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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

February 16, 2023

There’s a lot of ways to describe how Notre Dame handled the Andy Ludwig situation. None of them are good.

Whether you’d call it incompetence or negligence, someone clearly didn’t do their job when it came to identifying Ludwig’s buyout. Maybe it was both.

You can certainly call the athletic department misaligned with the football staff. If they knew Ludwig was not going to be an option because of the buyout number, then they failed to communicate that with Marcus Freeman. That is blatantly obvious.

Then when it became clear that the biggest obstacle in getting Ludwig to be Notre Dame’s next offensive coordinator was the money and something would have to be done on their part to remedy their mistake, they chose to not support Freeman’s choice and made the program look unwilling to financially do what is necessary in the eyes of many (even if it would have been fiscally irresponsible to pay the large buyout).

It left the program with egg on its face. And with the next move being the promotion of Gerad Parker rather than going out and paying a big salary to steal away a coordinator from another program, it made Notre Dame look cheap to their own fans.

It doesn’t matter if Parker as the next choice was or wasn’t financially motivated (I’m sure it had nothing to do with Freeman’s decision). What happened previous is now planted in the minds of thousands of people who pay a lot of money to go to games, buy apparel, and even more significantly, donate to the university. It feels financially motivated to many of them.

The next time Freeman speaks to the media, he’s not going to throw anyone under the bus. We know that’s not his style and even if he is upset about what happened (he has every right to be), he won’t rip anyone publicly for it.

Jack Swarbrick and his staff should just hope that they are able to make amends because a “Whoops, our bad” isn’t going to cut it.

I know Notre Dame fans would struggle to find anything positive that came out of this, but if there is one thing, it’s that this is now officially Freeman’s program.

Parker is his guy. He knows and trusts Gino Guidugli, the new quarterback coach. The remnants of the Brian Kelly era are pretty much gone. There should be no fractures within the staff. There is no arranged marriage anymore.

It’s too soon to say that this will work out with Parker and they still need to fill a very important position to coach the offensive line, but there are no more hires to make someone else happy. Now it’s about the group that Freeman has assembled and not anyone he inherited.

Getting the athletic department aligned with Freeman is a work in progress to put it gently. To put it plainly, what happened with Ludwig makes it appear like there is a wide gap between them that needs to be closed…and quickly

. There won’t be any alignment problems with the coaching staff. Staff chemistry doesn’t alway equal success, but it definitely doesn’t hurt.

2. When the administration so clearly bungles a hiring process this poorly, the response is to usually throw money at the problem. That would be a normal reaction to something like this where the program comes off as unwilling to spend what is necessary to compete at the highest level, especially after they wanted it to be known that they were willing to pay Tommy Rees what he wanted to stay.

They don’t have to go big with the money to try and make up for this. It would, however, help a lot if they chose to invest heavily into the program in other ways to actually prove money won’t be an issue.

It can start by giving Freeman the money to add more support staff. That means scouting (a General Manager, more recruiting manpower, etc) and help for the coaching staff (analysts). It would cost less than the buyoutswould have been for Ludwig if they add a few more pieces to the staff.

Want to show your coach you’re supporting him after this public debacle? Give him what he needs behind the scenes to help Notre Dame be better.

3. I watched A LOT of Ludwig games last week from his Wisconsin days all the way up to his current run at Utah. I did a ton of research on him and wrote a long piece (with way too many GIFs) talking about his scheme, his fit with Notre Dame’s personnel (it would have been good), and his work with quarterbacks (much better than I had previously given him credit for).

That piece is now in the abyss. It will never see the light of day.

Those are the breaks. Nothing much anyone can do about it. It sucks, but it comes with the territory when you’re preparing for something and it doesn’t happen or something changes.

I didn’t want to waste everything I learned and wrote about Ludwig, though. The gist of what I wrote is that I think he could have done very well with Notre Dame’s talent at running back. The combination of him and offensive line coach Jim Harding together would have elevated the running game.

In the past 10 years he coached five skill players who became NFL Draft picks. Notre Dame had 17 over that same time. It would have been very interesting to see what he could have done while working with more talent.

The big question that remained with him was whether or not he could help Notre Dame become more explosive in the passing game. In the last 14 seasons, there was zero evidence to suggest he would do that.

His offenses have finished 59th, 78th, 48th, 46th, 60th, 102nd, 116th, 110th, and 79th in receptions of 20+ yards over the last ten seasons (I took out the Covid season of 2020 when Utah played less games).

Here’s where the eventual national champion finished in that same category: 3rd, 15th, 2nd, 1st, 11th, 56th (Bama with Hurts), 3rd, Alabama 51st, 15th, and 3rd.

Eight of the ten finished in the top-15 and five of the ten finished in the top-three. The two exceptions that didn’t finish in the top-15 were Alabama in 2017 and Alabama in 2015. They had the top ranked defense in DF+ both those seasons.

Ludwig had numerous 1,000 yard backs. His only 1,000 yard receiver since 2009 was Jared Abbrederis at Wisconsin. Some of that is the lack of talent he inherited. Some of that is that he hasn’t had a passing attack that has been aggressive attacking down the field.

Personnel is a part of it (Cam Rising’s arm: not great!), but when someone is a coordinator for as long as Ludwig has been and he hasn’t done something that is very important for offenses that win championships, that’s kind of a big deal.

Ludwig was not going to be a home run hire in my opinion. He was going to be a ground rule double. Maybe even a standing triple based on working with better talent and Harding being a package deal with him.

The missing piece was the explosive passing game. That’s a pretty important piece to not have.

4. Dan Lanning was never a coordinator before he was promoted at Georgia. Lane Kiffin never called plays before he was the offensive coordinator at USC. It was the same thing with Steve Sarkisian at USC.

Kirby Smart was never a defensive coordinator before Nick Saban promoted him at Alabama. Brian Hartline just got promoted to offensive coordinator at Ohio State with play-calling experience. The offensive coordinator at Michigan last season was a first time play-caller.

Throw those guys on the pile with Clark Lea, Tommy Rees, Barry Alvarez, and a lot more guys that I’m not going to bother to look up.

Notre Dame has hired first time coordinators before. They aren’t alone when it comes to high profile programs. It’s pretty common.

It might not work out with Parker. It worked out more than okay with those other three Notre Dame coaches I mentioned. I know some would disagree with Rees, but I bet he’d beg to differ. He just got hired for the same job at Alabama.

Getting hired or promoted as a football coach isn’t different from most jobs in that the person with the most experience or best resume doesn't always get the job. If people only hired that way and not think about fit, then you’d end up in a bad spot.

A veteran coach can just as easily end up being Brian VanGorder rather than Andy Ludwig. Being angry about the situation that led to Parker being the choice is justifiable. Thinking that this is going to end up horribly for Notre Dame before giving it a chance ignores not just how hiring can often work in college football or in the NFL, but it’s pretending that the only good managers who get hired are the ones who have previous management experience.

5. Normally the new coordinator hire gets compared to the previous guy. Parker is going to be compared to Rees and Ludwig.

With Rees, it will be what he does at Alabama and what he did at Notre Dame.

One year isn’t a fair way to look at it, but you can bet that people will be checking out where Notre Dame, Alabama, and Utah rank on offense this season. The SP+ pre-season projections are out and Alabama is projected at fifth on offense. Utah is 12th. Notre Dame is 25th.

If the Irish finished 25th on offense, that would be a disappointment. I think the talent far exceeds that. Then again, I’m not sure what to expect with Parker and more new faces on the offensive staff at this point. Maybe we’ll have a better idea in the spring and summer.

The highest ranked offense in OF+ (combined FEI and SP+ rankings) for Rees was 17th in 2020. With what Notre Dame has returning on offense and provided most of the key players stay healthy, 17th feels like the floor for the 2023 offense.

6. The vibes are bad right now with Notre Dame fans.

I’ve seen some of the most angriest, confused, and disheartened responses from people over the last few days. I can’t blame anyone for that.

I do hope that all of those responses are directed towards the people who made the mistake and not the people who were impacted by it.

If someone doesn’t want to support the football team anymore by going to games or watching the team because of the administration, that’s their decision, but I believe this has a chance to be a very good football team this season. It’s filled with so much talent that’s worth rooting for.

It has a head coach who has not only worked extremely hard to put the roster together, he’s also embraced the university and is someone who I believe every fan of Notre Dame football wants to succeed. I definitely couldn’t say that about the previous head coach.

I hope the frustration, disdain, and outrage eventually loses out to the recognition that there are a lot of other good things going on with Notre Dame football right now. Hopefully the administration recognizes that too and has an appropriate response to support Freeman far better in the future.

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