A head coach can be a leader, and many of the great ones are, but I think to be a truly great team, you need to have leaders on the field. Coaches don’t play the game, and they can’t force change while the game is being played. The Irish are lacking a true leader, and I don’t believe they’ll climb out of this mess until they find one.
The last true great leader that wore the Irish uniform that I remember was Shane Walton. Yes, there have been some good leaders since No. 42 roamed the Irish secondary, but none probably that had the impact Walton did. So I went to the source. What does it mean to be a Team Captain or leader?
“To me, captain was just a title,” Shane Walton said. “What I did every day was I strived to be the best I could be, whether that was weight lifting or running sprints, out there hitting, I refused to let people beat me. I challenged everyone on the field. I challenged everyone on both offense and defense. That, to me, is being a leader. Anyone can be named captain. You have to have the respect of the players, and that, to me, meant much more than the name captain.“
Walton was named Team Captain his senior season at Notre Dame and the Irish team responded to him as well as anyone I can remember.
“To me, football was great,” he said. “I loved being out there. I loved the training, lifting weights, just being out there. I’d tell them; ‘look guys, we go to class every day, that’s the hard part. This should be fun. We could be anywhere, but it doesn’t get better than this.’ I think we had fun my senior year, and that made a big difference in the way we played.”
Many times the chips were down for the 2002 Irish defense, and almost every time that unit rose up to make a big play.
“I’d tell them, ‘you know what, all those 24 110s we did in the summer, all those workouts, all that time we spent, it means nothing if we don’t get a stop right now.’ I constantly challenged guys and reminded them of all the hard we’d put it,” said Walton. “I told them that we can’t waste all of that effort by losing right here because we’re tired right now.”
And that usually worked.
But there were times when Walton did have to light a fire under his team.
“I remember one time Cedric Hilliard told me in the huddle; ‘if I wasn’t so tired right now I’d whip your butt.’ I’d dig into guys, but he knew it was all for the best of us,” he said. “I’d just challenge guys. I’d call them out. If I didn’t think they were going 100 percent, I’d let them know. I wouldn’t accept that. And I knew the only way I could say that is if I went hard every play. You can’t have someone saying that unless they’re first doing it.”
Walton, as much as anyone, has been through what these Notre Dame players are going through. He went through losing seasons. He went through a coaching change. He went through eight straight victories. So how did the same team change their luck from a losing season one year to a BCS bid the next?
“The big difference between how we played earlier in my career and later was turnovers,” he said. “The way you get turnovers is you have all 11 guys flying to the football. I don’t see that out there. They are playing a lot more inspired than they were last year, but to me, I see some guys not running 100 percent to the ball. If you did that on our defense, coach Mattison or coach Davie, they’d definitely take you out. You knew if you weren’t running 100 percent to the ball that you weren’t playing. That’s how we started to get those turnovers. We took pride in having all 11 men get to the football. That’s when good things happen.”
Walton agrees that he doesn’t see a lot of leadership on the field this season for the Irish, but he does believe he’s spotted at least one guy who will be in the very near future.
“You have to have guys on the team who refuse to lose at anything they do,” said Walton. “It can be as little as doing the sprints after practice. When you have guys who refuse to lose; that carries over to the field. I’ve seen one guy who I’ve seen that has it, and that’s Jimmy Clausen. He’s got that fire, he’s got that ‘it.’ He’s at the perfect position to have it. I think he’s great. I love watching him play. He has that fire and plays with that chip on his shoulder. For a quarterback, that’s exciting to see.”
Walton also believes that someone has to step up soon for the Irish.
“Sometimes the younger guys are intimidated to be leaders because of the older guys, but some of those guys are leaving and someone will step up,” he said. “It’s vital someone does. We’re going to need that, and it needs to start now and carry into the off-season. The off-season is so important because that sets the tone for your team.”
But what about a coach being a leader? Isn’t that the responsibility of the coaching staff as well?
“I think the coach’s job is to give you a chance to win the game,” Walton said. “That’s all he can do. I think they’ve done in a lot of games. He did that in this last game. At some point somebody has to step up and make a play. We just don’t have guys that are doing that. For whatever reason, we don’t make plays.”
I also asked Shane his thoughts on the game last Saturday.
“I think Davie was kind of a genius when it came to playing the option,” said Walton. “He taught us how to play it. What you have to do is draw it out. You have to draw the quarterback out and force him down the line of scrimmage to give the guy time who is covering the pitch man.
“The guy we had for the pitch man was Gerome Sapp. He was our free safety. He lined up 12 yards off the ball. What we were taught is you slow-played the quarterback, which means you make him take time by taking steps sideways so if turns it up, you can get him, but you give the guy covering the pitch man time to get to the pitch. What we were doing Saturday was we were attacking the quarterback, and that didn’t give the safety time to get the pitch man and get to the ball.
“They weren’t drawing out the quarterback and making him take time so the defenders could pursue the play. That was rough to watch.”
Walton remains a loyal son of Notre Dame and never misses a game. He’s hopeful for the future, but says the team needs to change their attitude before they’ll win some games.
“The losses don’t bother me, it’s the way we lose,” he said. “I’m not even talking about the score. I’m talking about the lack of effort on the field. When we played, our coaches used to tell us that we played for all the people who are here right now, and you played for all those people who wore this jersey before you. I think maybe they need to be reminded of that. That’s a big burden to carry. I never wanted to disappoint anyone who wore that jersey before me. You don’t want to let those guys down. You want to uphold that tradition and be a part of the tradition that’s made Notre Dame so great over the years.”
Irish fans have to hope that someone like Walton will step up so that tradition can continue.