam Dalembert, Andre Iguodala? Thanks but no thanks. Build around Jrue Holiday, Thad Young, Marreese Speights. Maybe Lou Williams. Of course this plan is impossible because they gave horrendous contracts to Brand ($80 Million!!??) and Dalembert. My hope is that they can move one of those lead weight contracts at the deadline with Iggy, who actually has some value.

- How fast has Tracy McGrady fallen? Two years ago he averaged 22 points a game. Now he doesn’t even play and can’t stay healthy. He’s only 30, but it seems like an OLD 30.

- Guy about to make the leap to superstardom: Kevin Durant (shaping up to be a Bowie / Jordan draft, with the Blazers taking Oden. Although one has to wonder if Sam Bowie ever took pictures of his, ummm, manhood and posted it online). Durant is simply unbelievable this year, and he has elevated the whole OKC team from its former moribund state. In case you weren’t aware, he is 3rd in the league in scoring at 29.3, ahead of Kobe and D-Wade and behind only a few gentlemen by the name of Melo and LeBron.

- NBA Finals Prediction: Cavs – Lakers; Cavs in 6

A few college thoughts:
-I’ve seen Kentucky play a few times and overall have been pretty impressed. But let me say this. Even though he is averaging a 16-10, I would be extra leery of drafting DeMarcus Cousins. He is just a bad body language, bad character, bad teammate type player. I just keep thinking of Michael Beasley, who has been nothing but trouble for the Heat. Maybe I’m wrong, but those type of guys usually end up being more trouble than their worth. I’m fully prepared to eat my words next year, but that’s how I see it right now. I would go with Derrick Favors from GT, who is averaging a 12 and 9, over Cousins.

- I love John Wall. I think Derrick Rose was better.

- There is a place for Andy Rautins in the NBA.

- I saw Greivis Vasquez come through Winston-Salem a few weeks ago and was pretty impressed. He is not being touted as a big NBA prospect, but I think he is a real sleeper. He is a 6’6 point guard who has been through the rigors of the ACC for 4 years. This year, he’s averaging 17- 4.5- 6 apg, and doesn’t have a whole lot of talent with him right now on the Maryland roster. Plus he’s shooting 38% from 3.

- Guy I’m not sold on who makes NBA scouts and Chad Ford’s heart melt: Greg Monroe.

- Guy who I’m sold on who NBA scouts may not be: Jarvis Varnado from Mississippi State. A few things translate really well to the NBA, but maybe nothing more than rebounding and shot blocking. And Varnado does both of those as well or better than anybody in the country. But you can’t just be a Hasheem Thabeet, you have to have some offensive game, and Varnado does. Plus he’s a lot quicker than Thabeet.

- My favorite player to watch this year, and I’m biased because I got to the same fine institution as he does, is Ish Smith from Wake Forest. So quick with the ball in his hands, such a good passer, and a much improved shooter. He is going to make somebody very happy with a second round pick next year. Check out a Wake game if you can at some point this year.

- For my money, the best team I’ve seen this year is Syracuse. The zone is just suffocating people this year, and they have a great combination of shooters and big guys, plus talent off the bench with Scoop Jardine and Kris Joseph.

- My Final Four picks as of right now: Syracuse, Kentucky, Villanova, Michigan State. Not very original, but I think there is a real lack of marquee teams out there right now.

- Finally, I’ll justify the existence of this 3000 words on an ND blog by offering a few quick hitters on ND basketball:

o I don’t know who to blame, Mike Brey or the administration, but I know somebody has to be at blame for the current state of the program.

o You’re telling me we can’t have two questionable students walking around campus. Two out of 8,000? That’s all it would take to make our program a contender. Throw in, let’s say a Damion James and a Wes Johnson with TJ, Abro and Gody and now we’re talking. Not to say that those types of players would even come to ND, but at least let Brey make a run at some of these guys. If a guy comes out of Catholic school in NYC or North Jersey, they are ND material in my eyes.

o There’s not much else to say. We are good enough at home to occasionally win a big game like West Virginia (although even that felt like a loss the way we almost blew it), but the real measure of the talent on hand is more indicative of the UConn, Syracuse and Nova game are a better measure of our place in the Big East right now.

Coming soon (within the next 365 days): A Look Back at the 2008 NBA Draft

January 28, 2010

Huge. Quickly. Maryland: Thoughts on a possible Notre Dame-Maryland matchup in 2011

Looks like we might finally have some positive news on the scheduling front! We won't know that this game is for sure until the ink dries on a contract, but I think this rumored Notre Dame-Maryland game at FedEx Field in DC would be a solid addition to the schedule. Even though Swarbrick has faced a lot of heat for his early stances on scheduling, I am more than happy to give him credit where credit is due. Hopefully this is a sign of more to come.

This Maryland game is a step in the right direction if you ask me. Maryland is not an elite opponent or anything, but they are a solid, mid-level ACC team that will at least look decent on the schedule, especially in November. I'd rather play someone like Maryland than just about any midmajor team out there.

Here's Maryland's history in the last five years

2005 Maryland 5-6 3-5 T-3rd (Atlantic)
2006 Maryland 9-4 5-3 T-2nd (Atlantic)
2007 Maryland 6-7 3-5 T-5th (Atlantic)
2008 Maryland 8-5 4-4 T-3rd (Atlantic)
2009 Maryland 2-10 1-7

Ok, so not exactly stellar there and the bottom really fell out this year, but the Terps are basically a .500 type team in the ACC. Then again, I said something similar about Washington State when we scheduled that game a few years back, and they completely went into the tank after that. Guess you never know how these teams will turn out. Hopefully Maryland will at least be respectable in 2011.

Some other thoughts on this move:

1) Opens the door to the ACC -- If this game ends up being in November, it's at least a reasonable opponent compared to the Tulsas and Western Michigans of the world that we've been lining up in the second half of our recent schedules. Maryland isn't exactly a marquee opponent, but it's the kind of game that a typical conference team would play. Last year, Maryland played FSU, NC State, Virginia Tech, and BC in the month of November. No one looks at Maryland and says "man, that's a joke of a game." It's a respectable, reasonable game.

The other thing that appeals to me is that at least it's a little variety. Other than BC, we don't really have any regular games with ACC opponents anymore. Personally, I would love to play more ACC teams. I think we should make it a goal to play at least one a year and two if it's a year when we're playing BC as well. The mid-level ACC teams are perfect for a quality tier two type game on the schedule, especially in the years when we can't find a third heavyweight to play. The Georgia Techs and North Carolinas and Clemsons of the world. I would love to play home and homes with any of those schools or even 1-1-1 home-away-neutral series. Sign me up for a Clemson road trip right now.

So Maryland is a good start to maybe break the ice with the ACC on playing us more regularly in October and November. If this Maryland game goes well, maybe these other ACC schools will perk up about playing us. And if the game is well-received by ND fans, Swarbrick and the collars might see some future value to ACC opponents and reach out as well.

We should try to play one ACC team every year in November. Some years, it would be a heavyweight (FSU, Miami, Virginia Tech), and some years it could be a Georgia Tech/Clemson/UNC type game. And if you want to squeeze in the Marylands and Wakes of the world, I can live with that.

2) Legitimate neutral site game -- I think another part of the appeal for this game is that it's a substantially better neutral site option than what we've arranged with the first two scheduled "neutral" site games. The Washington State game was ok in theory, but completely fizzled in terms of opponent and ticket sales, and this Army game in 2010 in New York City is a glorified exhibition. Not saying you can't have a good time at either game (I probably will end up going to both), but there's nothing about those games that redeems the whole "barnstorming" concept. If we're going to just play cupcakes and junk teams, then scrap the idea.

At least the Maryland game shapes up to be a legitimate neutral site game. The game is in DC right in Maryland's breadbasket. I would expect them to bring out 30,000+ fans to this game. Throw in 50,000-60,000 fired up DC/Baltimore/Philly area ND fans, and it should be a good neutral site type atmosphere.

If we're going to play a neutral site game, this is the type of neutral site game I'm ok with. A decent BCS school in an area where there's a strong ND fanbase and a nexus with our opponent. It gives us some exposure in an area outside the Midwest, and it allows us to schedule a decent opponent without having to do a home and home. I can live with that.

The other thing I like is that it sounds like this game might replace the rumored Army game in Orlando. Fine by me!! There was no reason to play that game against Army when we're already playing them in 2010 and possibly 2012. And I especially don't want to play Army when we already have 2-3 other "buy games" on the schedule.

So if this Maryland game replaces the Army game, at the very least it's a substantial upgrade to the 2011 schedule.

3) So what else is coming for 2011??

Ok, so assuming that this Maryland game comes about, here's what we got right now for the 2011 schedule:

S04 ???
S10 @ Michigan
S24 @ Pittsburgh
O01 @Purdue
N26 @ Stanford
Maryland (neutral - Washington DC)

First, this schedule has apparently been reconfigured. That Purdue game was supposed to be the opener, but that has now been pushed back to October 1. I like that move. No reason to open the season at Purdue. The South Florida game also got moved from October 1 to November 19. No problem for me on that game either. We'll get USF late in the year when they probably will want nothing to do with the South Bend cold weather.

The placement of the Maryland game will be interesting, and could have a major effect on how the rest of the schedule shapes up. I'm seeing three different spots:

1) Opening game -- Since the Purdue game got moved into October, we now have an open spot for the first week of the season. Maybe the plan is to play Maryland in DC for the opener. This actually could be kinda cool since we could probably get the game scheduled at night on NBC. There are never too many attractive matchups on the first weekend of the college football season, so we could get a little spotlight game to start the year and maybe build some buzz for this Irish team. Reminds me of what we did against Maryland before the 2002 season in Ty's first year. After that game, everyone was buzzing about the Irish.

Now that I think about it, I really like that idea. Kelly is going to be looking to make a statement in his second year. Why not do it on national tv on opening night?? If we go out and smoke Maryland, that could set the tone for the whole year. Only downside is that we'd have a gauntlet in those first five games, and Kelly/Swarbrick might prefer to get a cupcake in here to play in the opener before the Michigan game.

If we play the Maryland game in week one, then I'd say play a cupcake on October 15 before the USC game. Just line up some Nevada type team, so that the team can stay fresh coming off the bye before the SC game. Get a win and build some momentum. Actually, if we wanted to keep Army in that October 15 spot, I'm ok with that.

2) October 15 -- This is where the Army game in Orlando was originally scheduled. Assuming that game is off (and that hasn't been announced so maybe it's still on), maybe this Maryland game could slide into that spot. Then we can play a tomato can in the opener and not have to risk a tricky opener with Maryland in an unfamiliar venue.

Only concern for me on that front is that we'd be playing two "marquee" games in a row with the neutral site game on October 15 followed by the SC game on October 22. Then again, maybe a great performance against Maryland would have this team brimming with confidence heading into the USC game. I don't mind being tested prior to USC. In the past, we've had too many situations where we played a bunch of dogs prior to the SC game and weren't ready for their speed and talent. The 2006 game was probably the best example of that. We ran through all the service academies, and then looked completely overwhelmed when the USC game rolled around. You want to be peaking heading into that game. That's something that has rarely occurred for us in recent years.

3) November 12 -- Maybe Swarbrick and company think of this Maryland game as a truly "marquee" event and want to showcase this game in November. To be honest, I'm not as crazy about that idea. The November schedule really needs a "heavyweight" to anchor that month. Closing down the season with Navy, UConn, Maryland (neutral), South Florida, Stanford is not exactly a championship level test for this team, especially since we aren't in a conference and wouldn't be playing a conference championship game. Pollsters like to see that you've beaten a quality team in a big rivalry game or a championship game setting. If we run through the Big East, Maryland, and Stanford, we're not going to get a whole lot of love for doing that.

Now is Maryland in DC in November better than playing Tulsa or Western Michigan or some other chump team?? YES!! Absolutely, and if that's the choice, then by all means play Maryland instead. But if we're really trying to put together a high-quality schedule that tests our mettle (which Coach Kelly specifically mentioned that he wanted), then I would save that November spot for a quality home and home series. It doesn't even have to be a "heavyweight." Play someone like Georgia Tech or Arkansas or Texas A&M if you want. We'll play them at home in 2011 and then play them on the road in 2014 when we have an available spot. We could even schedule an additional neutral site game to sweeten the pot. This schedule needs a third big game to balance out the second half of the schedule.

Here would be a hypothetical 2011 schedule:

S04 Maryland (DC)
S10 @ Michigan
S24 @ Pittsburgh
O01 @Purdue
N26 @ Stanford

Insert Tennessee or some other big name if you're feeling frisky, but I could live with someone like Clemson or Georgia Tech while our program is still finding its footing.

I think that schedule would be fantastic and not even that nasty. It would have four true road games, good balance, two well-placed cupcakes before and after the SC game, a quality neutral site game on opening day that would make for a great road trip, and two really good home games with USC and Clemson. Suddenly, that November schedule would not be that bad with UConn, Clemson, USF, and Stanford. You can probably assume that 1-2 of those teams would be ranked. That's about all I can ask for.

Hope Swarbrick and Heisler can get this game done.

January 25, 2010

Notre Dame Recruiting: Is our California recruiting effort worth the fuss?? (Plus thoughts on the NFL and Bernard/Leuders)

3) Unfortunate news for Notre Dame football this week coming out of Southern California, but I wanted to use the news about Anthony Barr's verbal commitment to UCLA as an opportunity to reflect on our recruiting in California in general.

First, maybe it's sour grapes, but I don't consider Barr to be as disastrous of a loss as it has been made out to be. It's unfortunate that we didn't get him because he's obviously a great athlete and you never want to miss out on a great athlete, but he seems like one of those guys who we wouldn't have known what to do with as far as position is concerned. He probably have would have shown up as a running back, then switched to linebacker, then safety, and four years from now, we'd be reading "Anthony Barr ready to finally break out in his senior year" stories. His ego is telling him he's an RB or a safety while his body screams out that he should be an outside linebacker or undersized defensive end.

This comes back to that whole RKG talk. Kelly wants "team guys." Not that Barr is a bad guy or anything, but you want guys who are going to put the team above their own personal interests. If the coach says "son, we think you're going to be a great defensive end in this program," you want a guy who is going to buy into that and lay it all on the line to be a great defensive end. If Barr's attitude is "I'm a safety because that's where I'm best suited for an NFL career," that's not doing anything for your college football team.

Barr would have been a better fit in the Charlie Weis era when everything was about catering to these guys' NFL aspirations. But the goal is to win college football games. I want ND players to go on to the NFL of course, but you want pro development to be a byproduct of winning and great play on the field. Kelly's big emphasis is on finding guys who will put the team above everything else.

Anyway, the whole Barr thing got me thinking about our California recruiting in general. California recruiting is important for this program, but how important?? For every great player we've landed out of California, it seems like we have an equal amount of Cali guys who end up transferring or having unproductive careers.

While we have always had a smattering of players from California on the roster through the years, it really seems like California recruiting has picked up as an integral part of our talent base in the last decade or so, especially during the Weis era. Heck, a lot of people (me included) were hoping that Brian Polian would stick around at ND just because of his California recruiting prowess alone. Weis had particularly good success out there with skill players because of his reputation as an NFL quarterback guru and pro style offensive coordinator.

I think you could even make a case that we have put more of an emphasis on California at the expense of some other states where we once had more success (i.e Texas). The question for me is whether the emphasis on California recruiting has been worth it, and whether we could do things to improve our success rate out there. Just because we can get a prospect from California to Notre Dame doesn't mean that guy is going to be the right fit or a good player.

Three thoughts on this issue:

1) Transfers -- One thing that I've noticed since we really started recruiting heavily in California is how many of these California recruits ended up leaving ND before their careers were over.

Here are the recruits we've landed out of of California since 2002. I also included their star ranking from Rivals.com.

2002 - James Bonelli (4 star), Chris Frome (4 star), Derek Landri (4 star), Rhema McKnight (4 star)
2003 - Freddie Parish (4 star)
2004 - Anthony Vernaglia (4 star), Terrail Lambert (3 star), Brandon Nicolas (3 star), Darrin Bragg (2 star)
2005 - none
2006 - Konrad Reuland (4 star) and Will Yeatman (3 star)
2007 - Jimmy Clausen (5 star) and Taylor Dever (3 star)
2008 - Dayne Crist (5 star) , Joseph Fauria (4 star), and Anthony McDonald (4 star)
2009 - Shaq Evans (4 star) and Cierre Wood (4 star)

By my count, we've landed two 5 stars, eleven 4 stars, four 3 stars, and one 2 star (Darrin Bragg.....the Ty Willingham era! Where 2 stars happen). That puts us at a total of 18 recruits from California in the last eight years.

Of those 18 players, here's how I would break things down:

3 superstars -- Clausen, Landri, McKnight -------- All three guy were multi-year starters who received some sort of national recognition during their times at ND

1 potential star -- Crist ------------ Crist is looking at a 2-3 year run as the starting quarterback at ND and seems like a perfect fit for Kelly's offense

2 productive starters -- Frome and Lambert -- Solid starter types

2 likely contributors -- Evans and Wood -- Probably can expect these guys to at least be in the picture for playing time and possible stardom

2 unknown -- McDonald and Dever -- Neither has played a lick so far; Not sure where their careers are headed.

3 busts -- Vernaglia, Bonelli, Bragg -- Guys who just never panned out. Vernaglia was the one that really stung out of this group since he was pretty heralded out of high school.

5 transfers -- Reuland, Yeatman, Fauria, Parish, and Nicolas -- Some of the "transfers" were for disciplinary problems, but these five never really fit in.

That's not all bad of course. I'd say about half the guys that we've taken from California have turned out well for this program, and the high end guys like Clausen and Crist and Landri have been spectacular additions.

But doesn't that feel like quite a few transfers?? I'm going with purely anecdotal evidence here, but it seems like we have been swamped with transfers from California in the last few years. I don't know what the issue is, but are these Cali guys just not comfortable at ND?? Or do they miss family and friends when they end up all the way across the country??

We even heard quite a few rumors about Wood and Evans heading back to California due to homesickness. I'm glad that they are back, but it was a little unsettling that both of them were talking about leaving after one year. Especially Evans since he was actually playing this year.

I get it though. These guys are leaving southern California and the warm sunshine and their families for the Midwest. It's a completely different animal. Unless you've lived here for a long time, it's hard to get used to spending 6 months every year where you literally never see the sun. Compare that to the California lifestyle where the sun is shining almost every day.

With some of these California recruits, it seems like they come out to Indiana for their visit and think "oh, it's Notre Dame, the campus is beautiful, I'll like it here" and then they get to that first winter and don't like it for whatever reason. Suddenly, they're thinking about heading back to the west coast and going to UCLA or Stanford or wherever. That's the risk that we take with some of these California recruits. A kid who grew up in Chicago or Ohio or Pennsylvania or Michigan is not going to have that same culture shock when they get to ND, so we don't have to worry as much with them about possible transfers for "lifestyle reasons." They know what it's like to see gray skies and 6 inches of snow on the ground at all times and flat farmland and months at a time where you can't go outside for more than a couple minutes. I love the Midwest, but it can get depressing as the weather turns bad.

2) Style of play -- Even though we consider ourselves more of a national brand in terms of our reputation and profile, the reality is that we play the majority our games in the Midwest. Between our 7+ home games and 2-3 road games in the Midwest, we're basically playing 10-ish games a year in our home territory. If you're going to play three straight Big Ten teams in September every year, you better be ready to get down and play some rough and tumble, physical hard-hitting football. And as the weather gets colder in October and November, we want to make sure we have a team that can handle tougher conditions. That's the type of football we played under Holtz with the Zoriches and Hecks and Grunhards and Stonebreakers and Stams of the world. We had a physical Midwestern identity in those days. Even a lot of the skill talent like Rocket and Watters and Todd Lyght came from the Midwest. These guys were already familiar with the type of football that we needed to play to be successful against our competition.

That's the thing for me with some of these California guys. Again purely anecdotal here, but the Cali guys are used to playing in wide open high school leagues that are geared toward Pac 10 football. More of an emphasis on skill and speed than toughness and playing physical. That is the reputation Pac 10 players in general. Super-skilled and talented, but the "soft" reputation pops up from time to time. We saw it in the bowl games this year, especially with Nebraska shoving around Arizona like they were rag dolls.

Not every California recruit is unsuited for Midwestern football of course. Guys like Aaron Taylor and Derek Landri have been very successful in the trenches at ND through the years. But for a program that has developed a "soft" label in the Willingham and Weis eras, I can't help but wonder if we have skewed too heavily toward skilled players who dazzle with their talent but come up small in the toughness categories that are so critical in football, especially in the Midwest. When I see us getting shoved around by the BCs and MSUs of the world, I find myself wondering if we would be more successful if we had more grinders on the roster.

The other thing is that the emphasis in California seems to have come at the expense of recruiting in other areas where we have had success, such as Texas. Texas high school football is a lot more aligned with the type of football that we see here in the Midwest. I miss having guys like Tyreo Harrison and Gerome Sapp and Cedric Hilliard and Anthony Denman on our roster. Tough, hard-nosed Texans. I would not be opposed to making more of an effort to grabbing some Texas guys in the future even if it comes at the expense of some of our efforts in California.

3) What has gone right -- I don't necessarily have a problem with recruiting California players of course. You always want the best players that you can get on your roster no matter where they come from. There's obviously a lot of talent out there, and we are VERY lucky to have recruited guys like Jimmy Clausen and Dayne Crist out of California. Plus, it's not like USC hasn't found plenty of California guys who are capable of playing a physical brand of football.

So what can we do to make sure that we not only have more success finding the "right kind of guys" out in California, but also ensure that they are happy and productive when they get to ND?? I'd say two things:

1) Be up front with them about the lifestyle -- Even though I know there's a lot of B.S. that goes around in recruiting, I think we probably should make sure that these California guys understand what it is that they are getting themselves into. Don't gloss over the weather or the Midwest. I'd sit them down with other Cali guys, have them talk to Clausen and others who have done it, and really give them a good perspective on what it's like. If you only tell these guys the good things about ND and coming to Indiana, you're setting yourself up for a lot of transfers down the road. It's better to make sure we lay it all out there for these Cali guys. Otherwise, we're betting off sticking to players in the Midwest and places where guys will be familiar with life in the Midwest. It doesn't make any sense to recruit California players and then they're miserable as soon as winter hits.

And I think you can really emphasize the positives of living in the Midwest. There have to be some out there, right?? If these guys plan to play in the NFL someday, chances are they will not be living it up in the sunshine in California. More likely they'll be shoveling their driveways in places like Buffalo and Cleveland and Pittsburgh and Minnesota. You better get used to playing football in the Midwest if you want to have a good pro career. That diversity of experiences can be a selling point.

Look at Penn State and Ohio State for example. You can have a Midwest location and still be an attractive place to play college football. Even though it's cold and dreary in both places, those programs have developed reputations for sending players to the pros and being great places to settle even after college. We should be looking to emulate that model by developing a program that attracts players and also ensures that they will want to stay and benefit from their decision to come to ND.

2) More RKGs -- By RKG, I'm referring to guys who truly view ND as the right place for them. Guys like Te'o. ND is the perfect fit for him even though it's 80 degrees in Honolulu and probably 30 degrees in South Bend right now (although it's been downright balmy the last couple weeks). Te'o probably misses the weather, but the benefits of being at ND and the experiences that he is having at ND outweigh any lifestyle changes. Te'o "gets ND" and what it is all about.

If we're going after a west coast guy, we better make sure he's the type of guy who's going to be comfortable at ND. Do your due diligence on him and talk to his coaches and find out what his personality is like. If he seems like the type of guy who is "BMOC" back home in southern California with all his friends and family there, he might not be the right fit at ND over the long haul. It's an inexact science of course, but it's something we should be studying closely.

This is so important for these out-of-region players. We need to make sure that they are the types of people who will thrive at a place like ND. Because we don't use JUCOs or stash players in prep schools or play games with scholarships, we need to make sure we hit on as manyrecruits as possible. Losing a third of our California recruits to transfer doesn't really seem like a great success rate to me.

Anyway, that's my thought on California recruiting in general. It is potentially a great resource for this program and a hotbed of talent that we can access with our national brand, but also one where we have had a number of disappointments and heartbreak through the years. Although losing Anthony Barr was a bummer, he seemed like the type of guy who might not have thrived at ND anyway with all his support structures back home in California.

2) Tough break losing Leuders and Bernard in the the past couple days. Not that either was unexpected, but it leaves us in a difficult spot with only 10 days until signing day. It's not like we can just reach into the well and grab a 4 star RB and a 4 star defensive end in the next week. Then again, I'm never really going to jump up and down about losing a white defensive end prospect, so it's not like Leuders is irreplaceable. My guess is that he'll end up as a solid college player who makes a two deep rotation by his junior year and maybe starts as a senior. Good for depth purposes of course but a big haul in 2011 at DE can easily make up for losing him.

I have more thoughts on the overall makeup of the class that I'll throw down on here as we get close to signing day, but right now I'm just focused on the few targets that are out there on the board. Right now, we are sitting with 17 recruits and ranked #21 overall in the country on Rivals.com. I would anticipate that we'll bring in another 5-8 guys depending on how the chips fall. Gotta figure Massa is a lock, and we are in good position with Spond and James and maybe Iaone. It seems like a few other guys have popped up on the radar recently, and of course there are the big fish still out there (Riley, Henderson, Ferguson, Christian Jones). If we could land even one of those big dogs and lock in the majority of the other guys on our radar screen, that would be a nice finish to this class and hopefully get us back up in the #10-15 range in the final recruiting rankings.

Ultimately, Kelly will be judged in recruiting on what he does in 2011 and 2012. He has focused his efforts thus far on assembling his staff and going full throttle with the guys already on the roster, and it's hard to jump in this late in the game to land the big time players that have been getting courted by other schools for years. I didn't expect him to show up and start reeling in a bunch of five stars right away, especially given how bad this program has been in recent years. I think we will have a better view of his recruiting abilities at this time next year.

Kelly can change the game for ND by winning ballgames. If he does that, we will become a major destination place for recruits again in the near future.

1) Finally some NFL thoughts:

1) First, could there be a more overrated broadcasting tandem than Joe Buck and Troy Aikman?? I've never been one to really rip announcers, but Buck and Aikman come up small in big games more than any other duo in the game. Are these two really the best that Fox has to offer?? When was the last time either of those guys has really set the tone for water cooler conversation while doing a game?? The only time I can think of is Joe Buck's "What a disgusting act!" line when Randy Moss mooned the crowd in Green Bay, but that was more because people were mocking Joe Buck for getting so outraged about it. I've watched probably a hundred games called by Aikman and Buck through the years, and I can't remember one time where their performances during the broadcast were memorable or even relevant to my experience watching the game.

Classic example of Buck and Aikman coming up small was on that last Viking drive that led to the Favre interception. Where were Aikman and Buck pointing out the disastrous clock management by Brad Childress prior to the Favre pick?? They never mentioned it!! How could you miss that?? For me, that was the #1 story coming out of that game. The Vikes were on the march, and Childress inexplicably pulls the rug out on the drive with back to back running plays like they were already in field goal range. It was a 55 yard field goal!! What was he thinking??! He approached the end of that drive like they had a chip shot and just needed to run some clock down before attempting a field goal. Childress completely mismanaged that situation, and I think it put pressure on Favre to feel like he had to make a play to put them in better position for that field goal attempt. If they had stayed aggressive on first and second down, I think they easily could have gotten down to the 20 yard line or so before bringing out Longwell. It was unbelievably bad game management. Even if Favre hadn't throw that pick, Longwell was staring at a 55 yarder to win it. Not exactly a gimme.

And yet Buck and Aikman never mentioned it!! They were completely asleep at the wheel while it was going on. Imagine if that was Verne Lundquist and Gary Danielson doing that game. They would have been killing Childress for that, and rightly so. Same with Al Michaels or any great broadcaster. Buck and Aikman were completely overwhelmed by the moment and not paying attention.

I just have never seen what those two bring to the table. They don't have any sense of the moment, and the whole "I'm laid back, I refuse to get excited about anything" vibe from Joe Buck is annoying. It's the freaking NFC Championship game!! You're allowed to get excited and maybe get the viewers excited alongside of you. It's an overtime game with the Super Bowl on the line. Say something that I will want to tell my grandkids about. As corny as Nantz can be, at least Nantz adds to the experience for me when I'm watching a game. With Buck and Aikman, they are truly the definition of white noise.

2) I don't understand the "will he retire?" talk about Brett Favre. Why would he retire? The guy had a phenomenal season and played a great game up until that last interception. If you actually watched the game, there is no way you can conclude that Favre did not play a great game. They would not have even been in the game if it wasn't for Favre. He took some vicious shots and still hung in there and made some spectacular throws. I don't know how he is doing this, but Favre was a top 10 quarterback this year without question.

The Vikings did not lose that game because of Brett Favre. They lost because Peterson and Harvin and Berrian could not hold onto the football. If they didn't have all those fumbles, they would have won that game going away.

Favre should just come out in a couple weeks and announce that he will be back....in mid-August. We all know he doesn't want to do minicamps and training camp and all that, so there's no need to hide it. I can't believe I'm saying this, but I'd really like to see him come back next year. I enjoyed watching him in that NFC Championship game, and I'd like to see the Vikings make another run with Favre and all those weapons.

3) Speaking of the Vikings, I'm really bummed that they did not make the Super Bowl. Unreal how much talent they have. Their defensive line is so dominant it's not even funny. And with all those offensive weapons, it is amazing to watch them when they are clicking. The Vikes were constructed as the ultimate "big play" team, and they played like it. Guess the problem is that for every big play you might get out of Adrian Peterson or Harvin, you risk a big negative play on the downside. Still, their talent level is jaw-dropping, and it's a shame that they lost a game that they completely dominated in every category but turnovers.

I would have loved to have seen a Vikings-Colts Super Bowl. Favre vs. Manning with major legacy implications on the line. That powerful Vikings defensive line in a chess match with Manning. All those Vikings weapons on offense against a fast and aggressive Colts defense. It would have been a spectacular matchup and a game that really had me excited.

This Colts-Saints matchup just doesn't do it for me. The Saints are like the homeless man's version of the Colts. Their offense is good but not as good as advertised, and their defense is a sieve. I was not impressed at all with New Orleans even in victory. When you need 5 turnovers just to win that game in overtime at home while getting dominated in every statistical category, it feels like a massive fluke.

Lay the mortgage on the Colts -5.5 in two weeks as far as I'm concerned. I expect Manning to cruise to his 2nd ring.

4) As for Manning, the true testament of his greatness in my eyes is how he compares to two other elite guys like Brett Favre and Drew Brees. Both those guys were top 10 quarterbacks this year, but they look like chumps compared to Manning. After watching Manning in that first game against the Jets, it was jarring to see Brees missing throws and looking flustered in the pocket. I mean, this is Drew Brees. One of the best players in the game. And yet I found myself disappointed in his play all because I had just watched Manning carving up the Jets for three hours right before that.

Once Manning figured out their blitz packages, the Jets had no answer for him. One of the best performances by a quarterback I've ever seen.

Manning is going to torch the Saints secondary. Amazing player.

January 22, 2010

The Mouth of Kansas City

Terrific interview in the South Bend Tribune with former All-America and Pro Bowl lineman Tim Grunhard. He offers some of the most candid and accurate assessments of the Charlie Weis era that I've heard. Very encouraging to hear his goal is still to coach in South Bend when the time is right. Can't argue against his wise decision, opting not to bite at Charlie's dangled lure to join the staff as a grad assistant. Instead, he padded his coaching resume by winning the Kansas state title at Bishop Miege High School.

Grunhard offers a sensible insider take on why Charlie ultimately failed as a college coach:

I always felt like it was more of a pro feel to it than a college feel. That doesn’t sometimes work on the college level. I’ve been in both, and just with the terminology and just with the way the practice was run and the way that they were motivated, it seemed to me that he was treating those guys a little bit more like pro players than college players. And I think that was probably the biggest mistake he made.

Grunhard also offers some keen insight into whether Brian Kelly can rise to the challenge of restoring a winning tradition at ND:

I think that it’s a very interesting hire...This is a college guy...this is what he knows...I think that it’s a positive that you’ve got a guy in there who really knows what it takes to motivate, to get these young men to play in his system.

Kelly and his staff look at this Notre Dame job as reaching the pinnacle – like, ‘Hey we’ve got to where we wanted to go. We wanted to be at a major college football program and have an opportunity to win a national championship,’ and they’re there.
“You know, maybe Charlie winning a Super Bowl…there’s something to be said about being hungry to prove yourself. Charlie already proved himself by the time he got to Notre Dame. These guys have an opportunity to do that.

Love where Grunhard is going with all of this, and love the parting potshot, though I don't think Charlie could've worked any harder. When you're not the solution, it doesn't matter how much you grind the wheels in the mud. Stuck is stuck. Kelly is just a better fit - for the college game, for motivating and developing young talent, for using the media and fan base to his advantage, for in-game coaching and adjustments.

I'm putting the over/under on years before Grunhard relocates to South Bend at 3.5 and taking the under. He'll be a welcome addition if/when that day comes.

January 21, 2010

Rumor Mill: UConn to the Big Ten??

Interesting possibility floated out there by Bill Livingston of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. He is hearing rumors about UConn to the Big Ten combined with a plan to ultimately expand to 14 teams. He suggests making a play for Missouri and Nebraska as part of that expansion deal.

To be honest, when we took a look awhile back at some of the Big Ten possibilities, UConn was a name that I had never considered.

I didn't think of them as a realistic possibility with their football program still in a developmental stage and because it seems like there are better options within the Big East (Pitt, Cuse, WVU, maybe even Louisville). But now that I think about it, I can at least see a case made for the Huskies.

1) Elite basketball program -- If you rattled off a list of the most successful basketball programs in the last twenty years, how long would it take for you to get to UConn?? 3-4 names?? I'd give you North Carolina, Duke, Kansas, maybe Michigan State, maybe Kentucky. That's basically it in my book. UConn has been the premier program in the Big East for a long time.

Think about all the players who have gone through UConn since Calhoun has been there. Rip Hamilton, Ray Allen, Emeka Okafor, Rudy Gay, Ben Gordon, Caron Butler, Charlie Villanueva, Hasheem Thabeet, and of course, Jake Voskuhl!! They crank out a lottery pick just about every year.

So if the Big Ten is looking for a powerhouse basketball program, UConn would be a great addition. They'd basically be raiding one of the "heavyweights" from the Big East and bringing them into the fold. You add UConn with Michigan State, Wisky, Purdue, OSU, Illinois, and a resurgent Indiana program, and that would be one strong conference from top to bottom.

Only question is what will happen with UConn basketball when Jim Calhoun eventually retires. He's already having health problems. Jim Calhoun singlehandedly built that program into what it is today. You could make an argument that he's one of the ten greatest college basketball coaches of all time. 2 National titles, 3 Final Fours, 2nd among active coaches in wins, 6th all time in wins. In terms of active coaches, the only guys I would definitively put ahead of him in terms of legacy would be Roy Williams, Coach K, Pitino, and Izzo. That's it for me.

If he retires, would that program remain strong?? Tough to say. They have built a brand name, but they have no history beyond Jim Calhoun. Recruits go to UConn to play for Jim Calhoun. But UConn has statewide support, and they spend the money on the program that you need to spend to be good. In that Big East spending ranking article that came out awhile back, UConn spends $6.7 million a year on their program, which puts them at 5th in the Big East (ND spends $4.3 million and ranks 12th...ugh).

I'm still tempted to say that Syracuse would be a better addition on the basketball front for the Big East. Syracuse annually ranks in the top 5 in attendance in college basketball and seems to be more of a national basketball brand than Connecticut. I don't know if it's Nike or the Carrier Dome or those orange uniforms or all the ESPN announcers who went to Syracuse or John Wallace singing "Cuse is in the house! Oh my god! Oh my god!" but there's just something about Syracuse basketball that gives them more of a national appeal. Then again, maybe that's just me.

The one thing that might push UConn over the top on the basketball front is their women's program. I can't really discount that. You're talking about the best women's program in the country with a rabid fanbase. UConn is one of the few women's programs that probably makes money for the school and can actually produce television ratings and things like that. If you put the UConn women on the Big Ten Network, you might actually get some viewers. Right now, I can't imagine anyone is watching women's hoops on the BTN.

2) A developing football program -- The biggest concern about adding UConn obviously would be on the football end. UConn has only been playing major college football since 2004, and this is their history since they've been in the Big East:

2004 - 8-4 (3-3)
2005 - 5-6 (2-5)
2006 - 4-8 (1-6)
2007 - 9-4 (5-2)
2008 - 8-5 (3-4)
2009 - 8-5 (3-4)

I mean, not exactly illustrious there. They've had one winning conference record in six years in the league. And their recruiting is bottom feeder quality. Looking back at their rankings in the last few years on Rivals.com, they've generally averaged around #75 in terms of recruiting rankings. In other words, you're adding another Purdue on paper.

With that said, UConn is building something in my opinion. I don't know what their ceiling is (especially since it's really tough to recruit with a limited in-state talent pool), but they are on the path toward becoming respectable. They beat Notre Dame and South Carolina this year, and they've produced quite a few NFL players in the last few years.

The other thing is that I think UConn as an athletic department is committed. They built a really nice football practice facility, and it seems like the financial commitment to winning is there. If UConn continues on the path they've been on, they could probably become a steady, middle-of-the-pack type team in the Big Ten.

Is that what the Big Ten is looking for?? I wouldn't think so, but maybe they'd view UConn as part of a larger expansion process. It would be risky though. If Edsall leaves and they make a bad hire, all their momentum could collapse and the program falls apart. When you're talking about a program with such little history, any disruption could derail the program. They are fighting for hearts and minds at this point, so a tough stretch could send people right back to ND or Penn State or whoever they were rooting for before UConn football became relevant.

And if the Big Ten adds UConn and the football program goes into the tank, it would be an absolute disaster when you consider some of the other options that they might have in terms of expansion. Suddenly, you're splitting all that tv money with a 4-8 UConn team. It's a risky bet on the football front.

3) Presence in New York City -- I keep hearing that the Big Ten is obsessed with this idea of capturing the New York City market for the Big Ten. Delaney and his crew seem to think that adding someone in the New York market would suddenly lead to huge dollars coming in, and I think their dream is get the Big Ten Network added on local cable in New York. Admittedly, from a financial perspective, if that actually happened (I'm dubious), it would open up a massive revenue stream for the league. If the BTN was on every cable network in the Tri State New York area, that network would be the biggest cash cow in college sports.

I just don't think the New York market cares about college football and certainly not enough to get the Big Ten Network added on a bunch of cable packages in NYC. Does anyone really think Cablevision is bending to the BTN's demands because some UConn fans want to watch their team play Iowa?? Child please. There would be zero demand for that in NYC. This is different from holding Time Warner hostage in the Midwest. When you don't show the Buckeyes in Columbus, Ohio, people are outraged and threatening to change cable companies. If you don't show UConn football in NYC, no one cares.

UConn basketball has support in the New York area, but football?? No way. They are barely on the radar. The only football program not currently in the Big Ten that would probably turn some heads in New York is Notre Dame if they were added. ND would move the needle. UConn is a niche following at best.

Put it this way, if I was the Big Ten, I would rather add a statewide Missouri or Nebraska fanbase over the sliver of NYC residents that pay attention to the Big Ten because UConn was in it. Give me 500,000 rabid Husker fans who are going to watch every program on the Big Ten Network and buy a million sweatshirts over the "casual fan" from NYC. Chasing after the casual fan doesn't work in college football. Instead, you want Husker fans crowding around the set to watch "Greatest Moments in Husker History" at 1am on the Big Ten Network.

The other thing is that the Big Ten is, at heart, a Midwestern league. Unless you're going to add a national brand like Notre Dame or Texas, I think the Big Ten should look to maintain their identity as a Midwestern brand. Adding UConn dilutes the Big Ten in terms of identity. And UConn will never be anything more than a mid-pack Big 10 team, so I don't see how they add any national cache to the league.

4) Would UConn be interested?? -- The final question is whether UConn would even be interested. I guess it's a no-brainer for UConn from a financial perspective with all the dollars that the Big Ten rakes in on national tv packages and from its own tv network, but what about from a competitive standpoint?? UConn has absolutely zero Midwestern ties. Would UConn fans be happy about playing the Iowas and Minnesotas of the world every week in basketball instead of Syracuse and Georgetown?? UConn has built up some big time rivalries in Big East basketball. Would they give all that up for the Big Ten??

And wouldn't it hurt their basketball recruiting?? Players growing up in NYC and Philly and Boston don't want to play boring, methodical Big Ten basketball. They grow up dreaming of playing in the Big East. And it's not like UConn would start showing up in Indianapolis and Chicago and Cleveland and Detroit and stealing players from the Big Ten schools. I think UConn would be jeopardizing their basketball image in the Big Ten.

Just seems like a strange fit. I don't really see a nexus between UConn and the Midwest. I've literally never met a UConn alum in all my years living in Ohio. And now suddenly they're going to start showing up regularly places like Iowa City and Champaign and West Lafayette?? I just can't see it.

January 18, 2010

Thoughts on Derek Dooley, Tate Nichols, "big skill," and why Brian Kelly (and Jim Tressel?) should be happy about how the NFL Playoffs are going

Leo is an ND fan?? That's cool. I had no idea.

Some other thoughts from the football weekend:

5) I'll admit that the Derek Dooley hire looks shaky on paper, but you never know. No one has any clue if Derek Dooley is going to work out at Tennessee or not, so the "bad hire" stuff is premature. You can't really make a "bad hire" determination on the day you hire the guy. It's like the NFL Draft. Unless you're talking about a can't miss hire like Saban, you really won't know what you have for 3-4 years. We've seen too many examples of unproven head coaches coming in and winning at their first big time jobs to just write Dooley off as a disaster waiting to happen.

Dooley is a flier, but I'd rather take a flier on a young Nick Saban disciple who can recruit over a steady, 8-4 kinda coach like David Cutcliffe. If you hire Cutcliffe, you pretty much know what you're going to get. A lot of Outback Bowl appearances. Nothing wrong with that, but Tennessee has bigger aspirations than going 8-4/9-3 every year.

Seems like a lot of college programs are going with the NFL trend of hiring young guns who will get in the office and work 20 hr days and pound the recruiting trail. Call it the Mike Tomlin effect. There are all kinds of thirtysomething head coaches in the NFL right now. Not sure if these moves are going to work out or not, but I can sort of understand it. And lots of young gun college coaches have worked out (Stoops, Richt, Pelini, Fitzgerald, Harbaugh, etc) who had little or no head coaching experience.

If you're a down in the dumps program, I kind of like the idea of hiring a young gun and just letting him build the program. It's no different than a pro sports franchise. Sometimes you just need to tear everything down, take your lumps, and build back up with a new face. If you try to hire a retread, you're just delaying the inevitable. Not sure if Dooley is the right guy or not for that building process, but I can understand to some degree what Tennessee has done.

4) How great is this Martha Coakley--Curt Schilling feud??

Could this women be any more out of touch with her constituents?? How could any Bostonian vote for this woman after making that comment?? IT'S FREAKING CURT SCHILLING!! The Bloody Sock! How could you not know who Curt Schilling is?? I don't care if you're the biggest non-sports fan of all time. ABoston people worship that sock like it's from Christ Himself.

If you live in Boston, every person knows about three things:

1) Paul Revere
2) The Boston Tea Party
3) The Bloody Sock

What is it with Democratic politicians from Massachusetts and sports blunders??? Remember when John Kerry said that his favorite Red Sox player was "Manny Ortiz"?? My god, open up a sports section man. Politicians who know nothing about sports should undergo some sort of mandatory "current events in sports" training session. Someone should open up a consulting business as a "politicians sports tutor."

3) I know people are scratching their heads to some degree about ND signing a 2 star o-lineman in Tate Nichols, but I don't really have a problem with it. Isn't Nichols the perfect "project" o-lineman for this system?? He's a classic "big skill" athletic guy (hoops player) who played TE in high school but can easily fill out and play offensive tackle. Maybe he's a 2star TE prospect, but he's probably more like a 3.5 star type offensive lineman. Put this guy in the weight room and maybe he can get on the field in his 4th or 5th year. That's the type of move that a team like BC has been making for the last 20 years. They build these projects into productive players by the time they hit their 4th and 5th year in the program. You look at BC's line, and they always seem to have a roster full of seniors and 5th year guys in their two deep. That's how you breed consistency in your program.

The other thing I like is that Nichols addresses a position of need. ND badly needs offensive tackles. If we don't land one of the big fish out there (James or Henderson), we need to bring in someone who can maybe fill out and contribute. And even if he doesn't contribute, at least Nichols adds some depth up front. For my money, we can't have enough of these "big skill/power" guys who can come in and give us some options on the lines. ND should be bringing in 5-6 potential o-linemen prospects a year.

With that said, I can understand to some degree that people are saying "ummm, Coach Kelly, you are the head coach at Notre Dame now. You can recruit outside of the Greater Cincinnati area for players as well." And I think that's a valid point. He's landed two guys (Austin Collinsworth and Tate Nichols) from the Greater Cincy area who are probably more like Cincy recruits. 2 and 3 star "RKG" kinda guys who could end up being good football players, but don't really fit the typical "ND recruit" profile. If you load up your roster with 2 and 3 stars, that's not really what ND fans are looking for on the recruiting trail. Even though our schedules are getting weaker, we still need those high-end top recruits if we want to compete with the big boys.

Two thoughts on that issue:

1) Kelly has a different recruiting approach than Willingham/Davie/Weis -- Weis was a good salesman, but was he really that great of a recruiter?? Weis could sell players on ND, but I don't think he ever really had a great feel for personnel at the college level. He recruited high school o-linemen to play o-line in college, linebackers to play linebacker, etc. He had no imagine with personnel, and I think that came from a lack of understanding of the college game. For all the talk about how smart Weis was, I was never that blown away by his management of our roster.

Meanwhile, I think personnel evaluation might be Kelly's greatest strength as a coach. He has specific traits in mind for the types of players he is looking for, and he recruits those specific skill sets. He doesn't care what position you played in high school. He just wants to see what type of an athlete you are. Kelly would rather take a 2star "big skill" TE who can become an OT than a 4star guy who played offensive tackle in high school but is too slow to be a college offensive tackle.

Kelly is going to get us away from recruiting all these "high floor/low ceiling" finished product guys who maxed out in high school. We've been so obsessed with chasing stars, but I want guys who are going to be good football players in college!! What good is it if a guy is a 4star in high school if he's not going to project well on the college level??

Think about how many times an ND player has looked great as a freshman and then didn't get any better in four years on the team. That's your classic "finished product." A guy who maxed out as a college freshman, but other guys filled out and passed him up.

Unless you're talking about the elite 5 star guys, the star rankings are generally overrated. I don't want a roster full of "projects," but I want to make sure that we recruit guys who will be good college players. If that means taking a high school d-linemen ("power") and moving him to guard before his freshman year, that's fine with me. If you are coaching guys properly, you can develop him by year 3 and 4 into a good offensive linemen. Same with taking 6'5, 215 pound defensive ends or tight ends and turning them into offensive tackles. Or 6'3,220 rbs and turning them into linebackers.

Give me a team full of athletes with upside and give me the right coach who can develop them properly. I'd take that over a roster of all star recruits any day of the week.

2) It's hard to recruit at Notre Dame -- Recruiting at Notre Dame is not as easy as it seems on paper. The biggest problem might be that we always have to recruit out of state for our talent. When you have to cover 50 states, you really can't get in-depth in any particular region to look for players. Unfortunately, that means you might miss out on the sleepers that local teams might hear about.

Let's take LSU for example. There's lots of elite talent in the state of Louisiana. But there's also a lot of 3star sleeper types that LSU can find about because they are all over that state and know all the high school coaches and local beat guys and recruiting gurus in the state. So if there's some sleeper 3star out there, LSU is going to find out about him first because they are the in-state brand. Most people in the state are LSU fans, so they are going to tip off Les Miles and his staff before anyone else gets a look.

This applies in Ohio and Pennsylvania and Texas and Alabama and everywhere where there is good high school football. The schools in those state always seem to snap up these underrated 3star guys who are late bloomers or had a growth spurt or just more playing time in their senior years. (Guys like Marcell Dareus and AJ Hawk.) Probably one of the greatest examples of all time is Ben Roethlisberger. Roethlisberger was a tight end prospect as a junior, and only the MAC schools knew about him. When he started to blow up in his senior year, Ohio State got the word on him from local coaches and went after him. Roethlisberger ended up staying loyal to Miami, but the point is that OSU got word on him before any out of state big boy like Michigan or ND did.

For ND, it's almost impossible for us to get in on these sleeper guys. We have to cover 50 states with our recruiting strategy, so we can only really focus on the top high school prospects in each state. If there's some stud LB 3 star in Mississippi, we won't get the inside info on that guy to offer him. Instead, we go after the higher profile 4star guy because we know about him from recruiting services, but maybe that guy doesn't project as well in college.

So what does this have to do with Nichols?? Well, Nichols and Collinsworth are two "sleeper" types that Kelly has already scouted for UC. These are guys that we would have never known about without Kelly's personal insight into them from his UC days. If Kelly feels like they can play, that's good enough for me. Might as well take guys he is familiar with at this point over other higher-profile guys that he might not know enough about to use a scholarship on.

It just goes to show how challenging the ND job can be. In a couple years, Kelly might not know about the Tate Nichols of the world because he won't have time to look for those types of guys and might not get as many tips from local high school coaches since he's coming in from out of state. He has to be out there looking for players in all 50 states, and there's no way he'll have time to study the film of a random 2star from Kentucky. Plus, Kelly will have to maintain relationships with high school coaches across the country and not just the Cincinnati area.

I don't mean this as a "woe is us" post because we do have a national brand that helps us of course. We are one of the few schools that can go out to Hawaii and land a guy like Manti Te'o. ND has a national recruiting profile that a lot of other schools would kill to have.

But I think it's a relevant point. Right now, Kelly is only familiar with players in the Cincinnati area and some pockets of Ohio and Florida. He can get local intel to find out about guys in those regions. Now that he's the head coach at ND, he has to be able to get intel on players in every state in the country. It's a difficult task, and I think it explains to some degree why we have so many busts in our recruiting classes. When you are stretched out in all these different states for recruits, we don't get quite the same info that the local schools migth get.

Anyway, 2011 and 2012 are the big recruiting years for Kelly. The current class is Charlie Weis' class. Maybe Kelly can add 4-5 guys of his own, but the bulk of the work on this class was done by Weis. If we finish up Weis' efforts by landing Barr and James and maybe Ferguson, that would be a coup. Ultimately, we won't really know about Kelly's recruiting philosophies at ND until the results come in for 2011 and 2012.

2) Some NFL thoughts from the weekend:

1) Chan Gailey?? Really Buffalo?? My word, just contract that franchise already. Buffalo is the most hopeless franchise in the league. I'm not even sure they're trying anymore. Chan Gailey will not be the head coach with Buffalo three years from today. Mark that down in pen.

2) Does the NFL have a placekicker problem?? How many choke jobs are we going to see out of NFL kickers in the playoffs this year?? This is unreal. Kaeding, Suisham, Graham, Rackers, etc. Was there some rule change last offseason that affected kickers?? I don't remember hearing anything. It's just strange that suddenly kickers have become unreliable this year from 40-50 yards out and even inside of 40 yards.

I always thought of a 40-45 yard kick as a borderline automatic in the NFL, especially in a dome. If a guy missed a kick inside of 45 yards, it was considered a shocker unless they were playing on bad turf or something. In the playoffs this year, it has become like 50/50.

I guess it makes the games wackier and more exciting, but I don't like it. It's jarring to me. It's the NFL, and these guys have one job to do. Hit your field goals. There are only 32 kicking jobs in the world. Kickers should not miss ANYTHING from inside 40 yards and only rarely inside 48 or so yards.

3) I can't embrace dome football. It's just not football to me. I don't necessarily like the sloppy conditions that you see on grass fields in Pittsburgh (and South Bend for that matter), but I like outdoor football. It's what I'm used to, and it's what I prefer. I don't think it's a coincidence that the best game of the weekend was at the one outdoor venue.

Then again, the dome is probably the one true homefield advantage left in pro football. You can build your team around the dome style of play, and the only teams that seem to play well in domes on the road are other dome teams. Somehow, the Lions still haven't figured this out.

I think the Jets have a HUGE disadvantage going into the Lucas Oil Dome this weekend. The Jets are built more like an AFC North team, and that's not always a good formula for winning in a dome. They are going to have to do something to disrupt the rhythm of the Colts.

4) Dumbest coaching move of the weekend BY FAR was Norv Turner going for the onside kick with over two minutes to go. Inexplicable to me. Not only could Rivers have taken them down the field for a field goal with a minute to go, he would have had an outside shot at leading them on a touchdown drive. He did the same thing against the Bengals a month ago with under a minute to go. In the NFL, you can go sixty yards in 3-4 plays. Even with no timeouts, you can do that in a minute with no problem.

Just an unbelievably bad, low percentage move by Norv Turner. How does he not have someone looking over his shoulder telling him to kick off there?? NFL coaches should spend an entire week every offseason charting out 4th quarter game management scenarios. You can steal 2-3 victories a year (including the playoffs) if you play your cards right and manage the clock well in the 4th quarter, especially when you are trying to come back. Using your timeouts properly, managing the clock, making good decisions, running a good 2 minute drill. Those things are CRITICAL in the NFL when you get in those close games.

5) How good is Peyton Manning?? When I watch the Colts, I'm really not even that impressed with the rest of their roster. They don't run the ball at all, and their receivers are just ok other than Reggie Wayne. It's not like they get a ton of separation. Manning just fits the ball in there perfectly.

The Colts do give Manning good pass protection, but I'm not even sure they'd be a playoff team with an average quarterback. Put Sanchez on the Colts, and some of those tight fits that Manning squeezes in there would either be interceptions or incompletions. I'm not even sure Sanchez would attempt some of the passes that Manning completes.

Manning is an unbelievable player. He singlehandedly throws that team on his back. Reminds me a lot of what LeBron does with the Cavs.

6) Somewhere Jim Tressel is wearing a New York Jets sweatshirt in his office at the Woody Hayes Center. Are we sure he hasn't been sitting somewhere in the shadows pulling the strings these last six weeks?? The Jets have basically taken a page out of The Senator's playbook. Aggressive defense, avoid turnovers, don't be afraid to punt, run the football, limit possessions, play the field position game, and score when you get your opportunities. The Jets have been playing this game masterfully. Doesn't hurt to have the best defensive player in the game blanketing receivers either.

Crazy thought raised by my brother. Would Jim Tressel be a good NFL coach if he took his formula to the pros?? I would have laughed at that statement a while back, but couldn't you make an argument for it?? You might even be able to make a case that he'd be a better fit for the pros. Good defense, manage the game, no turnovers, win the field position battle. Teams have won Super Bowls playing that way. The 07-08 Giants, the Ravens, the 80s and 90s Giants.

7) Meanwhile, the Vikings seem to be validating Brian Kelly's line of thinking on football. The Vikings are the ultimate "big chunk" team in the NFL. By "big chunk," I'm referring to the Brian Kelly term for big plays: runs over 15 yards and passes over 20 yards. Brian Kelly believes that the biggest key to success offensively is with these "big chunk" plays. I think it's an interesting theory and something that I agree with. We always had these long 9 play, 60 yard drives under Weis, but they often stalled out in the red zone. With Kelly, he wants big plays and touchdowns and designs his offense around that. The little bubble screens and crossing patterns and deep balls. All stuff designed to pick up big chunks. With Weis, we worked the sideline. With Kelly, he wants to spread it around and get guys in space. Big chunk. It's a great concept.

The Vikings are entirely built around this "big chunk" concept. Rice and Harvin are purely big play guys, and even Peterson is the same way. Peterson isn't a 29 carries, 116 yards kinda guy. He's a 16 carries, 108 yards kinda guy. They want big runs out of him. They drafted all those guys under this big play model, and it's working for them.

Even defensively, the Vikes are built around their playmakers. They built that roster around their defensive ends getting pressure and sacks. That's the same way Brian Kelly built his UC defense. Around his defensive ends and his secondary. BIG PLAYS.

I really like how the Vikings built their roster. They put a premium on the premium difference-making positions. WR, DE, CB, explosive RB, offensive tackles. If you get stars in those spots, you're going to be good. And now they have a quarterback who can bring it all together.

Anyway, thought that was interesting. The Vikings might not be methodical, but they can score in 4 plays better than anybody in the league. I think that's what we'll see out of Brian Kelly at ND.

Final thought on the Vikes. How come nobody ever raises the HGH issue with Brett Favre?? He's 40 years old and looks great. No one is suspicious about this??

I don't really care about roids, but I think it's funny that we crucify these baseball players for using the juice and then you have 40 year old quarterbacks running around making plays in the NFL and no one has even the slightest suspicion.

8) Finally, some picks for Sunday:

New Orleans over Minnesota -- I'll admit that I have no idea on this game. I feel like Minnesota has more talent and a better defense, but these dome stadiums seem to create ridiculous home field advantages with all the noise. The Vikes have been iffy on the road all year. I'll go with the Saints and not feel remotely confident about it.

"I'm feelin kinda Shockey." And the Who Dat song was on!!! It's a Party in the M.I.A.! Any reason to throw on a Miley Cyrus Saints parody is reason enough for me to pick the Saints.

Indy over the Jets -- Just feels like the party is about to end for the Jets in Indy. The Colts in the dome?? Man, tough matchup. Manning is a maestro at home in that dome. Even if you play the field position game with the Colts, they can move the ball down the field and go 80 yards. The Jets are going to be on their heels the entire game, and it's only a matter of time before Manning breaks through if you keep giving him the ball time after time because your offense can't do a thing. I just don't think the Jets have enough playmakers to win a game like this on the road.

Then again, if there's one team that could shut down Manning this year, it's gotta be the Jets. The Colts cannot run the ball at all, and you know Revis will shut down Wayne. So basically Rex Ryan has all week to figure out ways to get pressure on Manning and devise coverages to neutralize Clark, Garcon, Collie. Can it be done?? Maybe. The fact that the Jets can narrow the key to this game down to one facet like that gives them a fighting chance.

Jets need turnovers, they need to be able to run it and get some plays out of Sanchez, and they need to hope Manning isn't red hot. Honestly, I will not be shocked at all if this game is very close in the fourth quarter. Also wouldn't be shocked if the Colts are cruising in the fourth quarter up 21-6. Gotta go with the Colts at home.

1) At this point, I think Swarbrick is just rubbing it in to get a reaction with this scheduling stuff. This quote in the South Bend Tribune is almost laughable if it weren't also probably true.

Q: Is there an urgency to get a Big 12 or SEC team on the schedule beyond the upcoming home-and-home with Oklahoma?

A: “We do have that series with Oklahoma, but beyond that, not particularly. I think there are schools that make sense for us for any number of reasons.

“I'd like to try and figure out how to keep the Stanford relationship, because in so many ways, that's an institution we like to do business with and have multiple relationships with across the university.

“I'd like to do more with Duke and Wake and some of those schools. It's really more institutionally focused - what's a good fit for Notre Dame? What sort of looks and feels like us?”

Unreal. At this point, if the future schedules consist of USC, the Big Ten, and the "Geek Squad," at what point does it become more appealing to play a conference schedule (including a possible conference championship game) for football?? I would like to remain an independent as much as anyone and maintain our national brand and play a national schedule, but our "independence" feels more and more like the mid-majorization of Notre Dame football. We are slowly morphing into Boise State East with these future schedules of two big time teams a year with a bunch of mediocre programs, service academies, Big East teams, and academic peers sandwiched between. If USC goes into the tank under Lane Kiffin, no one is going to take us seriously as a major football program even if we go undefeated. Can you imagine the vitriol of the Pat Fordes and Stewart Mandels of the world if we run the table one year with our best win being over an 8-4 USC team or a 7-5 Michigan State team?? They are going to do everything possible to marginalize us, and probably deservedly so since we won't have a conference championship game to prop us up either.

I have no problem playing schools like Wake and Duke as "filler" one-off home opener type games, but not as marquee games that we are actively seeking out, especially in lieu of playing big time home and homes with the Tennessees and LSUs of the world. Are we a big time football program or is this a math league competition?? I can't believe Swarbrick went out of his way to mention those schools as desirable opponents.

I hate to say this, but I'm looking at potential schedules involving Miami, FSU, VT, Clemson, Georgia Tech, BC,etc if we joined the ACC or OSU, Michigan, Penn State, Iowa, Wisky, MSU, Illinois, etc if we joined the Big Ten, and they have some appeal to me. They certainly look more appealing than the schedules we are going to play as an independent going forward, especially if we use available spots for "long term partnerships" with the Wakes and Dukes and Northwesterns and Stanfords of the world instead of playing a few interesting Big 12 or SEC teams. I would love to go down to Virginia Tech or Miami for road trips, and maybe we could keep our annual games with USC and Navy in the "nonconference" schedule. It has far more appeal to me than these bogus neutral site games and one-off "buy games" with Wake and Duke.

With that said, I would reiterate that I don't want to join a conference. Our brand comes from our independence and national appeal, and regionalizing ND would be problematic in terms of differentiating ourselves from the rest of the pack. I don't want to become Midwestern Catholic U any more than anyone else does, and I hope that we can find a compromise to continue playing strong football schedules as an independent. But I must say that the football schedules would look far better in a conference than what Swarbrick and Heisler seem to be floating out there for us. That scheduling memorandum from a year or two ago was incredibly troubling because you can see that the wheels are in motion to keep this new scheduling policy in place for many years to come.

I'm trying to figure out the motivation of the collars and athletic department for this about face on scheduling. Is it just about money?? Is it fear of playing tougher schedules and the "heavyweights" in college football?? Is it a desire to manufacture 10-2 seasons and BCS dollars?? Is it a general repulsion of what the big time "football factories" are doing and a desire to stay away from them?? Is it an attempt to curry favor with the academic schools and try to align ourselves with them??

Just seems like they are sending mixed messages. We've hired this great new coach with an expectation that he will compete for championships with the big boys, but then we talk about playing the Wakes and Dukes of the world because they are "schools that feel like us." Which one are we going to be??