Don't believe the hype
The day of hype has arrived.
A day when college football coaches get up at the crack of dawn, stand around the office fax machine, waiting for signatures from 17 year olds, who have yet to receive a high school diploma.
A day when even the most cynical Irish fan can be seen with a smiling face, when the seven losses from a year ago suddenly fade from memory.
It's the first official day for recruits to sign letter-of-intents for the college of their choice. The day of hype.
That's really all this day is.
For the past two months, since that late November loss to Stanford, the hype has been in full gear. In newspapers covering the Irish (including this one) and on numerous Web sites you've read about how Notre Dame has landed another solid recruiting class. How the NCAA violations didn't really impact recruiting. You've read how some recruit is going to be the next Jerry Rice. Or this recruiting class is ranked in the nation's top 10.
On paper, this year's recruiting class looks good — although the number of verbal commitments to this point, 16, is lower than usual. The Irish are expected to land some highly touted players on this Groundhog Day. Three of recruiting analyst Tom Lemming's top 25 players — linebacker Mike Goolsby, defensive lineman Greg Pauly and wide receiver Jovan Witherspoon — have verbally committed to wear the Blue and Gold next year.
The Irish are also involved with some other top recruits, most notably quarterback Carlyle Holiday, from San Antonio, Texas. Holiday has apparently narrowed his choices to Nebraska and Notre Dame.
But it's like this every year.
This is nothing new. We've seen this before, especially here under the Golden Dome, where every February the Irish are as certain to haul in one of the top recruiting classes in the nation as we are to celebrate Valentine's Day.
So why haven't these string of top classes translated into on-field success? Who's to blame?
It's easy to look at the usual suspects, the coaches, especially the King Scapegoat — Bob Davie — and blame them for not developing the talent. Certainly they deserve some of the fault. This year's team should not have been 5-7, even if they played what Davie referred to as one of the toughest schedules in Notre Dame history.
Yet on several occasions last year, after he knew his team had no shot at the postseason, Davie referred to his team as having to play perfect to win, that they didn't have the talent to coast to victories. After the Tennessee game, Davie confirmed to the public what he always believed in his heart, saying the Irish don't have the athletes to compete with the likes of the Volunteers. That the "game was played at a different speed by the team in orange."
He all but admitted that maybe these top recruits that make up the core of the Irish lineup are not as good as once thought.
We finally saw that amid the positive exterior — the "we've got another great class of players" — that Davie is almost guaranteed to say today lies a coach that knows that he's losing the recruiting war and getting a lower caliber of players.
We know that for every Julius Jones, there are five players that won't live up to expectations.
Maybe these so-called top recruits are not as good as advertised.
Maybe they are a product of the hype generated by recruiting analysts.
Don't believe me? Do you think it's a coincidence that Notre Dame continues to be ranked among the top 10 schools in recruiting while their on-the field performance has been steadily declining?
Recruiting is a business. So-called "experts" make a living off of their 900 numbers, Web sites and brochures.
It would be foolish to say that recruiting rankings are totally unbiased, that the only influence on a player's ranking is his talent. It's more complicated than that — the state they play in, their "potential," and what schools are looking at them all factor into these rankings.
Especially the latter.
If Notre Dame is looking at a player, these recruiting analysts think he must be a star. And once Notre Dame offers a scholarship, the recruit suddenly seems to rise in the rankings, even though his ability has not changed.
And what better way for these recruiting analysts to make a buck than to target Notre Dame fans? Many live and die by their Irish, want to read about how next year will be better than the last, and are willing to pay up for their services.
The fans will spend their hard-earned cash to hear that Notre Dame is involved with a top recruit. And the analysts also know that there are more Irish followers than at any other school in the country.
Being a Notre Dame fan during recruiting season is similar to what Boston Red Sox fans experience in the summer, before their team actually has a chance to lose in the playoffs.
Otherwise sane Red Sox fans truly believe this is the year that they'll finally win a World Series.
Nevermind that their beloved Sox haven't won a World Series since owner Harry Frazee sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees on Jan. 5, 1920, for $100,000 in cash and a $300,000 loan for a mortgage on Fenway Park. Nevermind that fate always seems to interfere with postseason success, most notably when the ball dribbled through Bill Buckner's legs in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series.
It's kind of like how each year Notre Dame fans believe that this recruiting class may bring them back to the good old days, when they competed for national championships, not television ratings.
The aura and the unknown drive Irish fans. The possibility, however so faint, that maybe, just maybe, this will be the class that brings us back some on the field national respect. No matter how bad the year before, we always hold out hope that next year will be the year we return to national prominence
And the recruiting analysts know this better than anyone.
Just like the Sox always look better in July than October, for the past few years the Irish have always looked best in February.
For the Irish it's only been a little over six years, since Boston College's David Gordon kicked the field goal with no time remaining to deny the Irish their 12th national championship. They haven't endured 80 years of frustration like Red Sox fans.
It only feels that way.
Tomorrow, after Davie officially announces the Class of 2004, you'll read some raving reviews in this and other papers about each one of these players.
You'll read recruiting analysts' predictions on how player X could be an All-American, how another is "very athletic", one is "a terrific talent" and every other positive adjective that can be found in Webster's.
But until they put on their pads, step foot on this campus and bring us back to the top 10 in the real rankings, it really means nothing.
Don't believe the hype.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.
All Sports Stories for Wednesday, February 2, 2000