Mixing an Irish stew: When Notre Dame creates an opening for a football coach, speculation becomes the name of the game

Author: Michael Hirsley

For nearly a month the job of Notre Dame football coach resembled a loose pigskin squirting through the hands of players on a fog-shrouded field. All the while members of the media removed from the action and unable to verify the identities of those with a real chance at recovering the ball called out virtually every name on the field.p. Based on media reports ranging from supposedly reliable sources to sheer speculation, the following were all in the running for the Notre Dame coaching job Bob Davie coughed up in early December, George O’Leary grabbed but fumbled away five days later and Tyrone Willingham finally grasped:

NFL coaches Jon Gruden of the Oakland Raiders, Steve Mariucci of the San Francisco 49ers, Mike Shanahan of the Denver Broncos, Tony Dungy of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Tom Coughlin of the Jacksonville Jaguars, along with Pittsburgh Steelers assistant Tom Clements and NFL analyst Bill Parcells, a former coach.

College coaches mentioned for the job—and there seemed to be dozens—included Washington’s Rick Neuheisel, Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops, Oregon’s Mike Bellotti, Boston College’s Tom O’Brien, Harvard’s Tim Murphy, Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz, South Carolina’s Lou Holtz, Illinois’ Ron Turner, Wisconsin’s Barry Alvarez, Purdue’s Joe Tiller, Arkansas’ Houston Nutt, Colorado’s Gary Barnett, Washington State’s Mike Price, Virginia Tech’s Frank Beamer, Alabama’s Dennis Franchione, LSU’s Nick Saban and former college coaches Terry Bowden and Terry Donahue.

What’s wrong with this picture?

For starters, Notre Dame athletic director Kevin White says only seven candidates ever were considered seriously.

What’s also wrong, says Allan Wolper, journalism professor at Rutgers University, is “you can speculate all you want in the media without consequences.”

Or as Lou Nanni, Notre Dame’s vice president for public affairs, puts it: “It was fascinating to be involved in a search like this and see the preponderance of misinformation, half-truths and innuendo out there.”

Now that the university’s monthlong search is over after one embarrassing false ending, White says only five of the seven serious candidates got so far as a one-on-one interview with him, and the job was offered to only two.

The two offered the job are obvious. White still won’t identify the other three who had interviews, or say whether all seven serious candidates made their way into the media reports and speculation.

But even without the names, the number of “implied” candidates is staggering, which leads to two conclusions:

- The Notre Dame football mystique remains formidable, even in a down period.

- Anybody with a computer and Internet access can get in on the speculation game. Notre Dame’s sports information office keeps notebooks with newspaper clippings of stories about Fighting Irish football year-round.

“It’s an incredibly thick file for December, especially considering that we didn’t play in a bowl game,” says John Heisler, Notre Dame’s assistant athletic director for media relations.

What the file contains is stories about “implied” candidates numbering more than two dozen. White expresses amazement at “the number of names that continued to be thrown around.”

The sources Sports “news” has become the domain of round-the-clock broadcasting, including a profusion of talk shows and Internet Web sites feeding from and expanding on traditional news sources as never before. One Notre Dame “insider” site had Gruden, Bellotti and Shanahan within a period of a few days.p.

Notre Dame’s reputation in ethical, scholastic and football circles made its coaching search interesting to begin with. And the interest grew exponentially, albeit inadvertently, after it hired O’Leary from Georgia Tech, only to have him resign because he falsified his resume years ago.

“Other teams may be better than Notre Dame, but none are more famous,” said Ben Bagdikian, former high-ranking Washington Post editor and retired dean of the journalism school at the University of California-Berkeley. “Notre Dame is a Hollywood icon, and media attention to it in sports automatically rings a bell with a large audience. It’s almost inevitable that there would be a lot of speculation in this search for a coach.”

As part of its “rules of engagement” for the search process, Notre Dame promised confidentiality to every coach it interviewed. It sought to “fly under the radar,” in White’s words, yet he remains astonished by the sheer number of “candidates” who made their way into speculation.

For coaches seeking to feather their nest, bargain for better contracts or simply feed their ego that they got Notre Dame’s attention, leaking any contact from South Bend was beneficial. And for both the unnamed source and the reporter, there were no consequences for speculation—Notre Dame would not refute it under its promise of confidentiality.

Former Notre Dame All-American Dave Duerson was a member of the advisory committee in the search process.

“There were times when we would interview a coach about another coach for background and it suddenly would get out that the first coach had been interviewed for the job,” Duerson says.

“What’s interesting in a high-profile search like ours,” Nanni says, “is you have to do all the due-diligence background checks within a very short period of time so you don’t scare off the candidate. Serious candidates often don’t want it known that they are interviewing elsewhere.”

To be fair to their current schools, “they want to protect players or potential recruits,” Nanni says. “They don’t want major benefactors to hold them in reproach. Some serious candidates can’t take that pressure, especially since they don’t know whether we’ll end up hiring them.”


The candidates Tenuous connections abounded in media reports that certain coaches were coveted or contacted by Notre Dame.p. Murphy and Ferentz worked with White when he was athletic director at Maine. Clements, a former Irish quarterback and assistant coach, was recommended to White by Irish icons Ara Parseghian and Joe Montana.

Neuheisel and his family in Tempe, Ariz., were friends of White’s when he was athletic director at Arizona State. One published report had Notre Dame preparing a $2.5 million contract offer Christmas week for Neuheisel.

When reports circulated that Price had been contacted, he said he had not talked with Notre Dame but joked, “I’ll take half of what Neuheisel was supposed to get.”

Alvarez was a Notre Dame defensive coordinator under Holtz, who said he would not return to South Bend. Instead Holtz recommended his son, Skip, his offensive coordinator at South Carolina and former Connecticut head coach, for the Notre Dame job.

Among the NFL coaches, Gruden’s ties to South Bend were too juicy to ignore—he played high school football there while his father was a Notre Dame assistant. Coughlin’s were a lot more obscure.

“I wonder why I was mentioned,” he deadpanned. “Could it be because I am Irish Catholic, having been at Boston College and having beaten Notre Dame (in 1993 to spoil an Irish run at the national championship)? Maybe.”

That put him one up on Shanahan. One publication listed him as a candidate for no other reason than he’s Irish Catholic and grew up in Chicago.

White describes the search process as “burning up the phone lines 15 to 18 hours a day . . . talking to lots of people and talking to lots of people about lots of people.” As a result, he says, “an unavoidable consequence was that some of the people we contacted used it to their advantage.”

Heisler agrees, saying, “At some point or other, some candidates invited themselves to the party.”

Notre Dame alumnus William Cavanaugh, an associate professor of theology at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, was both amazed and amused by all the media conjecture about who would coach at his alma mater. So he composed his own tongue-in-cheek “news release” under the headline, “Cavanaugh Denies Interest in Notre Dame Coaching Job:”

“Add one more name to the list of non-candidates for head coach of the storied but troubled Notre Dame football program,” wrote Cavanaugh, quoting himself as saying, “My first responsibility right now is to my students at St. Thomas. I already have the best job in the country, and I am not interested in any other position.”

He confirmed that he “had not been contacted by Notre Dame officials,” then declined to rule out “the possibility of interest in the future.”

Nanni, inspired by Cavanaugh’s creativity, adds, “I’d like to go on record right now and say I was offered the position and turned it down.”

January 15, 2002

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