The Art of Scheduling: Some (Slightly) Revisionist History with Ara Parseghian's Notre Dame Schedules

Florida State would have been an easy win back in the 1960's. (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)

While looking at schedules from Notre Dame and other schools from the past 50 years or so, I noticed this national trend:

Schedules were weak in the 1960's and 70's.

Starting in the 1980's and through the 1990's schedules got markedly tougher.*

Since then schedules have leveled off to more manageable levels with the increasing I-AA teams and expanding I-A pool creating a disparity that was similarly present 40 years ago when a select group of powers (like Notre Dame) hoarded much of the talent in the country.

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*Schedules got more difficult beginning in the 1980's because of scholarship restrictions, the game grew in popularity, the population boom in the South, and suddenly a lot more elite athletes to go around, resulting in the emergence of new elite programs. For example, 1950-70's college football was almost exclusively an Oklahoma, Ohio State, Alabama, Texas, Southern Cal, Notre Dame, Nebraska, Tennessee, and Michigan ruled world---this small group won all but eight of the national titles and every single title in the 1960's and 70's.

Since 1950-1979, Georgia has gone from 37th in winning percentage to 10th, Florida from 38th to 6th, Clemson from 51st to 18th, Florida State from 54th to 4th, and Miami from 67th to 3rd. Additionally, teams like Auburn, West Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin, Oregon, and Virginia Tech have seen rather significant rises as well. Since '80, these non-traditional powers have won 18 of the past 32 titles, or put another way, the traditional powers mentioned above have won 10 fewer titles over the same amount of years.

What's amazing is that the rise of the these new powers hasn't affected the old powers, at least as much as you would think, it's just these teams aren't winning an overwhelming majority of the titles anymore.^ We essentially went from a world with a very small amount of powerful teams to one with twice as many elite-like programs, primarily as team's in the South tapped into the talent all around them. By the late 90's when teams realized they were playing 1 to 2 extra high quality games every year, it led to the ushering in of the cupcake age many teams faces today.

^OU has fallen 6 spots in national winning percentage, OSU 2 spots, Alabama 10 spots, Texas 4 spots, USC 6 spots, Notre Dame 10 spots, while Tennessee and Michigan have moved up 3 and 4 spots respectively.

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It's through this thesis that I wanted to reevaluate the scheduling for Notre Dame during the coaching tenure of Ara Parseghian, and how different it was in comparison to today.

Since 1985, Notre Dame has likely played the toughest schedule(s) in the nation. In modern times, the Irish have developed an identity for playing among the hardest schedules year in and year out, and many in the fan base believe that this tradition goes back to the days of Rockne.

Yet, when doing some research on Parseghian's teams, it would seem that the Irish were much more in line with the rest of the country in playing some very pedestrian schedules.

First, let's take a look at the recent Notre Dame schedules to familiarize ourselves with the slate the Irish have faced over the past handful of seasons (percentages for regular season only):

Notre Dame Annual Opponent Winning Percentage (2005-2011)

YEAR WINNING %
2005 .484
2006 .516
2007 .580
2008 .476
2009 .542
2010 .642
2011 .559

There are a couple sub .500 seasons in there but a relatively high .542 average over a 7-year period is quite strong. What's more, this evidence isn't very kind to Charlie Weis who saw the easiest schedules since Parseghian, and still faltered on Saturday. His first two years in particular indicate that Notre Dame had a good record yes, but that the competition was unusually weak. 12 out of Weis' 19 wins in 2005-06 came against teams at or below .500, and his top five wins from those years by opponent record looks like this:

9-4 Penn State, 9-4 Navy, 8-4 Navy, 9-5 Georgia Tech, and 8-6 Purdue.

This weak resume happens often in today's college football (ahem, Virginia Tech) but in historical Notre Dame terms, the 05-06 teams proved very little.

You'll also notice the 2010 season---one which a segment of the fan base thought was the weakest in school history based solely on the fact that Western Michigan and Tulsa were on the schedule---turned out to be the most difficult over the past quarter century using opponent winning percentage.

2010 saw the Irish play:

  • 12 teams at or above .500
  • 11 teams clearly over .500
  • 4 teams with double-digit wins
  • 9 teams that won at least 7 games.
  • 5 teams that lost 4 games or less.

It wasn't exactly an epic schedule for the ages given that two of those double-digit win teams were Utah and Tulsa, but it was still very tough.

Now, let's take a look at the 11-year period during which Ara Parseghian was head coach at Notre Dame.

Notre Dame Annual Opponent Winning Percentage (1964-74)

YEAR WINNING %
1964 .458
1965 .553
1966 .539
1967 .480
1968 .426
1969 .475
1970 .481
1971 .481
1972 .481
1973 .427
1974 .458

As you can see, only two seasons over .500 for his entire career and a .478 average over 11 seasons.

What are we to make of these numbers? Did Parseghian really play a weaker schedule than every Irish coach after him?

More than likely, yes.

Using opponents winning percentage isn't perfect (and that's why you can't always trust the NCAA's SoS method, nor say the 2010 season was unequivocally the most difficult of the past 25 years ) and it tends to reward shiny records that might not have been that impressive. For example, Tulsa's 10 wins on the 2010 schedule gives that year a big boost, although in reality the Golden Hurricane were more like a 7 or 8 win major conference foe. It doesn't discredit the whole schedule of course, but it lowers the schedule strength in comparison to what the super high .642 percentage is telling us.

However, when you're staring at a .427 opponents average it's much more difficult to prove that some of the mediocre/bad teams that littered the schedule were actually better than their record indicates. Once in a great while a good team plays a ridiculous schedule and ends up losing 5 games, or maybe their star quarterback was injured after only a few games while the rest of the team remained very talented, but in almost all cases a sub .500 opponents winning percentage means you didn't play a very tough schedule.

If there are any national strength of schedule statistics available from this period it would be interesting to see exactly where Notre Dame ranked. Even being in the top quarter of the nation could be considered a drop in comparison to modern standards and I can't help but look at some of those schedules from the 60's and think there'd be a revolt if the Irish played those teams today.

Anyone want to guess how much more successful Brian Kelly (or any other coach) would be today at Notre Dame with better talent to work with, recruiting classes twice as large, and a schedule with an above-average Michigan State team being the second or third toughest game every year? And no, that isn't meant to 'lower expectations' but only to point out how the margin for error has become so thin today in South Bend compared to the past.

At any rate, another factor working in Parseghian's favor is the prevalence of I-AA teams on opponents schedules today---after all a 7-4 record today means less than it did 40 years ago. Also, when your team is winning most of the games, as Parseghian's were, that lowers your opponent percentages even more---although an extra win or two per season isn't a huge difference.

On the other hand, Parseghian's world was one where Notre Dame horded premier talent on the 2nd team, there were no Boise State's and Tulsa's to contend with (let alone the Florida and Southern schools mentioned above), and the average major conference foe was a clear step down in talent in comparison to the handful of national powers that ruled the land.

With that said, a full 70 of Parseghian's 116 games in his career at Notre Dame came against teams at .500 or below. If we're going to deride Schembechler for playing half his games against these teams (as I did last week), then we surely have to do the same with Ara and his 60.3 percent.

In contrast, from 2005 to 2011 only 40.9% of Notre Dame games were against teams at .500 or below.

One thing that can't be denied is that Ara was able to shine on the big stage when Notre Dame did play the elite opponents, unlike Bo Schembechler and the Michigan Wolverines. Parseghian's teams may have played weak schedules, but they proved themselves numerous times on the national stage against the best teams in the country.

Now that you've seen the recent schedules as well as Parseghian's, let's take a look at what came in between:

Notre Dame Annual Opponent Winning Percentage (1975-2004)

YEAR WINNING %
1975 .483
1976 .516
1977 .552
1978 .666
1979 .612
1980 .551
1981 .552
1982 .563
1983 .535
1984 .554
1985 .679
1986 .621
1987 .615
1988 .507
1989 .600
1990 .597
1991 .546
1992 .511
1993 .488
1994 .585
1995 .592
1996 .507
1997 .585
1998 .477
1999 .601
2000 .523
2001 .580
2002 .542
2003 .638
2004 .598

A 17-year streak without an opponent winning percentage under .500!

Parseghian had sub .500 seasons in 9 of 11 years---since he retired Notre Dame has played just 5 such seasons. 5 sub .500 opponent winning percentages over a 37-year span is incredible.

9 seasons with an opponent winning percentage of .600 or above in 37 years is just absurd---1 nearly every four years.

Of course Notre Dame not playing at an elite level in recent times boosts these percentages in some years, but even in the 9 seasons facing .600 opponent winning percentages, the Irish were a combined 64-43 (.598) with 5 winning seasons.

For what it's worth, Brian Kelly is the first coach since Holtz to have a winning season with an opponents winning percentage north of .600. He's also played a much tougher schedule than Weis, cut the margin of defeat in half (Weis' teams lost by an average of 15.5 points in 05-06, while Kelly's have lost by an average of 8.8 points) and beaten a pair of teams who won 10+ games through his first two seasons in South Bend---something Weis never did over 5 years, let alone the first two. Each of these achievements by Kelly may signal more progress than merely backing into a couple BCS bowls on a soft schedule.

You'll also see that Holtz had quite the rude welcoming to Notre Dame with the scheduling. Is it mere coincidence that he won a national title with the easiest opponent winning percentage of his first 7 years? Heck, going 12-1 against perhaps the most insane schedule in school history in 1989 may be the bigger feat.

In conclusion, here are some talking points as to why Parseghian's schedules may have been easier than modern Notre Dame standards:

  • He never had to face Michigan. Imagine Notre Dame opening the season with Northwestern, Purdue, and Michigan State every year. There's probably 50% more 3-0 starts and just as many more perfect records through September over the past 30 years if that were the case.
  • Penn State was never on the schedule, although they would be frequently once Ara left Notre Dame.
  • He played Navy every year, as well as Air Force and Army 5 times a piece over 11 years---that's 18.1% of his entire Irish schedule. The Middies have also been much stronger in modern times, while the Falcons and Black Knights have been phased out as less frequent opponents since the mid-90's.
  • He played a Pitt program every year that was in the dumps at the time---tied for 126th in winning percentage during Parseghian's era.
  • Miami was on the schedule 6 times over 11 seasons back when the Hurricanes were a very mediocre to bad program (76th nationally in winning percentage during the era).
  • Most of the small series' signed were with teams that were non-threatening in California (82nd national winning percentage), North Carolina (73rd), Iowa (131st), Tulane (98th), and Rice (121st).
  • He was so charmed as to even play Oklahoma twice, with the Sooners losing 8 games in those two seasons, only to go on to lose just 10 games over Ara's final 6 seasons when OU never played Notre Dame in the regular season.

Was this smart scheduling by Notre Dame during Ara's era? Luck? Perhaps both? What if Notre Dame could remain a viable independent and return to the types of schedules that Parseghian played? Is that heresy or the wise thing to do?

Some day, will a Notre Dame coach run into unusually weak schedules for Notre Dame standards, rip off a few double-digit win seasons, and finally build lasting momentum that leads to dominance against tougher schedules?

Or is the path only a Holtzian one through some of the toughest schedules in college history?

What would Parseghian say?

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