This is not a good day for the University of Notre Dame.
It doesn’t matter how happy Irish football fans were when the news spread like a prairie fire across the Internet that Ty Willingham had been fired. Their university, the one that held itself up as the place that did things the right way, has for the first time in its history failed to honor a contract.
The university that refused to fire the abomination that was Gerry Faust and that allowed the earnest and ineffective Bob Davie to plod through his contracted term, is now like everyone else. Its word to a coach once was as good as the gold on the administration building’s dome. It’s now as good as the coach’s record.
Notre Dame once wanted not just to win, but to win in the right way. That philosophy ended Tuesday with the brief announcement on the school’s Web site that Willingham’s term as coach was ending one year before his contract expired.
It’s not easy to coach at any big program. Lose at Michigan or Ohio State or Florida or Oklahoma or any other of the traditional powers, and you’re not going to last long.
But the pressure is probably higher at Notre Dame than anywhere. That happens when you’re an independent that has produced more national championships and Heisman Trophy winners than any other school, a university whose media guide begins with dozens of pages devoted solely to its bottomless well of legend and tradition.
What makes it so incredibly hard is that it’s not enough just to win. You have to win the right way. Notre Dame has no booster club, no athletic dorms, no phys. ed. major. Its athletes graduate at one of the highest rates in the nation. It has no separate athletic budget; the excess reaped by the rich television contracts and the bowl receipts goes into the general scholarship fund. It’s had its share of minor scandals, but never a major one.
You may hate the place the same way a lot of people hate the Yankees. But you can’t deny its values.
And now one of those values has been chucked out the door. Maybe that’s what has to happen for a team to win; maybe with Urban Meyer waiting to step in, it was now or never. Maybe Notre Dame has finally gotten desperate enough to join the crowd.
It was probably inevitable that this should happen. Notre Dame Nation has been deeply unhappy for a long time with the way the greatest college football program has deteriorated over the years. The decline set in three years before Lou Holtz left at the end of the 1996 season, which was eight years after the team won its last National Championship.
It has been so long since Notre Dame was truly a great football team that younger fans know it more as a football mediocrity with a great television package than as a force to be reckoned with.
Ty Willingham was supposed to change all that when he arrived on campus three years ago. When he won his first eight games, it seemed that he had. But it’s been pretty much downhill since then, his teams wracked by the same sorts of inconsistent performances that ultimately doomed Davie.
I wanted him to succeed for a lot of reasons. He was and is a good man, intelligent, dignified and of unquestioned moral fiber, a man who seemed like a perfect fit for the job. I also wanted him to succeed because he is African-American, an ethnic group that hasn’t had a fair shake at coaching college football teams.
When he began his Notre Dame career in 2002 with eight straight wins, it seemed as if the Irish were finally back. And then it all fell apart. He lost two of his final three games that year and got destroyed in a bowl game. Last year, the Irish went 4-7. This year, they opened with a loss to BYU, beat Michigan and Michigan State, and seemed on their way. But they lost three of their last four, including confounding last-quarter losses to Pittsburgh and Boston College and an embarrassing blow-out to USC.
From the year’s first loss to BYU, the Notre Dame chat boards have been full of fervent prayers for Willingham’s dismissal. When the news came down that he was done, one major board nearly collapsed under the weight of the traffic — all of it wildly happy to be rid of another coach who couldn’t cut it.
I’m hardly a neutral bystander in this. I’m a Notre Dame alumnus who — shameless plug alert — wrote a book called “The Biggest Game of Them All” about Ara Parseghian’s 1966 season which ended in the school’s first national championship since Frank Leahy in the late 1940s.
In Parseghian’s day, Notre Dame was the biggest and most glistening program in college football, just as it had been when Leahy prowled the sidelines and, before him, when Knute Rockne was running up an .881 winning percentage — the highest ever — during his 13 years at the helm.
A lot has changed over the years, and most of it has made it more difficult to dominate the game the way a few schools did 40 years ago. Notre Dame has raised its academic standards enormously since then. What was a pretty good college with a great football team became a university consistently ranked among the top ten or 20 schools in the nation. Every freshman at Notre Dame, whether he or she majors in physics or medieval poetry, has to take and pass calculus. That cuts down on the recruiting pool.
Many people, including football coaches, have cited those standards in attempting to explain Notre Dame’s decline. Some — most notably Paul Hornung — have twisted it and interpreted it in ways that would make Jimmy the Greek squirm. But other schools have high standards and other schools require calculus, including Stanford, where Willingham built his reputation.
When Notre Dame hired him, he seemed like the perfect fit because he had taken Stanford to the Rose Bowl. If he could do it at a school whose standards were as high or even higher than Notre Dame’s, why not in South Bend?
It takes time to rebuild, but Willingham ended up with just three years. Wanting him out is understandable. This year in particular, there were those inexcusable losses to BYU, BC and Pitt, all games that should have been won. It’s one thing to struggle while building something great. It’s another to blow games that were already in the win column.
That’s probably the bottom line, and nothing else. Willingham didn’t get the job done despite having very good talent. His teams lost games they had won. They got embarrassed too often in the biggest games they played. And the alumni, howling at his heels like starving wolves, finally brought him down.
It may be a good day for Notre Dame football. But it’s a bad day for Notre Dame.
Lingering questions were answered emphatically by the 2012 team, but 2013 is an all-new season that brings all-new question marks. Brian Kelly feels fairly confident his offense is in a great position to take a step forward, but to do that, they’ll need the services of some under-the-radar players.
Dec. 1: Notre Dame athletic director Kevin White discusses the reason for firing head coach Tyrone Willingham.
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