I like Bill Connelly’s work over at SB Nation, but I was a little surprised to see his defense of Bob Davie’s hiring by New Mexico. Connelly admits that his defense is “tepid,” and says that it is founded upon the notion that Davie’s tenure at Notre Dame wasn’t as bad as widely thought. In truth, however, Connelly’s argument is based on the notion that Lou Holtz’s tenure – or at least the end of it – wasn’t as good as you think, and that, in retrospect, Davie at least wasn’t any worse than Ty Willingham or Charlie Weis. But, even if any of that is true, does it really say anything about whether Davie did a good job at Notre Dame?
You can argue that Holtz was not recruiting so well at the end of his tenure, but that excuse only lasts for a couple of seasons. Davie’s 5-6 record in his fifth and final season can’t be attributed to Holtz. And with as much flack as Willingham catches, the argument “not as bad as you think” probably applies to Willingham more than Davie given how Willingham was run off after three seasons. Willingham won 10 games in his first season with Davie’s players. His following two years were roughly at Davie’s level (5-7 and 6-5), and then Weis came in and won 19 games in two seasons primarily relying on players recruited by Willingham before Weis basically reached the level of Davie and Willingham before him with 7-6 and 6-6 seasons to wrap up his tenure.
But ultimately whether Davie is “not as bad as you think” comes down to the facts underlying his record at Notre Dame. There are some key points to remember about Davie’s tenure. During his time, rival USC was mired in mediocrity. USC’s record during Bob Davie’s tenure was just 31-29, with only two bowls in
ten six years. Other west coast rival Stanford – under Ty Willingham – was 30-27 during that period (I know Willingham did good things at Stanford relatively speaking (although again, look at USC and other perennial power Washington during that time), but why Notre Dame thought he was going to come in and win national titles right away seems crazy in retrospect). Navy was in the pre-Paul Johnson era, collapsing into awfulness under Charlie Weatherbie. Look, Notre Dame should always beat Navy, but at least Bob Davie never had to deal with the Johnson-Niumatalolo era Midshipmen. Davie was 1-2 against three very good Michigan teams, but he didn’t even have to face Michigan in his final two seasons. Davie was 0-5 overall against Michigan State, and 0-3 specifically against Nick Saban-coached Michigan State teams, losing by an average of 15 points against Saban. Probably what aggravates most Notre Dame fans the most about Davie are his getting dominated by Michigan State, his two losses to (very good) Purdue teams, losing twice in his last three seasons to Boston College, and a horrible record against ranked teams. While maybe the end of Lou Holtz’s tenure wasn’t great, it was truly Bob Davie that started the reign of mediocrity at Notre Dame over the past decade.
There is a lot of merit in the argument that the quality of the Notre Dame job is a bit overblown. Kids aren’t necessarily knocking down the door to play for the Irish the same way they might have been 50 years ago. On the other hand, the school has a ton of money to devote to football success, they have incredible national exposure even now, and they should be able to recruit successfully even if Indiana is not a hotbed for elite football recruits. A Notre Dame coach should almost never win fewer than 8 games. While the Notre Dame schedule can look superficially tough, there are typically at least a half dozen games on the schedule that Notre Dame just should not lose if the coach has been doing his job. In any given year, there are not going to be more than 1-2 games on the schedule – again, if the coach is doing his job – in which Notre Dame should be counted as a clear underdog. That’s going to leave 4-5 games where Notre Dame should be no worse than a coin-flip. When you add it up, even in a mediocre year Notre Dame should generally win 8 games unless the coach just isn’t doing a very good job. And at least every few years the schedule should be there to win 10 games and get to a BCS bowl. Every year should bring a bowl, and it isn’t unreasonable to ask the coach to win at least 50% of the bowl games.
I am not a Notre Dame fan, so this isn’t about a fan’s unrealistic expectations. Given the schedule that Notre Dame plays, their resources, and their ability to recruit nationally (if lacking proximity to elite athletes), even with any drawbacks that you want to count up for that job a coach should be expected to win at least 36 games over a four year period. That’s three seasons of 8 regular season wins, one season of 10 regular season wins, and 2 bowl wins. Put another way, a Notre Dame coach should roughly average 9 wins a season, or a winning percentage of 69.2% to meet reasonable expectations. That to me is pretty much the over/under line for judging a Notre Dame coach in this day and age. (By the way, even with the messy situation that Charlie Weis left behind, Brian Kelly was able to win 8 games in his first year and has seven wins this year with two games and a bowl left to play.)
So where did Bob Davie fall in comparison to the standard I described above? He won 35 games in 5 years. Since Davie had three seasons with just 11 regular season games, he is forgiven a bit in terms of gross number of wins, but if winning 69.2 percent of the time is the standard at Notre Dame, then he should have won at least 41 games – and possibly more since he should have had two more bowl games (and I rounded down from 41.5). Even without those two bowl games factored in, Davie was roughly 15% below what an average Notre Dame coach should do.
Maybe it is true that Davie wasn’t as bad as people suggest – in that he wasn’t awful. But he was definitely not good, and, in my view, he was clearly below average. Nothing about his tenure at Notre Dame really supports his hiring by New Mexico, unless you count that Davie has a high profile and might bring some attention to a beleaguered program. When you add in the fact that Davie has been out of coaching for a decade, it certainly raises some questions about New Mexico’s choice. If Davie embraces the changes that have taken place in football over the past decade, and if he surrounds himself with excellent coaches and recruiters on his staff (despite budget limitations), then this may all work out. But it is a pretty big gamble.