Weis' deal kicks off a costly new game

November 11, 2005|By RICK MAESE

When Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis put his signature on a 10-year contract extension last month, the knee-jerk reaction from many corners was to stare at skin color.

His predecessor, Tyrone Willingham, is black. Weis is white.

Willingham won his first eight games for the Fighting Irish and was fired after three seasons.

Weis won five of his first seven. He was immediately rewarded with an unprecedented extension.

But this isn't a race lecture because the lasting lesson we take from this will have nothing to do with ethnic backgrounds. (And besides, college football's racial woes start and stop with hiring practices. Only three of 119 Division I-A coaches this season are black.)

Weis' mega-contract will alter the coaching landscape, empowering every coach who strings together a strong season and potentially battering athletic departments right where it hurts most - the checkbook.

Let's back up a bit. Weis and the Irish face Navy tomorrow, and Annapolis lore is actually right where we find our best case study.

It's been 10 years since Charlie Weatherbie was hired at the Naval Academy. In his second season, the Midshipmen posted a 9-3 record - their first winning record since 1982 - and made a trip to the Aloha Bowl.

Annapolis was abuzz. The Mids hadn't won like that since the days of George Welsh, a coach Navy lost when it was unable to pony up enough dollars.

"Everybody was euphoric and there were several schools that seemed interested in [Weatherbie]," said Jack Lengyel, Navy's athletic director at the time. "And there was still that concern that we had lost George Welsh because we didn't meet his demands and nobody wanted a repeat scenario."

They felt they had no choice: Weatherbie was given a huge extension, effectively turning his contract into a 10-year deal.

You know what happened next. Weatherbie had posted a 14-9 record in his first two seasons. In 1998, the Midshipmen went 3-8 and were sliding fast. Before he was fired midway through the 2001 season, Weatherbie's team had lost seven straight and 17 of 18.

The academy had to buy its way out of a contract that still had five years remaining.

Lengyel was gone by the time Weatherbie was canned. He's now retired to Arizona, and when we spoke earlier this week, he said the world of coaching contracts has changed dramatically in the past several years.

"With [Weatherbie], the interest was there by everyone," he said. "The superintendent was the one driving the contract. They wanted sustained success. They felt it was necessary. There was significant risk involved, no question about that, but we'd hoped it wasn't too big of a risk because it really seemed like it was what had to be done."

You see where we're going here, don't you? A quick flash of achievement doesn't always equate to sustained success. It didn't with Weatherbie for Navy and it didn't with Willingham for Notre Dame.

Now, the Irish are battling the odds that Weis is the right pick. Ten years is an eternity in sports. Of the 119 Division I schools, only 15 have coaches who've been at the institution for more than a decade.

What we're starting to experience is the death of the five-year coaching contract. Notre Dame has given coaches more leverage to request longer deals.

"It already seemed to be a little more common," said Todd Bell, spokesman for the American Football Coaches Association. "It's certainly no longer out of the realm of possibility to lock a coach up the way Notre Dame has."

And don't think coaches won't flex this new muscle. As the precedent gets pushed further down the road, every coach at the negotiating table looks at the best existing deal and says, "I want that. But better."

Florida gave Urban Meyer a seven-year deal last spring. At 7-2, it's certainly too early to say the deal was a mistake, but it will be interesting to see what critics say at this time next season, when the Gators take a struggling offense into a tougher schedule.

Every coach needs at least a four-year deal, which is why a rollover contract such as the one Bobby Bowden has at Florida State makes the most sense for the university.

Patience is a fading virtue in sports, certainly a luxury no longer afforded to universities. The gamble is nothing new. But the cost to even play the game keeps getting higher.

"You have to ask this," said Lengyel. "Is it better to pay a coach what he's worth than to go through the doldrums of experiencing little success and just bouncing along from problem to problem? You have to be willing to pay the right price to be competitive today."

rick.maese@baltsun.com

Navy @Notre Dame Tomorrow, 1 p.m., chs. 11, 4, 1090 AM, 1430 AM Line: Notre Dame by 23

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