What might have been with a win

There is a very good chance that Charlie Weis will be fired as the coach of Notre Dame.

Maybe it won't happen this year or next, but one day the school that educated him, inspired him and hired him will tell him, "Thanks for trying," and then begin the process anew of trying to find perfection in an imperfect world.

Maybe that will be in the form of Urban Meyer, the Florida coach who has never denied his interest in being The Guy. Maybe it will be Cincinnati coach Brian Kelly, an East Coast guy who has climbed the coaching ladder the hard way. Maybe it will be Northwestern's Pat Fitzgerald, who is finding out that winning in Evanston isn't so easy.

You will read about it in newspapers, on this Web site, on every blog from NDNation.com, to the owners of the Web address FireCharlieWeis.com, to IrishCentral.com, which posted a poll claiming that Irish fans want Kelly to be Notre Dame's coach. It will be the biggest story of the week, maybe the year. Weis will find another job in the NFL and the Irish, like Goldilocks in the fairy tale, will go on a wandering search for perfection.

Leading up to last week's USC game, an expected loss to the Trojans, almost everyone agreed that the game was vital to Weis keeping his job with the Fighting Irish. It has been an embarrassing, protracted narrative for a program desperate to keep its standing as our National Football University. Notre Dame holds itself to higher standards, academically and athletically, than some of its peers, and the continuing conversation on the stability of the program under Weis has been as grating as it will be expensive to fire him.

Of course, Notre Dame has no only to blame but itself for Weis' contract. You may remember the Irish quickly renegotiated his original deal seven games into his first season, extending it through 2015, reportedly making it a 10-year deal worth close to $40 million. So it's tough to gauge how much he really needs to win, in a fiscal sense, anyway.

But what that win would have done was force copy editors and reporters and columnists to momentarily find a new angle in covering Notre Dame, and of course that didn't happen. Sure, Notre Dame almost beat USC, but still wound up losing 34-27 in a very enjoyable game. From what I gathered, the sports media world was generally torn by the outcome. Was the close loss a sign that the Irish are close to ... something? Or was it validation that Weis will never win a big game at Notre Dame?

My beliefs fall somewhere in the middle. Notre Dame is not awful, or even mediocre. As it stands now, the Irish are an upper-echelon team, probably one of the 30 best in the country, if not higher. (Notre Dame was not in the top 25 of the first BCS poll of the season.) But the Irish are not national title contenders. Not now, anyway. Maybe if Jimmy Clausen stays for another season and the team finds a way to jell defensively. Notre Dame ranks 104th in the country in yards allowed per game at 419.50. That's just a yard or so stingier than Illinois, where coach Ron Zook is in a much worse cycle of despair; and the Irish will be contenders in 2010.

In the same vein, maybe I'll win a Pulitzer for drama for my one-man play about Chicago official scorer Bob Rosenberg.

More than likely, Notre Dame will continue to beat the weaklings and try to beat the Big Ten schools on its schedule and lose to the one or two heavy hitters, and the questions will hang there in 40-point type. The Irish still have three good teams on their schedule: Boston College, No. 20 Pittsburgh and Navy, which almost upset Ohio State earlier this season. It's not inconceivable for Notre Dame to finish another season 7-6 after a bowl game loss.

Let's be honest, the Irish won't be consistent contenders for the top of the college football pyramid without radical changes in coaching and recruiting standards. The southern and western schools have passed Notre Dame with their depth of players with speed. And while Weis deserves credit for delivering top-heavy recruiting classes to South Bend starting with the 2006 class, Weis has recruited classes ranked between Nos. 2 and 21, according to Rivals.com), despite academic limitations, he won't be able to truly plumb the depths of the high school and junior college talent base. Not at Notre Dame.

But even as we take Notre Dame for what it is, not what Notre Dame thinks it can be, how much longer can the questions, the hand-wringing and philosophical debates go on?

It's all a little tired by now, isn't it? First Bob Davie, then Tyrone Willingham, now Weis. Notre Dame coaches don't come or go quietly.

It all seemed like serendipity in 2005. But those days are long gone.

In truth, it was beyond idiotic to extend Weis' original deal in his first year. Weis had no head coaching experience (which is why the sarcastic Notre Dame football alums congratulated him on his "internship" on a short-lived billboard this fall) and no real advantage to offer, aside from serving as Tom Brady's offensive guru for a few years in New England. Brady has managed to survive without him.

Weis was the wrong choice to cement Notre Dame as an annual BCS title contender, and the longer he stays, the longer the school has to read headlines and stories that question whether the next big loss would be the harbinger to his demise. The Irish have the talent to win the few big games in order to make the leap to the national title game, but the program hasn't shown it's capable of doing so. Maybe it never will under Weis.

But what are the options? Weis has shown he is capable of landing top recruits and playing bowl-worthy football. He's not a disaster, by any stretch. But he is not Meyer or Carroll, or even Rich Rodriguez, coaches with definitive philosophies and hard-earned experience building programs.

If the Irish cognoscenti are smart, they will leave Weis alone (please, don't give him the dreaded vote of confidence!) for the next few years while waiting to see if Meyer sours on Florida. Of course, Notre Dame could wait too long to land an up-and-comer like Kelly, but if Notre Dame wants to establish itself as a real competitor on a national level, it should replace Weis with only a sure thing. No more guessing games and public relations battles.

My other major suggestion is a tired one: It's time to join the Big Ten. This idea works on so many levels, it's foolish to argue against it. Notre Dame's days as an independent power are long over. Who is to say the school couldn't keep a separate NBC deal?

It's pretty easy to acknowledge that changes are needed in South Bend if the goal is to compete for BCS money and prestige. When will they happen? Nobody really knows.

My suggestion to Irish fans: Light a candle at the Grotto. And pray.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He can be reached at jgreenberg@espnchicago.com.